The UAE’s Leader Is Turning the Kingdom Into a Major Player

PBiden of resident sent much more than condolences for the death of the UAE’s nominal leader. The entire top tier of his Cabinet—Vice President, CIA Director, Secretaries of State and Defense – journeyed across the globe to shake the hand of the new boss, Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan, previously described as the Arab world’s most powerful ruler. This could be him. Long before the May 13 death of the half-brother disabled since a 2014 stroke, the strongman known as MbZ was turning a “small state” (about the size of Maine) into a global player that demands the attention even of a U.S. pivoting away from the Middle East.

Special Forces from the UAE are active in Libya and Somalia. There is also an armoured proxie that challenges the current political situation in Tripoli. Its financial institutions house the funds of warlords, sanctions-evaders, regimes kleptocrats as well as mobsters. It has information networks which helped to ripen military coups and terrorist attacks in Egypt, Tunisia. Its spin doctors also help to shape the policymaking process in Washington, London and Brussels.

MbZ (61), is a Machiavellian, Svengali, with deep knowledge of the power and potential of networks. Fifteen years ago, while still Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, he began strategically moving pawns to monopolize the power of the capital’s royal family within the federation of seven emirates, the best known of which is Dubai. At the same time, MbZ wove strategic networks across both the Middle East and the world, using connections to fill the gap between the UAE’s ambitions and its in-house capabilities.

This web worked when Trump’s first year as President caused a stir among Emiratis. He suspended the sale of F-35 fighter planes that were promised by Trump. Then he responded to the missile attack on UAE by Iranian-backed rebels. With oil prices rising rapidly, Washington wants to make things right and hopes that the UAE will leverage its influence within OPEC+ in order to get more crude. The rapprochement necessarily involves the Emiratis’ network of lobbyists, think tankers, journalists and diplomats led by including Yousef Al Otaiba, long one of the highest profile ambassadors in Washington despite representing a nation with only a few more citizens (1.1 million) than a U.S. congressional district.

MbZ wants to move statecraft out of the state-run bureaucracy. Instead, it relies on non-state actors like mercenary groups and militias as well as lobbying companies and financiers. Oil is the reason that all are well-paid. It’s how Abu Dhabi punches above its weight in what MbZ perceives to be dog-eat-dog world and secure the Emirates against the perceived anarchy left behind by great powers’ disengagement from the region.

The U.S. pivot to Asia—where President Biden went in person—is only the latest challenge. The chaos caused by the Arab Spring that toppled the dictatorial regime was what prompted Abu Dhabi to start taking initiative, without any hedging, bandwagoning or avoiding responsibility. However, this led to the UAE often defying both the values and interests of Europe and America. So while lobbying for cutting-edge U.S. military technology like the F-35, Abu Dhabi also finances Russia’s mercenary operations in Libya against US-backed allies, and joins leading Chinese tech companies to develop disruptive information technology.

MbZ believes that the UAE is playing double-games, and it’s all a sign of their inability to trust Washington. The perceived unreliability of Washington has been a crucial factor in the tribal monarchy’s pivot towards the East, where the emerging authoritarian order aligns more with the UAE’s notion of the survival of the ‘smartest’ and MbZ’s cynicism over the values-based liberal order. Like Russia and China, Abu Dhabi, through its networks, exploits the gray zone between war and peace, achieving influence through Machiavelli’s maxim of “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception”.

One kind of network, the UAE itself is. The new President heads a triumvirate that includes his two most influential brothers: Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, billionaire businessman and minister; and Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s national security adviser. Together they control hundreds of billions of dollars of equity through Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth funds, joint ventures and intricate networks of shell companies, using investments strategically to secure stakes in companies with ties to political elites in Africa, Central Asia and Russia. State-owned companies like Dubai Ports World—one of the world’s largest port operators—have become vehicles of statecraft in their own right, granting the UAE control over critical supply chains globally, something that makes Abu Dhabi an indispensable partner for China’s Belt-Road Initiative.

And where Abu Dhabi’s empowerment of Russia and China in the region has caused friction with the West—most notably in the U.S.—MbZ and his brothers can rely on networks in Washington, London, and Brussels to iron out any reputational hiccups, and to influence policymaking. Abu Dhabi regularly tops the list of Gulf donors to Washington’s think tank bubble, notoriously spending more than $20 million in 2016 and 2017 on the renowned Middle East Institute alone. The Center for American Progress, The Atlantic Council and Washington’s own Arab Gulf State Institute are also top recipients of UAE funds in the U.S. In 2015 it encouraged the UK government in 2015 to revisit its domestic approach to the Muslim Brotherhood and in the early days of the Trump administration persuaded the most powerful nation in the world to take its side in a neighborhood quarrel by endorsing the UAE-led blockade against Qatar—one of the most important U.S. allies in the Gulf. These information networks are also used to influence the policy of experts and encourage them to exclude other countries, like Turkey or Iran.

Meanwhile, Dubai is one of the world’s leading dirty-money hubs, a key node in illicit financial networks offering a financial safe haven for warlords, sanction-evaders, terrorist organizations and mobsters. It’s no surprise that the Kremlin’s kleptocrats have washed up on the shores of the Emirates of late. Allowing Putin and his inner circle to bypass sanctions makes the UAE a key enabler of Russia’s great power interests. The UAE has not yet condemned the invading Ukraine.

MbZ attended Sandhurst in the U.K., which is West Point’s equivalent. He can access networks that produce guns-for-hire. Emirati gray zone operations depend on the support of cyber-mercenaries and military personnel. Many of Emirati ground punch in Libya and Yemen comes from the Russian Wagner Group, a mercenary group. In addition to from providing funds to Putin’s ‘dogs of war’, Abu Dhabi opened up its bases in southern Libya, which Wagner mercenaries are still using as logistical hubs for operations in the Sahel.

MbZ, a multipolar world that is no longer controlled by the West has made room for city-states to operate and sometimes to make their own decisions. It is up to him where he wants it.

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