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Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan

United Arab Emirates strongman Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), who was formally elected president on 14 May 2022, had led a realignment of the Middle East that created a new anti-Iran axis with Israel and fought a rising tide of political Islam in the region. Working behind the scenes for years as de facto leader, Sheikh Mohammed, 61, transformed the UAE military into a high-tech force, which coupled with its oil wealth and business hub status, extended Emirati influence internationally. Mohamed began wielding power in a period when his half-brother President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who died on 13 May 2022, suffered bouts of illness, including a stroke in 2014.

Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, or MbZ in US Government speak, is the man who ran the United Arab Emirates. Officially he was the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (the most important principality of the seven emirate confederation) and his only federal title was Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces; in fact he was the key decision maker on national security issues. He makes deferential noises about his "boss" (elder half-brother President Khalifa, a distant and uncharismatic personage), but he was assessed to have authority in all matters except for final decisions on oil policy and major state expenditures.

His Highness General Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council. He was born in 1961 and has played an active part in the development of Abu Dhabi Emirate through more than three decades of rapid economical and social change. Long before his appointment as Crown Prince, he has been known as the driving force behind initiatives to ensure and strengthen Abu Dhabi’s security, sustainability, and economic diversification.

Reaction to the 30 November 2003 appointment of LTG Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) as Deputy Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi was very positive. Everyone agreed that it settled the leadership succession issue by removing Shaykh Zayed's undependable son, Shaykh Sultan, from consideration as a future heir to the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. MbZ had no points against him, contrary to MbZ's older half-brother, Shaykh Sultan, who has had periodic bouts with alcoholism and was notorious for his mismanagement of funds and his failure to successfully complete high visibility projects such as Lu Lu Island or Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque. Some believed MbZ's half-brother Shaykh Sultan "paid the price because he said no to America" and was skeptical "of America's grand scheme for the region." Shaykh Sultan was the patron of the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up think tank that the UAE Government closed in August 2003 after the Center had published some materials with anti-Semitic themes, and hosted some speakers who promoted anti-Semitic views, contrary to President Zayed's principles of interfaith tolerance.

MbZ was a leader not just in the UAE, but more broadly in the Middle East, where he was seen as a particularly dynamic member of the generation succeeding the geriatric cases who have dominated the region for decades. He was a reformer, actively seeking to improve the life of his citizens and the UAE's future through better education and health care, and through economic diversification, including investments in clean energy to prepare his citizenry for a post-hydrocarbon future.

He was proud of the fact that despite having had the option of life of privilege, he rose through the ranks of the UAE Armed Forces, earning his wings as a helicopter pilot and retains a common touch that appeals to Emiratis. During his military education Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed completed the staff college course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst/UK, from where he graduated in 1979. He was trained in basic armour, basic flying, helicopter conversion, tactical flying, and paratroops. His experience encompasses commanding an armoured unit, a Gazelle helicopter squadron, the Air School and the Air College. He has been Commander of the UAE Air Forces and Air Defence, and Deputy Chief-of-Staff of the UAE Armed Forces, before being appointed Chief-of-Staff of the UAE Armed Forces in 1993 and one year later Lieutenant General. When his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, passed away in 2004 and his older brother, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was elected president of the UAE, Sheikh Mohamed became Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces in Jan 2005 and was promoted to the rank of General.

MbZ has staked his reputation, and his country's future, on its relationship with the United States, especially since 1990, when the UAE leadership saw that the United States was prepared to shed blood in the interests of preserving international order and stability in the Gulf. Since that formative experience, MbZ has built armed forces (especially his Air Force) that are closely aligned with the US. He is also a proponent of close economic, commercial, and where possible political ties with the US. He has generally tried to support us where he thinks we have been right (Afghanistan), but also where he thinks the US has pursued misguided policies (Iraq). MbZ recognizes that partnership with the US is fundamental to the UAE's continued success, but he also knows that the relationship is controversial among his people, and that if the US is perceived as an unreliable protector, his own power base will erode.

MbZ sees Iran as the primary external threat to the UAE and his regime. To his eyes, Tehran's threatening rhetoric, dominance by proxy, and pursuit of nuclear weapons is reminiscent of Saddam in 1990. Moreover, the confrontations with Iran during the late 1980s tanker wars, long forgotten in the West, are vividly remembered. MbZ is probably the most passionately anti-Iran of the Arab leaders, and the UAE's position is solidly with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan in seeing the principal threat to the region as coming from Iran. MbZ is particularly concerned at the divisions among the Gulf Arabs, and sees Qatar's and Oman's decision to accommodate, rather than challenge, Iranian power as troubling.

While MbZ is a hard liner on Iran, there are accommodationists within his own system, especially in Dubai, where the Ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum (Prime Minister of the UAE) takes a position that is much closer to Qatar's. For this reason, and because of the basic disparity in size and power between the UAE and Iran, the Emiratis prefer to be seen as quietly supporting a hard-line US position, rather than staking out their own views. MbZ was skeptical that US engagement with Iran will be successful in reversing Iranian positions on nuclear program, and believed that a policy of engagement put him in an awkward position, both domestically and internationally.

Regarding the nuclear issue, MbZ believed that the logic of war dominates the region. He regularly expressed his belief that Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. This reflected his own assessment of the Netanyahu Government, but also, probably, what Israelis were telling UAE in their private exchanges. For this reason, one of MbZ's highest priorities was to finalize his integrated air defense system (including THAAD and Patriots) and advance bilateral contingency planning with the US. Because of Qatari and Omani wobbliness, he was uncomfortable with multilateral (GCC) military solutions.

MbZ's pre-occupation with Iran (and his secondary concern about Islamic fundamentalism) led him to have a strategic view of the region that is curiously close to the Israeli one. But domestic politics flow the other way, and he felt constrained in what he can say publicly. Also, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the UAE still felt a need to hide behind Arab League and GCC consensus, and in particular behind Saudi Arabia (even when bilateral relations with the Kingdom are rocky).

The UAE played a useful role in Afghanistan since 2001, having deployed Special Forces there since 2003, and later sending a Battalion sized task force during the elections. MbZ tried to organize a pan-Arab force, but could not overcome the resistance of Moroccans and Tunisians to send troops. In Pakistan, the UAE was supportive of Zardari and played a very useful role both as donor and politically as one of the key members of the friends of Pakistan grouping. MbZ agreed on the need to curtail Taliban financing, but was frustrated by the seeming inability of the US to generate actionable intelligence.

The UAE has emerged as one of America's principal partners in CT Cooperation through intelligence channels, having rounded up a number of cells over the past few years, and moved toward cooperation externally as well. In the counterproliferation area, the UAE has interdicted 20 shipments over the 2007-2009 period, including seizing North Korean systems bound for Iran. Domestic Export Controls have lagged somewhat, but the UAE Government's bureaucratic structure for implementing its export control laws has finally emerged.

He is widely believed to have taken the decision to deploy boots on the ground in Yemen in 2015 as part of a Saudi-led military campaign against Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels. The Yemen war marked the first protracted military campaign abroad for the UAE and the first time it had to contend with military casualties, with dozens of Emirati soldiers killed. The coalition has been denounced for air strikes, including on markets and hospitals, that have caused heavy civilian casualties since intervening in Yemen in March 2015. The UAE, which largely exited the conflict in 2019, has also been accused of running secret prisons across southern Yemen. It denies the accusations.

Although the crown prince does not often speak in public -- he left the November 2017 inaugural speech of the Louvre Abu Dhabi to Dubai ruler Mohammed bin Rashid -- his reach into the political sphere cannot be underestimated. Under his leadership, Abu Dhabi has fostered trade and political ties across the region -- including, to a limited extent, with Shiite Iran -- but has sided with the US against Tehran's nuclear programme and with Saudi Arabia on its role in the mainly Sunni Arab world.

Sheikh Mohamed also took the lead on a staunch no-mercy domestic security policy. Observers believe it was he who masterminded an unprecedented clampdown on Islamists in the UAE, with dozens handed lengthy jail terms over charges of ties to extremists. At the same time, he crafted for the UAE a reputation of tolerance that contrasts with its conservative neighbors. In 2017, he announced that Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque, also known as Sheikh Zayed mosque after his father, would change names to become the "Mariam Umm Issa" (Mary, Mother of Jesus) mosque as a means to "consolidate bonds of humanity between followers of different religions".

A keen hunter and a poetry enthusiast, he is married to fellow royal Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al-Nahyan -- the couple has four sons and five daughters. MbZ views himself as one America's closest partners in the Middle East, and is keen to build on what has been an important aspect of his life's work, a good relationship with the US.

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