Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, is reportedly the world’s richest man with an estimated fortune of $1.3 trillion. He keeps trim and chats with visiting leaders about the latest fitness equipment. He is never late for meetings. Known by his initials MBZ, he is Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces and he takes important visitors on sightseeing jaunts over his state, piloting the helicopter himself.
In an interview to the New York Times about a year ago, Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official, said “he thinks he is Machiavelli but he acts more like Mussolini.”
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MBZ, 58, the de facto ruler of the Emirates, has been given the unofficial title “the most powerful man in the Middle East,” more than leaders of large states like Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
While in Israel a bizarre semantic argument is going on whether the agreement with the Emirates is a “peace agreement" or merely an “agreement to normalize relations,” bin Zayed has no doubt this is a peace agreement. Not one intended to serve Israel or help the Palestinians, but part of a strategic medium and long term move that will mainly serve the interests of his small state, whose population of nine million consists of eight million foreign workers and which holds six percent of the world's oil reserves.
The immediate reward isn’t only a flight package of F-35 planes and advanced weapon systems, but bolstering bin Zayed’s position in the United States Congress, which had planned to impose sanctions on the Emirates for its involvement in the war in Yemen and to stop arms deals with Saudi Arabia, a decision side-stepped by President Donald Trump.
Peace with Israel could remove the remaining American objection to the arms sale, and would also be an insurance policy for bin Zayed if Trump loses in the November election and is replaced by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Unlike his warm ties with Trump, bin Zayed has an unpleasant history with a previous Democratic president, Barack Obama. At first they forged a deep friendship and Obama used to call him occasionally to chat and hear his opinion on issues outside the Middle East as well. But the friendship ended when the Arab Spring revolutions took place and Obama started talking of a new, democratic, liberal Middle East, whose leaders are elected by the people and whose tyrants are thrown into history’s trash can.
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To bin Zayed’s chagrin, Obama even called on Mubarak to step down and supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime in Egypt. Bin Zayed saw the storm in the Arab world as a threat to his regime and other traditional regimes and enlisted to help current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted Mohammed Morsi in July 2013.
The Emirates funneled billions of dollars to Egypt to beef up the foreign currency reserves, which had reached a dangerous low, encouraged investors to develop Egypt’s infrastructure, contributed to projects in Sinai and turned Egypt into an economically dependent ally.
MBZ also tried to persuade the Americans that supporting the Arab Spring revolutions would generate chaos in the Middle East and cause the United States to lose its hold in the region.
The leader who was to set up a tolerance ministry in the Emirates, build a museum modeled on the Louvre and open a branch of New York University in his country, set the limits to his tolerance to democratic moves in the Middle East.
So while Washington hesitated to back the new Egyptian president, bin Zayed established his status as one who had saved Egypt from a dangerous crisis. But the hardest blow from Obama was the negotiation with Iran, which ended with the nuclear agreement. Bin Zayed is a religious man, who prays and fasts in Ramadan, but he loathes the Muslim Brotherhood despite having been among their ranks as a youth, and being brought up as a child by a religious preacher who belonged to the brotherhood.
His hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood equals only to his fear of Iran, in which he sees a clear and immediate threat to the Emirates in particular and to Sunni Islam in general.
No wonder that even before Trump was elected president, bin Zayed cultivated ties with his son in law Jared Kushner and even canceled a personal meeting with Obama to meet Kushner in New York.
Bin Zayed’s name also came up in the investigations of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who looked into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election, as one who was responsible for the connection between Putin’s confidant, businessman Kirill Dmitriev and Trump’s campaign advisers, including Steve Bannon. For two years MBZ avoided visiting the United States for fear he’d be summoned to an interrogation.
Bin Zayed, his brother, Abdullah bin Zayed and his minister of state and ambassador in Washington, Yousef al Otaiba, didn’t make do with advancing the Emirates’ interests in the American halls of power with investments of dozens of millions of dollars to PR companies, lobbyists and lawyers. They were the ones who recommended to Kushner to embrace Mohammed bin Salman and asked him to see whether the U.S. could help his appointment as crown prince instead of Muhammed bin Nayef, who had been the American administration's confidant and the CIA’s loyalist in Saudi Arabia.
It’s not clear if and how the American administration intervened, but bin Salman won the title in 2017 and the two became the American policy deciders in the Middle East, much more than Trump’s senior advisers.
But a year later, in October 2018, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and shortly afterward bin Salman was held responsible for the murder, although it hasn’t been proved yet. The Saudi crown prince was “ousted” from the status of the United States’ darling and became a persona non grata in the American Congress. Since then he hasn’t visited the U.S., while bin Zayed is seen as the administration’s man in the Middle East.
But even the latter’s status was rattled following the power struggles between the Congress, and especially its Democratic members, and Trump over the desire to punish bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder and the continuing war in Yemen.
In this war bin Salman and bin Zayed joined in a long, brutal and failing assault against the Houthi rebels, as part of what they saw as a campaign to block Iran’s influence in the region. But after five years in which more than 100,000 people were killed by conflict, hunger and diseases and millions were left homeless, even the U.S. realized that despite the technology and advanced weapons it had sold these two states, the war isn’t ending and is only entangling it further.
The two Arab leaders had a strategic falling out. While Saudi Arabia strives to set up a united Yemen after getting the Houthis out of the areas under their control, the Emirates reduced its desire to dominating the south of Yemen, to ensure at least the safety of sailing in the Bab al-Mandab strait.
Bin Zayed, with a subsidiary of Blackwater, the security company that became notorious for its activities in Iraq, set up militias of Colombian ad South African mercenaries fighting in Yemen and training the forces loyal to the Emirates, to spare the lives of regular soldiers.
This difference between the Saudi and Emirates positions led the Emirates to support separatist groups from south Yemen against the recognized Yemenite government supported by Saudi Arabia. The Emirates is even suspected of providing the separatists with American weapons.
A Congress inquiry into this suspicion exonerated the Emirates from breaking the law by selling American weapons, but bin Zayed understood that having his name bound with bin Salman as responsible for the tragedy in Yemen could hurt his relations with Washington.
At the same time, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince's father and president of the UAE, came under heavy pressure by the six other emirate leaders, who accused him of wasting money on an unnecessary war and sacrificing the lives of soldiers, many of whom come from the smaller, poorer emirates. They further accused him of putting the state in danger, of turning it into a target of Iran and Houthi missiles and of endangering sailing in the Persian Gulf.
Bin Zayed, who for years had avoided being replaced as president – a position that according to the constitution is to rotate among seven princes every five years – could no longer ignore the pressure and threat from Washington. He made a difficult strategic decision and withdrew his army from Yemen, signed a cooperation agreement with Iran to ensure sailing in the Persian Gulf and allowed Dubai’s ruler to give entry visas to Iranian business people after years of suspension. In return, the Houthis stopped firing missiles at the Emirates.
But the Yemenite arena was replaced by the Libyan one, where the Crown Prince supports the separatist General Khalifa Haftar in his struggle to gain control of the state, in coalition with Egypt, who has a direct interest in Libya, alongside Russia and France and vague American backing.
This is an intense war against Turkish forces and Qatari funding, two states that support the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s enemies. This isn’t the first time that Emirates’ planes take part in the war in Libya. In the previous round it was the war against the Islamic State in east Libya. But now it’s turning into an international war, in which bin Zayed is a key player.
The peace with Israel has a strategic role in this weave of the Emirates’ international and Arab interests. The decision to abandon the Arab consensus regarding the Palestinians and cut off the Arab peace initiative – that Israel must first withdraw from the occupied territories to gain normalization with the Arab states – and to decide on a peace agreement with Israel, could indicate not only daring but the desire to take the lead in the Middle East leadership.
In contrast to Egypt and Jordan, bin Zayed doesn’t need American money; he can buy the technology he needs anywhere, including from Israel, without a peace agreement. He doesn’t need peace to get territories or to protect his country’s borders. But to gain international and regional recognition of his leadership, he is required to make an independent breakthrough move.