Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the man who has long controlled the levers of power in the United Arab Emirates, has succeeded his late brother as ruler.
The UAE’s federal council elected Sheikh Mohammed, commonly referred to as MBZ, as the country’s president, according to state media on Saturday. Sheikh Mohammed has frequently used his clout to intervene in regional conflicts with one of the Middle East’s best-equipped militaries.
Crown prince of Abu Dhabi since 2004, MBZ controls the world’s fourth-richest wealth fund and about 6% of proven reserves of crude oil. He’s also helped hone the UAE’s image as a socially liberal, pro-business oasis in a turbulent region while keeping a tight grip on dissent and blanketing the country with high-tech surveillance.
He was born in the oasis town of Al Ain in 1961, several years after the first discovery of oil in Abu Dhabi and a decade before his father helped to form a nation out of seven sheikhdoms. A graduate of the UK’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, he served in the UAE’s special forces and as a helicopter pilot.
The 61-year-old is trusted by Washington and has used the UAE’s economic clout to forge influential partnerships from Russia to China, choosing their capitals for his infrequent overseas visits.
He’s less well-known outside the Middle East than his Saudi peer, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But in his time as de facto ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Mohamed has driven much of the muscular foreign policy that reshaped Middle Eastern alliances and pushed back against Islamist politics.
Concerned about a US retreat from the Middle East, MBZ has gone on the offensive across the region. A career soldier, he’s built up a formidable arsenal — the UAE has been the world’s eighth-largest arms importer in the past five years — and led his country into wars in Libya and Yemen. It also joined the US-led coalition against Islamic State and backed Egypt’s strongman President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi against elected Islamist Mohamed Mursi.
During a rare public address to young Emiratis in 2017, MBZ signaled his priorities as he recalled the words of a fallen soldier’s mother: “She said that we should preempt danger and nip it in the bud.”
President Joe Biden called the UAE an “essential partner” of the US and pledged to strengthen ties further. In a White House statement, Biden recalled previous meetings with Sheikh Mohammed, saying the new president “has long been at the forefront of building this partnership.”
Who will replace MBZ as crown prince of Abu Dhabi is undecided. While there’s no strict rule on succession, MBZ’s brother and influential National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed is a contender. One of his sons could also be chosen, including Sheikh Khlaled bin Mohammed bin Zayed, whose responsibilities have grown in recent years.
On MBZ’s watch, the Gulf Arab state of 10 million people, perched on one of the world’s major transport waterways, has developed an assertive foreign policy and focused on neutralizing all shades of political Islam at home and abroad. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement, and moderate dissenters are all seen as potential threats to security and the region’s dynastic, autocratic rule, particularly since the Arab uprisings of 2011.
The UAE’s oil wealth and rapid development since the 1990s made it the Arab world’s second-largest economy after Saudi Arabia. That’s helped shape the country into the Middle East’s business and tourism hub.
Sheikh Mohammed is funneling the country’s energy wealth into new industries like technology and manufacturing to create jobs for nationals and prepare the country for a post-oil future.
In the Gulf, MBZ shattered a 50-year-old regional union by severing ties with Qatar in 2017, in lockstep with his closest regional ally, the Saudi crown prince, only to mend ties again in 2021. He unexpectedly moved to normalize ties with Israel in a 2020 deal backed by then US President Donald Trump.
Fearful of Iran’s regional ambitions, he backed Trump’s campaign to isolate Iran, but allowed a cautious outreach to Tehran after tanker attacks off the UAE coast in 2019 failed to draw US military retaliation.
His government’s tolerance doesn’t extend to dissent at home. A prominent Emirati activist, Ahmed Mansoor, has remained in prison since 2017 after calling for reforms, and even figures close to the leadership have come under pressure for their commentary, and local media are tightly controlled. Officials dismiss criticism of widespread surveillance, saying it’s necessary to protect against threats.
A popular text and video chatting app, ToTok, was accused of being a secret spying tool for the UAE, according to a classified US intelligence assessment reported by the New York Times.
Meanwhile, the UAE’s role in Yemen has been costly in human, monetary and reputational terms. The intervention triggered accusations of war crimes from a United Nations panel and by 2019, MBZ pulled back from a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.