Last month, the global media made much ado about the OPEC clash between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But this standoff was not just about oil policies. It was also about geopolitics. Put simply, with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) at the helm of Emirati foreign policy, the UAE sees itself as a rising power that will not exist in any Saudi shadow.
Compared to his Saudi counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), MbZ is the topic of fewer discussions in the United States and other western countries. But who is he and what is his background? And what were the pivotal events that shaped his outsized vision for Abu Dhabi today?
MbZ was born in Al Ain in 1961 – exactly one decade before the UAE achieved national independence – when Al Ain still belonged to the Trucial States, an informal British protectorate. As a member of the royal Al Nahyan family, MbZ began his education in Morocco at the Royal Academy in Rabat and later studied for a summer in Scotland at Gordonstoun School. MbZ then went on to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK, where he received training on tactical aircraft and helicopters, and graduated at age 18.
Amid the Kuwaiti crisis of 1990/91, MbZ, then a 29-year-old commander in his country’s air force, wanted the UAE to purchase military hardware in amounts so great that American lawmakers expressed fears that a heavily armed UAE would lead to further West Asian instability. Nonetheless, keen to strengthen US–Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations, Washington saw the UAE as a serious partner to invest in. Ultimately, Abu Dhabi spent USD 4 billion on US weapons during the Kuwaiti crisis to strengthen the UAE’s national security.
Since becoming the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in 2004, MbZ has emerged as the UAE’s de facto ruler. He has shifted Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy in a militaristic and interventionist direction. Today, with an estimated personal net worth of roughly USD 30 billion (and family wealth around USD 150 billion), MbZ carries much clout across West Asia.
The UAE’s muscular foreign policy
In 2011, US hegemony was declining and the Arab world’s historic power brokers – Egypt, Syria, and Iraq – were bogged down in internal crises. While waves of revolts across Arab countries took the world by surprise, the UAE, like Qatar, seized this opportunity to establish itself as a regional heavyweight capable of shaping the region.
St. Antony’s College Fellow Dr. Toby Matthiesen calls that period the start of the ‘Gulf moment’ in which some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members became increasingly proactive in the wider region, keen to fill voids created by the decline of US influence and the fall of target governments like Moammar Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya. Grabbing the ‘moment,’ MbZ moved quickly to establish the UAE as a powerful Arab bulwark against projects of political Islam. The leadership in Abu Dhabi views virtually all Islamist parties and causes — whether Sunni or Shia — as a major threat. Unlike other some Arab governments, the UAE sees no distinction between moderate and radical Islamists.
Given Emirati officialdom’s animosity toward political Islam, it is easy to understand why Abu Dhabi actively opposed the 2010/2011 Arab Uprisings. The popular revolts represented unique opportunities for civil society to strengthen, for political systems to undergo democratic openings, and for Islamists such as Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties to take power through elections. As revolts accelerated, UAE and other Gulf Arab monarchies grew increasingly unsettled by the possibility of these regional winds of change leading to more revolutionary activism the Arabian Peninsula, where many local grievances paralleled those of young Arabs protesting on the streets of Benghazi, Cairo, Damascus, and Tunis.
To thwart the demise of allied Arab dictatorships, Abu Dhabi launched an aggressive foreign policy aimed at rolling back the Arab Uprisings to its advantage. “Driven by grand strategic ambitions of building a neo-mercantilist empire at the crossroads between East and West, Abu Dhabi’s leadership has (since 2011) come to believe that the void left in the region by a retreating West could be filled by a new authoritarian, counter-revolutionary order led by a middle power, such as the UAE,” said Dr. Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defence Studies.
Abu Dhabi’s counter-revolutionary agenda was perhaps first on display in Bahrain in 2011, when about 500 Emirati police officers, along with 1,000 Saudi troops entered the archipelago kingdom to help the Manama regime put a lid on the Shia-led uprising. Since then, the UAE has invested heavily in Bahrain’s economy, helping to ease internal pressures on its GCC ally and making Abu Dhabi arguably even more influential in Bahraini affairs than Saudi Arabia. That Manama has aligned more closely with Abu Dhabi than Riyadh on some major issues in recent years (restored relations with Syria, normalization of ties with Israel, and the GCC’s Qatar rift, etc.) indicates that the UAE has gained significant clout in Bahrain.
The Emiratis and Saudis sunk billions of dollars into Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s government to achieve some degree of economic stability after the 2013 coup that ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership. An end to Islamist rule in Cairo was in Abu Dhabi’s interest, especially given Egypt’s geographic, political, and economic significance in the wider Arab region. Helping Sisi remove former president Mohammed Morsi was critical to the UAE’s quest to turn the tide against both the Arab Uprisings and the rise of Islamist groups in 2011.
Post-Qaddafi Libya is another example in which Emirati foreign policy became heavily militarized. Direct Emirati military intervention in this oil-rich north African state began in August 2014. Emirati–Egyptian airstrikes, launched from Egypt, targeted Islamist militias in Libya. Notably, Abu Dhabi and Cairo did not inform the Obama administration of these attacks, underscoring the UAE’s determination to communicate to Washington that Abu Dhabi will not hesitate to take actions on its own – or in coordination with regional allies – when it suits its interests to do so. At odds with the US and the majority of western governments (save France), the UAE strongly supported General Khalifa Haftar after Libya’s civil war erupted in May 2014. Abu Dhabi was the renegade general’s most important external sponsor from 2014 until 2020, when Libya’s warring factions agreed to a ceasefire that remains in place today.
During Libya’s civil war, the UAE carried out air and drone strikes to help Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). Additionally, Abu Dhabi sent international mercenaries to Libya, and financed mercenary groups such as Russia’s Wagner Group, to fight on Haftar’s side against the then-UN-recognized and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). These mercenaries came from various countries such as Australia, South Africa, Sudan, and the United States.
The UAE’s fast-growing use of mercenaries is, quite simply, astonishing. According to the Rights Radar Foundation, the UAE has hired 30,000 mercenaries from just Latin America as of September 2020.
Not surprisingly, the UAE’s mercenary activities in Libya have been criticized and condemned by human rights organizations. This was particularly so during the LNA offensive to capture Tripoli in April 2019, which led to Amnesty International accusing Haftar’s forces of “possible war crimes.” Numerous voices in the international community have condemned the UAE, Turkey, and Russia for sending arms into Libya, all in violation of a 2011 UN army embargo. The Emiratis have allegedly also transferred planes, attack helicopters, armed drones, and military vehicles to an airbase established by the UAE in Khadim, 105 kilometers east of Benghazi.
In Yemen, the UAE has also acted as an outside power, using mercenaries to help achieve on-the-ground objectives while risking as few Emirati nationals as possible. Emirati and Saudi direct military intervention in Yemen began in March 2015, both initially united in their quest to defeat the Houthi rebels. But as the war dragged on and public criticism and outrage over Yemen’s worsening humanitarian crisis grew, the UAE tried to disassociate itself from the conflict. In 2019, Abu Dhabi announced the withdrawal of UAE forces from Yemen, essentially transferring the burden of fighting the Houthis to Saudi Arabia, a further cause of friction between the two allies.
Despite the official Emirati withdrawal, Abu Dhabi remains highly involved in Yemen. The nature of the UAE’s interference in Yemeni affairs is primarily through the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which some experts describe as Abu Dhabi’s ‘proxy’. Emirati interests in southern Yemen relate to the southwestern Arabian Peninsula as well as the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea. With an ambitious foreign policy in these regions and bodies of water, establishing a UAE-friendly order in Aden remains a major priority for Abu Dhabi.
Experts have also challenged the UAE’s control of the Socotra islands – a UNESCO designated world natural heritage site – which are sovereign Yemeni territories located 400 kilometers south of the country’s coastline. The Saudi-based, UN-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi sees this as a violation of Yemen’s national rights. In fact, back in 2017, Hadi accused the UAE of acting like an “occupation power” in Yemen. For its part, Abu Dhabi views its control over Socotra as vitally important because of its geographic positioning in relation to Iran and the Horn of Africa (where the UAE has established a military presence), and major strategic shipping routes.
Qatar and Turkey
Arguably, MbZ sees the Qatari–Turkish axis as the biggest threat to the UAE and GCC states. For the past decade or so, Abu Dhabi has become increasingly focused on countering Doha and Ankara’s influence in the region, which it views as largely responsible for the Muslim Brotherhood’s post-2011 ascendancy.
Abu Dhabi was the main agent behind the 43-month blockade of Qatar that began on June 5, 2017. And when Turkey launched its offensive in north-east Syria in October 2019, Abu Dhabi was the key actor driving the push for Arab unity against the ‘neo-Ottoman’ threat.
Despite initial UAE support for anti-Assad rebels at earlier stages of the Syrian conflict, in recent years Abu Dhabi has changed course in order to counter Turkish gains in Syria’s north and to thwart the rise of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. At any rate, the 2015 Russian military intervention in Syria pushed Abu Dhabi to conclude that Assad’s continued rule had become inevitable. It was notable when Emirati officials responded to Russian military action in Syria by affirming that Moscow was targeting a “common enemy,” albeit without an outright expression of support for the Russia-allied Syrian government.
By December 2018, the UAE’s decision to fully re-normalize diplomatic relations with Damascus was in no small part due to Abu Dhabi’s interests in countering Turkey’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ agenda in northern Syria. Abu Dhabi has essentially embraced the Baathist government as a bulwark against the forces of political Islam and Ankara’s foreign policy. MbZ’s objectives in Syria are solidly aimed at bringing Syria back in from the cold and luring Damascus toward the fold of Arab states, in hope of denying the Turks and Iranians the opportunities to further expand and consolidate their clout in Syria.
Shifting Away from ‘Maximalist’ Foreign Policies
A handful of West Asian states have recalibrated their foreign policies in 2021. Countries which quite recently were on hostile terms, now engage each other diplomatically. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have significantly improved their relations with Turkey and Qatar over the past six months. Diplomatic engagement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is also taking place in Baghdad. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is slowly and cautiously reengaging Syria and talking to the Houthis via Omani interlocutors in pursuit of a diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Yemen.
Although governments in the region have no illusions about quickly resolving all their differences and disputes, there is now a greater emphasis on managing – as opposed to escalating – these tensions. This shift toward greater diplomacy and pragmatism has much to do with the change of leadership in Washington. Whereas the Trump presidency incentivized some regional actors to pursue increasingly maximalist foreign policy agendas, US President Joe Biden’s harsher tone toward certain US allies/partners like Saudi Arabia and Egypt has given these governments reason to believe that Washington will no longer automatically support the more bellicose aspects of their conduct. This is a critical factor driving regional states to seek out diplomatic and cooperative measures to solve their disputes.
The COVID-19 crisis has been another important part of the picture. With the difficult economic environment created by the global pandemic, more states in the region want to find common ground with their permanent neighbors. The view in Arab capitals like Riyadh and Cairo is that current circumstances require foreign policies to be less costly.
There is also recognition that some of the Gulf Arab monarchies – chiefly Saudi Arabia and the UAE – pursued bold and aggressive foreign policies in the post-2011 period which failed to produce desired results.
So, how does the UAE fit into this wider regional trend of countries recalibrating their foreign policies?
The UAE’s aggressive interventions in the region were largely unsuccessful. With the lifting of the siege on Doha in January 2021 – without the Qataris meeting a single demand from the UAE-Saudi-Egypt bloc – the blockade had clearly failed to strongarm Doha into changing its policies in accordance with Abu Dhabi’s desires. In Libya, the Turkish military intervention of 2019–2020 prevented Haftar from achieving his objectives on the ground, which the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France, and Russia were, to various extents, supporting. In northern Syria, Turkish influence is consolidating, especially in Idlib where it is not yet clear if Damascus will regain control, despite Emirati efforts to unite Arab governments against Ankara’s military interventions.
A change in MbZ’s foreign policy?
With MbZ at the helm, the UAE has managed to conduct its foreign policy in flexible ways, making it possible for Abu Dhabi to recalibrate its approach to regional issues in ways which probably would not have happened had Trump won a second term. Indeed, in 2021, the UAE has offered to serve as a diplomatic bridge between India and Pakistan, Israel and the Palestinians, and between Sudan and Ethiopia.
“At least during Biden’s term of office we may expect MbZ to follow a foreign policy that is less confrontational and more pragmatic than it was under Trump, especially as the UAE consolidates its regional priorities in a more economically challenging environment where the expansive foreign policies of the pre-2019 period are no longer sustainable financially or politically,” said Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, in an interview with this author.
Libya is perhaps the best illustration of a possible shift in Emirati foreign policy toward greater diplomacy and less militarism. Abu Dhabi is officially supporting Libya’s Unity Government, which came to power through UN-sponsored peace talks and has been governing Libya since March 2021. That Abu Dhabi is lending its support to this Unity Government is significant, given the UAE’s previous support to Haftar.
Yet some experts warn against reading too much into (real or perceived) shifts in Emirati foreign policy. As Dr. Krieg recently argued, the idea that the UAE is “trading its assertive foreign and security policy for a more measured diplomatic approach…resembles a key Emirati talking point in recent months, as Abu Dhabi is trying to rebrand itself in the Biden era as a constructive, and not disruptive, player in the region.”
Rather than witnessing any real Emirati withdrawal from hotspots where the UAE has become increasingly involved, this year the Gulf country is just “shifting from an expansion to a consolidation phase, where secured objectives are protected through a disruptive approach of divide and rule” via Abu Dhabi’s “surrogate network [which] continues to ensure that its objectives are being met.” According to Dr. Krieg, “Abu Dhabi will continue to impose its vision on the region, while protecting the infrastructure and access that is required to maintain its empire.”
Others agree that without abandoning its regional aims, Abu Dhabi is simply working on shifting the looks, but not substance, of its foreign policy. “They need to be careful with their image,” said Tarek Megerisi of the European Council of Foreign Relations. “There is a new administration in the US, and the Emiratis need to get the optics right.”
Changes in the MbZ–MbS relationship
Even prior to this month’s UAE–Saudi Arabia OPEC clash, experts had seen how the impact of the Biden presidency on the MbZ–MbS relationship had served to create greater distance between the two crown princes. Years ago, various analysts described MbZ as MbS’s ‘mentor’, maintaining that the UAE was in the driver’s seat in terms of the Abu Dhabi–Riyadh alliance. At this stage, however, neither of these two leaders take cues from the other. Although attributing this fully to the US would be an oversimplification, Washington’s role is an important variable in the equation.
“With Trump’s loss of the presidency, MbS knew that he needed to signal to Biden that he and Saudi Arabia were not a liability,” said Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in an interview with this author. “[The Saudi Crown Prince] had two choices to show that Saudi Arabia could work to resolve regional tensions and not just create them: end military actions against Yemen or reconcile with Qatar. From MbZ’s perspective, keeping up pressure on Qatar was a higher priority than staying in Yemen: the UAE had already mostly pulled out. But for MbS, resolving the Qatar crisis would be easier than admitting defeat in Yemen. MbZ knew he could not maintain the blockade of Qatar without the Saudis, so to avoid looking overly belligerent, he agreed to engage with Qatar as well, though to a lesser degree than the Saudis.”
When MbS needed greater international support earlier on in his ascendancy to power as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, the UAE’s high level of influence in Washington was extremely useful to him. In the process of helping MbS navigate the landscape in Washington during the Obama and Trump eras, Abu Dhabi used its leverage over Saudi Arabia to move the kingdom’s foreign policy in directions that suited the UAE’s interests.
“MbZ found in MbS an opportunity to have the Saudi Kingdom get out of the traditional thinking in terms of foreign policy, especially with neighbors like Qatar,” according to Nabeel Nowairah, an independent Gulf and Yemen analyst. “This personal relationship was somewhat mutually beneficial. MbS was able to consolidate power in the Kingdom at the expense of his royal cousins and aggressively silence opposition, which the Trump Administration did nothing to discourage. On the other hand, MbZ was able to take the tension with Qatar to much higher levels, and was able to have a strong foothold in Yemen, while Saudi Arabia got most of the international blame.”
Today, the two countries are approaching sensitive regional issues with different perspectives, priorities, and strategies, as illustrated by the OPEC rift and other issues, such as Yemen, Qatar, Syria, and Israel/Palestine. Supporting the STC in Yemen has pitted Abu Dhabi against Saudi Arabia’s support for North–South unity in the war-torn country. The Emiratis have not been pleased with the pace at which Riyadh and Doha have progressed in their reconciliation following the GCC January 2021 summit in Al-Ula that ended the blockade of Qatar.
In Syria, Abu Dhabi has re-embraced Assad’s government as fully legitimate – a move that Saudi Arabia has, at least thus far, refused to make. In terms of Israel/Palestine, the UAE has led the latest wave of Arab–Israeli normalization accords, while the Saudi leadership has refrained from joining the Abraham Accords. Likewise, as Riyadh warms up to Turkey, which wants to see Riyadh somewhat pulled away from the Abu Dhabi camp, the UAE seems to be holding off on pursuing rapprochement with Ankara.
Both MbS and MbZ command “different types of power and have reached a stage in their own individual development where they need each other less than they did five years ago,” said Dr. Ulrichsen. “What will be interesting to observe is whether and how the power relationship changes if/when one of them becomes head of state and the other remains a crown prince, and if that state of affairs continues for any considerable length of time.”
On July 19, one day after the Emirati-Saudi OPEC dispute was resolved, the UAE’s de facto ruler paid MbS a visit in Riyadh. Although there was a resolution of the OPEC clash, MbZ’s visit to the Saudi capital came amid a difficult period in bilateral affairs with scores of Saudi commentators who are pro-government like Suleiman al-Oqeliy criticizing aspects of Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy such as the UAE’s approach to Yemen on social media. Nonetheless, despite tensions over political and economic issues set to persist, MbS and MbZ are trying to somewhat compartmentalize their countries’ differences and present a show of unity. To be sure, on the fundamental issues that concern Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s national security interests, such as preventing democratization to take place in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh remain largely on the same page.
The ways in which media personalities and pro-government analysts in the UAE and Saudi Arabia reacted to the President of Tunisia’s July 25 power grab underscore Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s alignment against democratization, pluralism, and political Islam virtually everywhere in the Arab region. Therefore, we should not expect any major or official break between the two GCC countries despite various issues in the region adding some distance between the two Gulf powerhouses.
An independent foreign policy
Critical to the UAE’s ability to succeed in terms of maintaining its geopolitical independence are the relationships that Abu Dhabi has formed with China, India, and Russia. As a strategic and a shrewd leader, MbZ operates in an increasingly multipolar world that affords Abu Dhabi the opportunity to escape the pressure of any single power by diversifying its global relationships. Abu Dhabi’s alignment with Moscow (as opposed to western governments) on several regional issues such as the Syrian crisis underscore how the UAE does not serve as a client state of either Washington or London. Instead, Abu Dhabi carefully balances powers in the West and East off each other to its advantage.
But what remains to be seen is how easily the UAE can influence countries in the region at a time in which there is growing dialogue and efforts on the part of various states to find common ground, notwithstanding continued ideological and ideational tensions. Whereas a few years ago, many analysts described the UAE as a state that was leading in terms of uniting Arab governments against Ankara and Doha, there is now a growing determination on the part of Abu Dhabi’s key regional allies – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – to move toward new understandings with the Turks and Qataris.
A positive and major turning point in the Arab world could result from the UAE joining this regional move toward diplomacy and away from confrontation, especially with the UAE due to serve as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2022–2023 period. But that would require Abu Dhabi to be less rigid in its stances on issues such as political Islam, and there are no indicators that Abu Dhabi is softening in that area.