DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Rulers in the United Arab Emirates unanimously named Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as president of the autocratic nation on Saturday, signaling both unity and stability in this important energy-rich country that houses Western military personnel.
The ascension of Sheikh Mohammed, 61, was expected after the death Friday of his half-brother and UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, aged 73. The transition in power marks only the third time this US-allied nation of seven sheikdoms has elected a president since it became an independent nation in 1971.
Under Sheikh Mohammed, who has been the country’s de facto leader since Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014, the UAE had tried to militarily disperse power over the wider region when it participated in a Saudi-led war in Yemen.
But since the conclusion of the coronavirus pandemic, Sheikh Mohammed and the wider UAE have sought to recalibrate their approach by largely withdrawing from the war and seeking diplomatic ties with rivals. The UAE also diplomatically recognized Israel, which shares Sheikh Mohammed’s long-standing suspicion of Iran. Ties with the US, however, have been tense in recent years — something Washington hopes to address with Vice President Kamala Harris leading a delegation to Abu Dhabi on Monday.
The state-run WAM news agency described the vote in Abu Dhabi’s Al-Mushrif Palace as unanimous among the leaders of the hereditary sheikdoms, including the skyscraper-studded city of Dubai.
“His takeover of the presidency represents a new historical era and a new birth,” said Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. “We look forward to accelerating development aimed at consolidating global sovereignty and pioneering the Emirates.”
Only once in the country’s history had a president died before Friday, with Sheikh Khalifa taking over from both his father and Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, after his death in 2004. Sheikh Zayed, whose name a major highway connecting the Emirates and whose face appears all over the country is still widely regarded as the founder of the country.
The UAE as a whole is observing a three-day mourning period, during which businesses across the country will be closed and performances halted in honor of Sheikh Khalifa. Electronic billboards all showed the image of the deceased sheik in Dubai on Friday night as flags flew at half-mast. This is followed by a longer mourning period of 40 days.
The Sultan of Oman was one of the first leaders to visit Sheikh Mohammed on Saturday evening. Others are expected in the coming days, including French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday. Harris will also meet with Sheikh Mohammed.
Sheikh Mohammed has been the de facto president of the UAE since a stroke in 2014 saw Sheikh Khalifa disappear from public view.
Known by the acronym MbZ, Sheikh Mohammed cultivated ties to the West that proved valuable to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE that draws tens of billions of dollars in equity funds from its oil and gas deposits. A 2004 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks called him “charismatic, smart and very comfortable in the West.” He hosted then-President George W. Bush at his desert estate in 2008, a visit complete with Bedouin tents and falcons.
The country is home to some 3,500 US troops, many at Abu Dhabi’s Al-Dhafra Air Base, from which drones and fighter jets flew missions to fight the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Dubai is also the US Navy’s busiest port of call abroad. Both France and South Korea were also militarily present here.
Sheikh Mohammed was trained at the British Military Academy in Sandhurst and is a helicopter pilot. His military approach saw the UAE join Saudi Arabia in their bloody, year-long war in Yemen that continues to this day. Sheikh Mohammed has a close relationship with neighboring Saudi Arabia’s own upstart Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However, the Emirates have largely withdrawn their troops from Yemen.
Sheikh Mohammed has also long been suspicious of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, likely organizing a campaign targeting Islamists in the UAE after the 2011 Arab Spring and urging the West to crack down on Tehran over concerns about its nuclear program and its support for Tehran. paramilitary groups across the region. The UAE’s recognition of Israel in 2020, as it opens up new trade and tourism, also serves as a cover in dealing with Iran.
However, since the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE under Sheikh Mohammed has tried to re-establish ties with Iran and Turkey, which has supported Islamists in the region. A quartet of Arab countries, including the UAE, also dropped their boycott of Qatar over a diplomatic dispute over support for Islamists, though relations between Abu Dhabi and Doha remain frosty.
“The smooth transfer of power in the UAE reflects the austerity of institutional work and the advanced level of governance mechanisms and their stability,” said Anwar Gargash, a senior diplomat from the Emirates.
But in recent years, tensions have arisen between Sheikh Mohammed and the US, which has long been a guarantor of security in the wider Persian Gulf. Then-President Barack Obama and world powers that reached a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, soured consequences for the Emirates. The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 under President Joe Biden exacerbated concerns about the US withdrawal from the region.
Sheikh Mohammed became entangled with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on then-President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 US election. The chairman of Trump’s inaugural commission in 2017 was arrested in 2021 on charges that he secretly had conspired to influence US policy in favor of the United Arab Emirates.
A planned US sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets to the UAE also appears to have stalled amid US concerns over the Emirates’ relationship with China. Meanwhile, the UAE has made sure not to alienate Russia as Moscow wages war on Ukraine.
But Biden made a warm statement on Saturday saying he wanted to “congratulate my old 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 on this extraordinary foundation to further strengthen the ties between our countries and peoples.”
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