The Federal Supreme Council of the UAE elected Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan president this week, one day after the announcement of the death of his elder brother, late president sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
The move was almost identical to the transition that took place in 2004 when the first president of the UAE, sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, died, and leadership passed on to his son.
For Middle East-based diplomats following the UAE and the rest of the Arab Gulf region, there was nothing unexpected in the smooth transition of power in Abu Dhabi. The ascent of Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, or “MBZ,” to power was not contested, they said, and in any case he has been the effective ruler of the country for around eight years.
The UAE comprises seven emirates with delegated authority and a federal government. The Supreme Council is the highest governing body of the union and is formed from the seven rulers of the emirates.
The late sheikh Khalifa was also ruler of the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi, where Sheikh Mohamed was crown-prince. He followed up on the legacy of sheikh Zayed, called the “establisher” as he led the creation of the union and was the first president of the UAE in 1971 and started the evolution of a new Gulf state.
His son started to modernise the federal government and the government of Abu Dhabi during the first decade of his rule. After he suffered a stroke in 2014, his public appearances became limited, and he delegated the daily running of the country to his brother. Yet, he was still the ruler and had a final say in strategic decisions.
However, according to foreign diplomats up until two weeks ago Bin Zayed had to make sure that he accommodated all the leading figures in the country. While it was an open secret that he was the de facto ruler, appearances were kept up. Important decrees were issued from the office of Sheikh Khalifa and with his approval. Even the breakthrough in UAE relations with Israel, known as the “Abraham Accords,” was done in the late president’s name.
According to one foreign diplomat, from last Sunday, when he became the official ruler of the UAE, some changes in the political attitudes of Bin Zayed and his political choices are bound to be introduced one after the other.
During the last decade, Bin Zayed gave a push to the development of the country, with more diversification of the economy away from oil. Other economic sectors now contribute more than half of GDP, putting the UAE ahead of the other Gulf countries in terms of economic diversification.
According to a European diplomat who has frequently visited the UAE over the past ten years, the economic plans that Bin Zayed has in mind are probably a lot more ambitious than what has already been executed.
“Bin Zayed believes, and for good reason, that his country has the resources to be a key player in the Arab Gulf region and across the Middle East and on the global political scene. He believes that a strong and diversified economy that is connected to leading regional and world capitals is essential to best position the UAE to be this key player,” the diplomat said.
Consequently, the diplomat added, the UAE will soon be looking to expand the ambitious trade and economic partnerships it has established with many countries including the US, Israel, India, China and Russia.
“It is very important to understand that the continuity that Bin Zayed had promised in the power transition is mostly about the continuity of the economic and political shifts he has introduced to this previously low-profile and highly cautious small oil-rich country,” the diplomat said.
Since 2014, the UAE has embarked on proactive diplomacy in the region and beyond based on what it describes as the “principles of the founder” sheikh Zayed and emphasising tolerance and respect as a means to achieve prosperity for its people and others.
Mohamed bin Zayed took this commitment to a new level as he chose to make the UAE the effective custodian of several high-level religious dialogue and human fraternity initiatives.
“This was one of the smartest diplomatic moves that Bin Zayed made to upgrade the political profile of his country,” said one Arab diplomat. He argued that having had top religious leaders including Roman Catholic Pope Francis and the grand imam of Al-Azhar meeting in the UAE to discuss ways of promoting tolerance, Bin Zayed had made it almost impossible for it to be perceived as simply a small oil-rich country.
Bin Zayed, informed diplomatic sources say, did not want his country to be less significant on the regional or international political scene than its rival and neighbour Qatar. During the first decade of the 2000s, the latter used its wealth and resources to upgrade its political profile as a key player in the Arab and Muslim majority countries.
“But Bin Zayed did not just want his country to be important like Saudi Arabia or involved like Qatar. He wanted his country to be modern and liberated from the weight of the classic Arab Gulf diplomacy that shied away from coming up with initiatives,” the Arab diplomat said.
People are content with the decision of the Supreme Council to elect Mohamed Bin Zayed as UAE president. Some of those Al-Ahram Weekly talked to, remembered a famous saying of the leader in the heat of the coronavirus pandemic when people were worried about the lockdown and the spread of the virus. “La teshelon ham,” he said – meaning “don’t ever worry” in the UAE dialect.
All those in the UAE, whether citizens or resident expatriates, believed him. “The crisis passed, and we never suffered any shortages. With such leaders, we don’t have to worry,” one Emirati citizen said.
“There was nothing Mohamed bin Zayed was not doing anyway,” Oxford University political analyst Andrew Hammond told the Weekly. He added that the transition “will give him a green light to push on with no domestic and family resistance”.
No big changes are expected to come immediately. However, foreign diplomats say that sometime down the road, maybe in a few months, Bin Zayed is bound to introduce a comprehensive vision for upgrading the quality and performance of some sectors, including defence and security, two key issues he has been occupied with.
Expectations of a possible deal between the West and Tehran on Iran’s nuclear programme that will end the isolation of Iran are a key concern for Abu Dhabi.
According to the Arab diplomat, Bin Zayed has been considering defence and security deals. These should come out sometime before the end of this year, he said. Otherwise, Bin Zayed will continue to invest in upgrading the education and healthcare sectors and work on diversifying the UAE economy, especially with an eye on IT.
“The new generation of leader in the UAE has taken responsibility for some time now, so we will not see much change in strategy. There is stability in leadership and vision,” Dubai-based Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames told the Weekly.
He added that the only thing to be expected is more of the same. “The goals are set, and the vision is clear. We will only see more towards the same goals of development in the economy and more reinforcement of security and stability in the country and the region.”
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the UAE, and Sheikh Mohamed, along with the ruler of Dubai and other rulers, set a strategy for the next half century, mostly about more modernisation.
Meanwhile, Bin Zayed will continue to push for a higher-profile political role for his country, which is likely to get more independent from the wider Arab sphere.
“When Bin Zayed decided to publicly pursue diplomatic relations with Israel a couple of years ago, he consulted with some of his Arab allies, but he did not wait for their approval. There will be more of this political independence in the coming years,” the Arab diplomat said.
Bin Zayed is not the only Arab Gulf leader to pursue this approach of “agreeing on the basics.” Oman’s late ruler, sultan Qaboos, was perhaps the first to establish this role in the late 1970s when he decided to carve out a niche for his country independent of the rest of the Arab Gulf.
“But unlike Oman, which is very low profile, Qatar has been doing this in an aggressive manner that got it into many political squabbles, including within the GCC,” the diplomat added.
“We are seeing a new leadership in the Gulf that is parting from the classic parameters of politics laid down by the founding fathers of the Arab Gulf countries,” the diplomat said.
“There will be change on some fronts, but there will be continuity on others,” he said. Change, he argued, will mostly be about economic and foreign policy choices. Continuity will be about home affairs.
“The traditional pattern of rule will certainly continue untouched in all the Arab Gulf states, even under the youngest leaders,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.