Reflections on Mohammed bin Zayed’s Preferences Regarding UAE Foreign Policy

The assertive foreign policy and outsize regional influence wielded by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during the decade since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011 has attracted significant attention to the personalities, institutions, and interests that have shaped decision-making in this federation of seven emirates led by Abu Dhabi. The conduct of foreign policy in the UAE has evolved from a consensual to a risk-taking approach over the first two decades of the 21st century. Importantly, while the shift in foreign policy is rooted in a process of change that predates the Arab Spring, it acquired potency and urgency after 2011 as regional threat perceptions sharpened and domestic constraints on Abu Dhabi weakened. What appears to be essential now is the extent to which UAE decision-makers might absorb lessons from foreign policy overreach as well as safeguard the durability of the alignment between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia moving forward.

Longer-term Changes

For more than two decades, the UAE has deployed forces in operations beyond the Middle East, initially in Kosovo and later in Afghanistan. In 1999, a 1,200-strong UAE contingent took part in peacekeeping operations in the French-controlled sector of Kosovo while an additional 250 Emirati troops, including special forces, were stationed in the American sector. Speaking in 2000, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, then the armed forces chief of staff, explicitly noted the value to the UAE of participating alongside NATO forces in post-conflict stabilization operations in Kosovo; he observed that the mission “offers our troops real-life operational experience and the chance to operate closely and integrate with the best militaries in the world.” The following year and after the American invasion, in 2001, the UAE sent forces to Afghanistan where Emirati troops engaged heavily in humanitarian work, such as providing aid and medical assistance, in addition to combat air support for US and NATO forces. Their performance in Afghanistan won the UAE the admiration of powerful supporters in Washington, DC, such as General James Mattis, who reportedly coined the moniker “Little Sparta” for the Gulf state.

In-between the deployments to Kosovo in 1999 and to Afghanistan in late 2001 came the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, in which two Emiratis were among the 19 hijackers and much of the financial and logistical support was found to have flowed through the UAE. It was Mohammed bin Zayed who organized most of his country’s policy responses to 9/11, in some cases in the face of skepticism from his father, UAE Founding President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and others of his generation. By contrast, Mohammed bin Zayed worked closely with US counterparts in ways that exceeded his “official” position at the time as chief of staff of the armed forces. This was a prelude to his subsequent elevation into the line of succession as deputy crown prince of Abu Dhabi in 2003, and to crown prince when his father died, aged 86, on the day George W. Bush was reelected US president in November 2004.

By the late 2000s Mohammed bin Zayed had become the de facto center of influence and authority, first within Abu Dhabi itself and then, in the 2010s, across the UAE as a whole.

Although, on paper, Mohammed bin Zayed held no formal position within the federal (UAE-level) government and his older half-brother, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has been president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi since 2004, by the late 2000s Mohammed bin Zayed had become the de facto center of influence and authority, first within Abu Dhabi itself and then, in the 2010s, across the UAE as a whole. This process was facilitated by his strong power base within the ruling family as the oldest of six full brothers who came to occupy key positions across the federal government. In addition, this was reinforced by the fact that Sheikh Khalifa suffered increasingly from serious health concerns which long predated but culminated in his debilitating stroke and subsequent withdrawal from public life in 2014.

Within the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed became seen as an arch modernizer alongside his counterpart in Dubai, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who, since 2006, has been the ruler of Dubai and the vice president and prime minister of the UAE federation. In 2004, a US diplomatic cable noted that “the two have the capability to see the bigger picture and have compatible visions for the country’s development.” In addition to representing the advent of a new generation of leadership in the UAE, “MbZ” and “MbR” had also worked closely together since the 1990s as chief of staff and minister of defense, respectively. However, at times during the mid-2000s, it seemed as if Dubai were following its own separate policy agenda that appeared little coordinated with that of Abu Dhabi (or, indeed, of any semblance of an agreed UAE-wide approach). One example was the continuation of trade between Dubai and Iran which included re-export trade of potential dual-use material, even as Abu Dhabi was in negotiations with the George W. Bush Administration to secure US congressional support for its civil nuclear energy program.

Domestic Constraints Removed

In 2008, however, the impact of the global financial crisis hit Dubai hard as the bursting of the real estate and liquidity bubble left the emirate heavily exposed and unable to fully service repayments on debts estimated to exceed $142 billion. Abu Dhabi extended two tranches of $10 billion each to address the burgeoning debt crisis that, at one point, had threatened to cause financial panic in Dubai, with a first “bailout” consisting of the purchase of bonds by the Abu Dhabi-located UAE Central Bank and the second consisting of a direct loan by two Abu Dhabi-owned banks to Dubai. While the sudden renaming of the tallest building in the world from its original Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa on the day of its opening in January 2010 was the most visible manifestation of Abu Dhabi’s newfound leverage over Dubai, the years since have seen Dubai and its ruler eclipsed on the national (federal) stage by Abu Dhabi and Mohammed bin Zayed.

While Dubai’s economic difficulties—which have recurred since 2017—removed one of the domestic constraints to the concentration and consolidation of power and authority in Abu Dhabi, the death in October 2010 of the 92-year-old ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, removed another constraint, albeit in a manner that only became clear in retrospect. Sheikh Saqr had ruled the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah since 1948 and his idiosyncratic style had often placed him at odds with his counterpart rulers of the other six emirates. Notably, Sheikh Saqr had long been sympathetic to Emirati Islamists and during his life Ras al-Khaimah had become something of a safe space for members of Islah, a local group perceived by Abu Dhabi to be aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. His passing just three months before the Arab Spring began meant that there was little protection left once MbZ decided in 2011 to adopt a zero-sum approach toward Islamists both at home and regionally.

Evolving Threat Perceptions

Over the decade since the Arab Spring, the UAE—under the effective direction of Mohammed bin Zayed—has acted assertively, and in many instances aggressively, against a perceived threat from politicized and transnational forms of Islam that it sees emanating from the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. As Peter Salisbury observed in a recent Chatham House report on UAE foreign policy, under Mohammed bin Zayed’s leadership the country has come to view these issues as “an existential threat to its broadly secular approach to government as well as to the stability of the so-called ‘status quo’ powers in the region.” Over the same period, the UAE (and in actuality, Abu Dhabi) has moved far closer to Saudi Arabia as the two crown princes—Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MbS)—have acted in concert and forged a geopolitical axis that has reshaped regional politics in the Arabian Peninsula.

The UAE (and in actuality, Abu Dhabi) has moved far closer to Saudi Arabia as the two crown princes—Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MbS)—have acted in concert.

The zero-tolerance approach toward any form of oppositional mobilization or Islamist activity has been the most striking feature of Mohammed bin Zayed’s decade-long de facto leadership. This had domestic roots as MbZ––who had been influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth––has believed that local Islamists had designs on political power within the UAE and posed a threat to his secular vision of a UAE model of development. He told US officials in 2006 that he thought the Muslim Brotherhood would win an election in Dubai were one to be held. After Emirati Islamists featured in a March 2011 petition calling for (modest) political reform in the UAE and Islamist parties began to triumph in elections in regional states that underwent Arab Spring political transitions, the nature and urgency of the Islamist threat perceived by MbZ increased. His security-focused approach has gradually expanded to the view that all forms of political Islam are an existential threat not only to the UAE but also to the wider region, without any nuance, and that the UAE can and should take them on in all regional theaters.

Also in 2011, MbZ noted Qatar’s assertive approach toward the Arab uprisings and believed that Doha was backing popular challenges to status quo authoritarian leaders. This drove him to develop an interventionist approach of his own, albeit in a direction diametrically opposed to that of Doha. The UAE moved closer to Saudi Arabia during the 2010s, partly to counter Qatar but also to increase its own heft in regional geopolitics, especially vis-à-vis Iran. This started initially during the reign of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and in support of a common interest in suppressing the Arab Spring challenge to the regional order, but it grew in a faster, deeper, and far more integrated manner after the accession to power of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and the rapid rise of Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in 2015. Far from being natural allies, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had a long history of tension, from boundary disputes in the 1950s through the 1970s to a spike in friction in the 2000s which culminated in an acrimonious falling-out in 2009 over the GCC’s planned monetary union and a short yet sharp naval clash in March 2010.

A Networked Approach

The relationship between MbZ and MbS illustrates one way that UAE regional and foreign policy has evolved from a reliance on institutional and interstate linkages toward more of a networked approach that identifies and works through key individuals. This is evident not only with Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia but also for figures such as the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, in eastern Libya and leaders of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen, who have long been based in Abu Dhabi. Such associations render the UAE vulnerable to accusations that they are supporting actors and groups (in Libya and Yemen) that are undermining internationally recognized governments and meddling in their domestic affairs—ironically the same charges that Abu Dhabi has deployed so vocally against Doha since 2011.

Mohammed bin Zayed identified Mohammed bin Salman early on as the “savior” of Saudi Arabia and played a key role in advocating for the then-little known 29-year-old prince (and recently appointed minister of defense) during meetings with Obama Administration principals in Washington, DC in 2015. Three years later, in the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, it was again UAE leaders and diplomats who reached out discreetly to Trump Administration and congressional officials to make the point that there was no viable alternative to Mohammed bin Salman. In the meantime, the two crown princes had formalized their partnership in December 2017 with the invigoration of a Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council that they co-chaired. They also launched a blockade of Qatar and maintained their military operations in Yemen, albeit in a manner that became more detached farther down the chain of (separate) Saudi and Emirati commands on the ground.

In the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, it was again UAE leaders and diplomats who reached out discreetly to Trump Administration and congressional officials to make the point that there was no viable alternative to Mohammed bin Salman.

The approach taken by MbZ exposes the UAE to the risk of getting entangled in regional conflicts that appear unwinnable and to a conduct of foreign policy that is based more on personalities rather than settled institutional interests. The failure of Khalifa Haftar’s march on Tripoli in June 2020 is one case in point as it risks dragging the UAE, along with Russia, Egypt, and Turkey, into deeper conflict. Another is the controversy engendered by the activities of apparent UAE surrogates who became implicated in Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign influence in the United States and subsequent court actions as well. As the increased appetite for risk-taking has injected volatility and unpredictability into UAE foreign policy-making, it will be instructive to assess the degree to which Mohammed bin Zayed absorbs the lessons and limitations of policy mistakes and changes course, such as the partial Emirati reconfiguration of its means of power projection in Yemen in 2019.

It is far from clear whether the UAE’s redeployment in Yemen was coordinated with, or even communicated to, Saudi Arabia in advance, and its precipitous manner is likely to have caused tension among the two major external parties to the conflict. The subsequent declaration of “self-rule” by the (Abu Dhabi-based) leadership of the Southern Transitional Council in April 2020, following the acrimonious collapse of the Riyadh Agreement signed by the STC and the Saudi-backed government of Yemen’s President Hadi in November 2019, are further indications that Emirati and Saudi interests in the political future of an eventual post-conflict Yemen are by no means aligned. Other tensions could also create and widen cracks in the Emirati-Saudi partnership if post-pandemic economies in the Gulf increasingly compete for smaller regional and international markets and market shares, or if US officials continue to pressure the Saudis to reconcile with Qatar at the expense of an Abu Dhabi resolutely opposed to ending the blockade. And if/when Mohammed bin Salman succeeds his father as king of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Zayed might see the need to do the same and put pressure on his half-brother to step aside as president of the UAE so that MbZ at least maintains the equivalent status of head of state rather than crown prince.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC (ACW), and a Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University. To learn more about Dr. Ulrichsen and read his previous publications Click here