April 6, 2023

IntelBrief: UAE Leader Consolidates Power Amid Regional Uncertainty

AP Photo/Jon Gambrell

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Recent leadership appointments by United Arab Emirates President and Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) have clarified the succession during a time of significant regional challenges.
  • There is debate over whether the appointment of a second UAE vice president, joining Dubai emirate leader and UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktum, reduce Dubai’s influence.
  • The naming of three brothers and a son to additional key positions girds MBZ to face widening differences with the UAE’s main ally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
  • The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been diverging on the terms of a settlement of the war in Yemen, Gulf politics, and oil production policy, but they remain aligned on most other regional issues.

On March 29, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), the president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and ruler of Abu Dhabi emirate, appointed three brothers and a son to key positions, consolidating his authority and clarifying the succession. Most significantly, MBZ appointed his 41-year-old eldest son, Sheikh Khaled bin Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as Abu Dhabi crown prince - effectively positioning him as heir apparent to the 62-year-old leader. Since the UAE’s founding in 1971, the leaders of the seven emirates have always designated the ruler of Abu Dhabi, which is the federation’s capital, as the president of the UAE. Under an agreed division of authority, the ruler of the second largest emirate, Dubai, a position currently held by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktum (MBR), serves as UAE vice president and prime minister. MBZ’s appointment of one of his brothers, Sheikh Mansoor bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as another vice president (in addition to his role as a UAE deputy prime minister) seemed to many experts an effort to dilute MBR and Dubai’s authority. Completing the reshuffle, MBZ appointed two other brothers - UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan - as deputy rulers of Abu Dhabi, with the specific charge of supervising and mentoring the new crown prince. Two of the new appointees, Tahnoon and Mansoor, also head the country’s two main sovereign wealth funds, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) and Mubadala, respectively. Together, they have principal responsibility for more than $1 trillion in total assets invested globally.

The appointment of a crown prince by MBZ was not a surprise; the position had been vacant and the Abu Dhabi succession unclear since MBZ formally acceded to UAE rulership in May 2022 upon the death of his elder brother, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Sheikh Khalifa had been incapacitated since a 2014 stroke, leaving MBZ acting as the de facto leader. By naming his son as crown prince, MBZ has clarified that the next succession would be lineal rather than lateral, and Khaled was an obvious choice as successor. Khaled has a high profile in UAE politics and serves as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for the powerful Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). Naming his brothers to top governmental and financial posts appears to represent an effort by MBZ to ensure their continued loyalty even if they have not been placed in the line of succession.

A reading of MBZ’s March 29 appointments suggests that MBZ sought to reduce the input of MBR and Dubai, the commercial hub of the federation, on national security decisions. Dubai, which hosts a large population of Iranian origin, many of whom facilitate Western exports to the Islamic Republic, has long been considered skeptical of MBZ’s hardline stance toward Tehran. Contentious divorce proceedings over the custody of MBR’s children with his former wife, the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, have left MBR vulnerable to pressure from Abu Dhabi. Recriminations that surfaced during the proceedings, including what a senior British judge deemed “exorbitant” domestic abuse committed by MBR against his ex-wife, have caused the reputation of the Dubai ruler to suffer. However, several Emirati experts dismissed MBZ’s new appointments as a move against Dubai, noting that Dubai’s role in running the UAE government’s domestic policy is enshrined in UAE law. In practice, experts maintain, Dubai has always deferred to the Al Nahyan on matters of national security. Moreover, the role of vice president in the federation hierarchy is largely symbolic, and, as a deputy prime minister in the government, Mansoor is outranked by Prime Minister MBR. It is also noteworthy that the Federal Supreme Council, composed of the leaders of all seven emirates, formally approved the appointment of Sheikh Mansoor as a vice president, suggesting little dissent.

MBZ’s leadership appointments might also reflect an attempt to gird his inner circle for broader regional challenges - in particular, growing distance from Saudi Arabia, and its de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), which has been a key ally on many fronts. Significant MBS-MBZ differences first appeared in 2019 when the UAE began to draw down its ground forces from the conflict in Yemen, later becoming a phased military withdrawal. The UAE ground exit came four years after the two Gulf powers, predicting swift victory, joined forces to battle the Iran-backed Houthi movement there. The UAE and the Kingdom have since diverged further on Yemen as diplomacy to end the conflict has accelerated. MBZ has reportedly dissented from the Saudis’ holding of direct talks with the Houthis – a diplomatic track that MBZ perceives as sidelining UAE interests in a potential final settlement of the war. MBZ wants any Yemen peace agreement to permit the UAE to retain a strategic foothold on the country’s southern coast, from which the UAE can continue to project power into the Red Sea to secure sea routes from its ports to the rest of the world. The UAE perspective on Yemen reflects MBZ’s view that Iran’s regional influence needs to be countered even after the Yemen war ends. Still, both Gulf states have sought to improve relations with Tehran over the past two years, and the UAE supported the China-brokered Saudi decision in March to restore full diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic. With plans to formally invite Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to an Arab League summit meeting set to take place in Riyadh in May, the Kingdom appeared to adopt the UAE position that relations with the Assad regime should be normalized to weaken Iranian influence in Syria. MBZ also reportedly still resents MBS’ efforts in 2020 to heal a rift with Qatar that the UAE had instigated in 2017. Despite some ongoing differences, the rift was formally resolved in early 2021.

Oil production issues have also been at the heart of other UAE-Saudi disagreements in recent months. In late 2022, UAE leaders told Washington D.C. privately that they opposed a decision by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the broader OPEC+ alliance (OPEC and major non-OPEC producers, particularly Russia) to cut production significantly. U.S. leaders cited the production cut decision as further evidence that MBS should be seen as a “pariah” – a label stemming mainly from his role in the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Since that production cut, Gulf energy officials say the UAE has privately pushed OPEC+ to let it produce more, and consideration of leaving OPEC entirely has been revived within UAE leadership circles. Another cut, smaller than in November, was announced on April 1. As an indicator of their differences, MBS and MBZ have orchestrated seemingly competing Arab and multilateral summits and other meetings. In December, MBZ did not attend an Arab summit with visiting Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Riyadh, sending instead the ruler of the small emirate of Fujairah. MBS did not attend a summit of Middle East leaders in Abu Dhabi in January. MBS reportedly called MBZ’s son and brothers to congratulate them on their new roles in the UAE hierarchy, although he apparently did not contact MBZ directly after the reshuffle.