Burhan Ozbilici / AP
DUBAI, UAE Rulers in the UAE on Saturday unanimously appointed Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi as president of the autocratic nation, signaling at the same time unity and stability in this key energy-rich country that awaits Western armies.
The rise of Sheikh Mohammed, 61, was expected after the death on Friday of his half-brother and UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, aged 73. The transition of power marks only the third time this US- The allied nation of seven sheikhdoms has elected a president since it became an independent nation in 1971.
Under Sheikh Mohammedin, who has been the country’s de facto leader since Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014, the UAE had tried to project power militarily across the wider region as it joined a led war from Saudi Arabia to Yemen.
But since the blockade of the coronavirus pandemic, Sheikh Mohammed and the wider UAE have sought to recalibrate his approach by largely withdrawing from the war and seeking diplomatic restrictions with rivals. The UAE also diplomatically recognized Israel, which shares Sheikh Mohammed’s long suspicion of Iran. However, ties with the US have been strained in recent years.
The state-run WAM news agency described the vote at the Al-Mushrif Palace in Abu Dhabi as unanimous among the rulers of the country’s sheikhdoms ruled by the country’s heritage, which includes Dubai’s skyscraper-filled city.
“We congratulate him and promise him allegiance and our people promise allegiance to him,” Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said on Twitter after the vote. “The whole country is led by him to take him on the paths of glory and honor, God willing.
There had only been one death of a president before Friday in the history of the country, that saw Sheikh Khalifa take over his father and Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, after his death in 2004. Sheikh Zayed, whose name befits a major Highway connecting the Emirates and whose face appears everywhere in the country, remains widely seen as the founding father of the country.
The UAE as a whole is observing a three-day period of mourning, which will see the closure of businesses across the country and the banning of performances in honor of Sheikh Khalifa. Electronic billboards displayed the entire image of the late sheikh in Dubai on Friday night as flags flew at half-staff. A wider 40-day mourning period will continue beyond that.
Sheikh Mohammed had served as the de facto president of the United Arab Emirates since a stroke in 2014, when Sheikh Khalifa disappeared from public view.
Known by the acronym MbZ, Sheikh Mohammed cultivated ties to the West, which proved valuable to Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital that commands tens of billions of dollars in wealth funds from its oil and gas deposits. A 2004 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks referred to him as “charismatic, smart and very cozy in the West”. He hosted then-President George W. Bush in 2008 on his desert property, a visit full of Bedouin tents and hawks.
The country is hosting about 3,500 U.S. troops, many at Abu Dhabi al-Dhafra air base, from where drones and fighter jets flew to fight the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Dubai is also the busiest US Navy port abroad. Both France and South Korea also maintained a military presence here.
Sheikh Mohammed is trained at the British Military Academy in Sandhurst and is a helicopter pilot. His first military approach led the UAE to join Saudi Arabia in their bloody, multi-year war in Yemen, which continues to this day. Sheikh Mohammed has had a close relationship with the crown prince of neighboring Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. However, the Emirates have largely withdrawn their troops from Yemen.
Sheikh Mohammed has also long been skeptical 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 take a tougher line on Tehran over concerns about its nuclear program and its support for paramilitary groups across the region. Recognition of Israel by the UAE in 2020, while opening up new trade and tourism, also serves as a defense in dealing with Iran.
However, since the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE under Sheikh Mohammed has sought to rehabilitate ties with Iran and Turkey, which has supported Islamists in the region. A quartet of Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates, also lifted their boycott of Qatar over a diplomatic dispute over its support for Islamists, although relations between Abu Dhabi and Doha remain icy.
“The smooth transition of power in the UAE reflects the maturity of institutional work and the advanced level of governance mechanisms and their stability,” said Anwar Gargash, a senior Emirati diplomat.
But tensions have emerged in recent years between Sheikh Mohammed and the US, long a guarantor of security in the wider Persian Gulf. The then President Barack Obama and the world powers reaching a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, embarrassed the Emirates. The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 under President Joe Biden has exacerbated concerns about the US withdrawal from the region.
Sheikh Mohammed found himself confused in Special Adviser Robert Mueller’s report on then-President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 US election. The chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee in 2017 was arrested in 2021 on charges that he had secretly conspired to influence US policy to take advantage of the UAE.
A planned U.S. sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets to the UAE also appears to have stalled in part due to US concerns about the UAE’s relations with China. Meanwhile, the UAE has been careful not to alienate Russia while Moscow is waging war against Ukraine.
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