DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Rulers in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday unanimously appointed Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as the autocratic nation’s president, signaling both unity and stability in this key energy-rich country that hosts Western militaries.
The ascension of Sheikh Mohammed, 61, had been expected after the death Friday of his half-brother and the UAE’s president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the age of 73. This is only the third election of a U.S.-allied country of seven sheikhdoms since 1971, when it became an independent nation.
Under Sheikh Mohammed, who has been the nation’s de facto leader since Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014, the UAE had tried to project power militarily across the wider region as it joined a Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Since the closures for the coronavirus pandemic in 2001, Sheikh Mohammed and other UAE officials have tried to reset their approach. They have largely pulled out of war and sought diplomatic resolutions with allies. The UAE also diplomatically recognized Israel, which shares Sheikh Mohammed’s longstanding suspicion of Iran. However, ties to the U.S. have strained in recent years — something Washington hopes to address with Vice President Kamala Harris leading a delegation Monday to Abu Dhabi.
The state-run WAM news agency described the vote at Al-Mushrif Palace in Abu Dhabi as unanimous among the leaders of the country’s hereditarily ruled sheikhdoms, which includes the skyscraper-studded city of Dubai.
“His assumption of the responsibility of the presidency represents a new historical era and a new birth,” said Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. “We look forward to the acceleration of development aimed at consolidating the global sovereignty and pioneering of the Emirates.”
There had been only one death of a president before Friday in the country’s history, which saw Sheikh Khalifa take over for both his and Sheikh Mohammed’s father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, after his death in 2004. Sheikh Zayed, whose name graces a major highway linking the Emirates and whose face appears everywhere in the nation, widely remains viewed as the country’s founding father.
The UAE as a whole is observing a three-day mourning period, which will see businesses shut across the country and performances halted in Sheikh Khalifa’s honor. Electronic billboards all showed the late sheikh’s image in Dubai on Friday night as flags flew at half-staff. An additional 40-day mourning period will continue.
Oman’s sultan was among the first leaders to visit Sheikh Mohammed on Saturday night. Other leaders are also expected to visit Sheikh Mohammed in the days ahead, such as Boris Johnson (British Prime Minister) and Emmanuel Macron (French President). Harris will also meet Sheikh Mohammed.
Sheikh Mohammed had been serving as the UAE’s de facto president since a 2014 stroke saw Sheikh Khalifa disappear from public view.
MbZ is Sheikh Mohammed’s acronym. He established ties with the West, which proved to be valuable for Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, and has access to tens or hundreds of billions in wealth funds from oil and gas reserves. A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2004 released by WikiLeaks referred to him as “charismatic, savvy and very comfortable in the West.” He hosted then-President George W. Bush in 2008 at his desert estate, a visit complete with Bedouin tents and falcons.
The country hosts some 3,500 U.S. troops, many at Abu Dhabi’s Al-Dhafra Air Base, from where drones and fighter jets flew missions combating the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Dubai also is the U.S. Navy’s busiest port of call abroad. France, South Korea and South Korea had a presence in Dubai.
Sheikh Mohammed was trained at Sandhurst’s British military academy and is now a pilot in a helicopter. The UAE joined Saudi Arabia’s bloody war on Yemen, which raged for years. His military-first approach led to the UAE joining Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Mohammed has had a close relationship with neighboring Saudi Arabia’s own upstart crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The Emirates have largely pulled its troops out of Yemen.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Iran have been a source of suspicion for Sheikh Mohammed since the beginning. He likely organized a campaign against Islamists in UAE following the 2011 Arab Spring. This was to urge the West not only to support Iran’s nuclear program but also its support for paramilitary organizations throughout the region. The UAE’s recognition of Israel in 2020, while opening new trade and tourism, also serves as a hedge in dealing with Iran.
However, Sheikh Mohammed, UAE, has attempted to repair ties to Iran, Turkey, and other countries that have supported Islamists within the region, since the pandemic. Fourteen Arab states, including UAE, dropped their boycott on Qatar due to a diplomatic dispute about Qatar’s support of Islamists. Relations between Abu Dhabi-Doha remain frozen.
“The smooth transition of power in the UAE reflects the sobriety of institutional work and the advanced level of governance mechanisms and their stability,” said Anwar Gargash, a senior Emirati diplomat.
Recent tensions have developed in recent years between Sheikh Mohammed, the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. has been a long-standing guarantor of security throughout the Persian Gulf. Emirates was harmed by the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran that was reached between then-President Barack Obama, and other world leaders. The chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 under President Joe Biden worsened concerns about the U.S.’s pullback from the region.
Sheikh Mohammed found himself entangled in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on then-President Donald Trump and Russian interference in America’s 2016 election. The chair of Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee was arrested in 2021 on charges alleging he secretly conspired to influence U.S. policy to benefit the United Arab Emirates.
A planned U.S. sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets to the UAE also appears stalled in part over American concerns about the Emirates’ relationship with China. Despite Russia’s war against Ukraine, the UAE is careful not to be hostile.
But Biden offered a warm statement Saturday saying he wanted to “congratulate my longtime friend” on “his election.”
“The UAE is an essential partner of the United States,” Biden said. “I look forward to working with Sheikh Mohammed to build from this extraordinary foundation to further strengthen the bonds between our countries and peoples.”
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