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In the United Arab Emirates, a palace coup foiled

It is alleged that the rulers of the UAE stopped a family member from attempting to seize power in a bloodless palace coup during 2011
US Secretary of State Colin Powell (R) speaks to Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed al-Nahyan in 2004 (AFP)

Amid the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 a senior prince in the United Arab Emirates allegedly plotted a palace coup to overthrow the country’s leaders and transform the autocratic Gulf state into a constitutional monarchy, a former royal employee has told Middle East Eye.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed al-Nahyan, fourth son of the country’s founder Sheikh Zayed, was the most senior prince involved in the plot, which was uncovered and stopped by his powerful brothers Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Interior Minister Saif bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

A former British investment manager who personally worked with Sheikh Hamdan for 18 months from early spring 2011 told MEE about the prince’s plans on the condition of anonymity. The source said they wanted to reveal the plot because they had become disillusioned with the UAE, principally due to a business dispute that forced them to leave the country at the end of the summer in 2012.

The coup plot has also been confirmed to MEE by a former senior British banking executive who worked in the UAE from before the country’s independence in 1971 until recently and who had, and still maintains, regular contact with high-profile royals from the seven emirates.  

Allegations of unrest among the royal elite in the UAE undermines the widely held impression that the tiny oil-rich country is a sea of tranquility in a region of turmoil. Since the attempted coup in 2011, there has been, at least publicly, few signs of discontent across the UAE’s seven emirates.

Hamdan is sidelined from power

Fifty-two-year-old Sheikh Hamdan spent nearly 20 years serving in senior public office after being appointed minister of state for foreign affairs at the age of 27 in 1990. He held that ministerial portfolio until 2006, whilst also serving as the country’s deputy prime minister between 1997 and 2009.

By 2011, when MEE's source started working for the prince, Hamdan, who was born in al-Ain, had been pushed out of significant public office and was sidelined by his brother Mohammed and half-brother Saif.

After being removed as deputy prime minister in 2009 Hamdan was appointed as the ruler’s representative in the western region, a desert oasis with several small cities and towns on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. It was quite a fall from grace for the prince; however, he is said to have bowed to the decision and resolved to develop the oasis of Liwa into a new tourist and investment destination.

“His father [Sheikh Zayed] was the father of the nation – he committed to becoming the father of the flea-bitten hole that is Liwa,” said the source, who worked with Sheikh Hamdan on personal and state investments, both in Liwa and overseas.

Sheikh Hamdan was not only shipped out to the desert but was also bedeviled by employees in his office thieving money, the source said, although this is reported to be normal for an Emirati royal.

“The princes have no friends and don’t trust anyone,” the source said.

On one occasion the source was privy to Hamdan dealing with money being stolen from his office. Ali al-Mansoori, Hamdan’s employee at the time, was accused by the royal of thieving 12 million dirhams ($3.2mn). Mansoori was immediately sent to prison for “a few months” in an informal punishment that never made it to court – the stolen money was not considered a significant enough amount to warrant a trial that would have inevitably attracted unwanted public attention.

When Mansoori was released, he went to work in Interior Minister Saif’s office. MEE’s source said it is an “open secret” that four of the most senior al-Nahyan brothers – President Khalifa, Crown Prince Mohammed, Interior Minister Saif, and Sheikh Hamdan – all have people working in each other’s public and private offices.

The brothers spy on each other to make sure no one is considering a power grab, or, worse, a coup, the source said.

Camels progress through the sand dunes of the Liwa desert, 220 kms west of Abu Dhabi, on 23 November, 2013. (AFP)

Hamdans plan for power

Aware of his increasing isolation from power, Sheikh Hamdan came to the conclusion that the only way to preserve any influence – for him and his sons – was to come up with a plan to reclaim power from his brothers Mohammed and Saif.

The plan for a bloodless palace coup was confirmed as having taken place by a second unconnected source, a former senior British banking executive who has personal relationships with the country’s leaders, past and present.

“There is fierce rivalry going on behind the scenes – those [princes] not in central positions of power are usually trying to find ways of becoming more important,” the second source said.

The executive, who asked to remain anonymous due to still having ties in the UAE, played down the chances of Hamdan’s plot ever being successful.

“Hamdan didn’t have a cat in hell's chance of taking power,” the source said. “His brothers are far too powerful.”

Despite 67-year-old Khalifa being the country’s president, it is widely accepted that his ill health – coupled with Mohammed’s ambition – means ultimate power lies with the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince. Mohammed’s prominence was emphasised in June this year when the 54-year-old replaced Khalifa as the head of the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, the investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government.

Khalifa is described as “pliant to Mohammed” by the former employee of Hamdan, who added that the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince is an “awesome administrator”. Saif, whose ministry oversees a far-reaching state surveillance system, is “merciless in getting what he wants, while being very pro-US, who are themselves very pro-Saif,” the source said.

It was not power alone that drove Hamdan into supporting a plot to seize power from his brothers. Whilst on hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage) to Mecca in 2010, Hamdan became concerned at his own lack of achievement and returned home with a desire to carve out a legacy befitting of Sheikh Zayed’s son.

Sheikh Zayed died in 2004 after having founded the UAE and served as its first president for 33 years. He was widely adored by Emiratis for playing a unifying role among the tribes, while at the same time acting as a benevolent ruler distributing some of the country’s oil wealth to its citizens.

Hamdan, according to his former employee, views himself as the only one of Zayed’s senior sons who desires to keep his legacy alive and for the country to stay on the path he set out for it.

“Hamdan paints himself as the conscience of the four brothers,” the prince’s former employee said. “Some of the princes in the UAE are appalling, others are well-meaning, but all of them are spoilt. Hamdan is probably the not bad one.”

After returning from the 2010 hajj, Hamdan became ever more passionate about what he perceived as injustice in the UAE – he believed the country’s wealth, despite state handouts to all its citizens, was concentrated too much at the top.

He was also concerned at the rule of law not being respected. The United Nations has previously criticised the country’s judicial system as being “under the de facto control of the executive branch of the government,” accusations the leadership have dismissed, while stating that judicial independence is guaranteed by the constitution.

Hamdan’s interest in pursuing social justice for his country’s people was not entirely altruistic, according to his former employee.

“He was well aware of there being genuine hypocrisy in the Emirates,” said the source. “It was also, of course, a self-serving initiative, as his desire to change the complexion of the country was clearly driven by the fact he himself had been pushed out of positions of power.”

“Hamdan knew there was resentment regarding the way the country was being run. The UAE has a large bracket of people who are very wealthy but that doesn’t mean there isn’t poverty."

United Arab Emirates' Interior Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed al-Nahayan attends the 29th meeting for the interior ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in Kuwait City on 2 November, 2010 (AFP)

Poverty and discontent in the north

The UAE is one of the richest countries in the world, aided by its vast oil wealth and position as a regional business and travel hub. Its citizens have significantly benefitted from the country’s swift development since independence from the United Kingdom in 1971 – by 2015 the United Nations reported that the UAE was the 20th happiest country in the world.

But beyond the glitz and glamour of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, there are emirates within the federation that have not witnessed such dramatic development. In the north, Ras al-Khaimah remains a place filled with dusty streets, poor water supply, and poverty-stricken areas – it is perhaps little surprise that a significant proportion of the country’s small but vocal political opposition, concentrated in the now banned al-Islah organisation, hails from this emirate.

The resentment breeding in places such as Ras al-Khaimah gave Hamdan the impetus to believe there could be support for a power grab based on developing a more inclusive form of governance in the country, according to his former employee.

The plot was not the brainchild of Hamdan alone, the source said. Hamdan, along with two unnamed but influential men, allegedly gave support to several groups of five to eight younger princes from Abu Dhabi to develop a plan to turn the country into a constitutional monarchy.

The UAE is currently an absolute monarchy, although the advisory Federal National Council (FNC) has expanded both its number of elected representatives and the proportion of citizens who can take part in elections. In 2011, 129,274 people, out of a population of around a million nationals, were allowed to elect half of the 40 representatives in the FNC, expanding the electoral role by more than 20 times the 2006 vote.

The country’s constitution states in its preamble the aim to progress towards “a comprehensive, representative, democratic regime in an Islamic and Arab society”. MEE’s banking source said that the FNC reforms have been “more than lip-service to the idea of democracy,” adding that “they [the rulers] are genuinely trying [to fulfil the words of the constitution]”.

However, Crown Prince Mohammed told American officials in 2006, according to a Wikileaks cable, that he was against full democratic reforms because “if we were to have an election in Dubai tomorrow, the Muslim Brotherhood would take over.” It was this reluctance to institute far-reaching democratic reforms that Hamdan sought to capitalise on in the upheaval of the 2011 Arab uprisings. His plan was to try and seize power from his brothers in a bloodless coup.

The coup plotters wanted to turn the FNC into a parliament with full legislative powers, elected by universal suffrage.

“Hamdan wanted to do the right thing by his father, where the others [his brothers] had failed,” said the prince’s former employee.

The source said that Hamdan foresaw himself overseeing this democratic transition as a constitutional monarch, one who would pull away from wielding autocratic power and who would be committed to building Zayed’s vision for Emirati society.

However, after having worked closely with Hamdan, the source said the prince may not have had more than a superficial commitment to the democratic transformation of his country.

“Bringing democracy to the Emirates was definitely a motivating factor in the coup planning,” they said. “It sounded good – but like every freedom fighter, once they get into a position of power, perhaps they would have decided they did need the Swiss bank account after all.”

The plot is uncovered

By mid-2011, amid the regional upheaval of vast popular uprisings, the coup plot was gathering pace, however, in July, according to MEE’s source, there was suddenly an upset around Hamdan. The coup plot had allegedly been uncovered by state surveillance – linked to Saif’s interior ministry – as those involved in the planning had been discussing the plot on their mobile phones and on the internet communication application Skype.

Hamdan’s former employee was outside of the UAE for most of the summer in 2011 and said that communication with the prince at the time was restricted – for weeks on end he would be difficult to contact. The source said that it remains unclear what happened in this period, other than that Hamdan was subject to having his “wings clipped” in terms of travelling in and out of the country.

The story runs cold beyond this, from the source, in the summertime. This period, however, did coincide with the authorities arresting and trying five Emirati activists for signing a petition calling on the rulers to implement democratic reforms mirroring those planned by Hamdan and his co-plotters, although there is no evidence to suggest the two initiatives were connected.

The arrest of the five Emirati activists proved to be a precursor to a wider crackdown on civil society, particularly against groups associated with calls for democratic reforms. This was most manifestly expressed in the mass arrests of activists linked with the Muslim Brotherhood-associated al-Islah organisation.

Al-Islah, meaning reform, is a group with a history stretching back to the UAE’s founding in 1971. Scores of activists were rounded up between the end of 2011 and throughout 2012, leading to a controversial trial of 94 people accused of plotting to seize power from the country’s rulers. In June 2013, 69 of the 94 accused were convicted of sedition, although they all maintained their innocence and claimed that they were peacefully calling for democratic reforms.

A prominent regional expert told MEE that the crackdown against Islah may have been prompted by Emirati authorities feeling concerned at the potential for an alliance between disaffected royals and the Islamists.

“My understanding is that the viciousness of the response to al-Islah is in part explained by the Mohammed-Saif-crafted police state’s awareness of increasing vulnerability, not necessarily to a full-blown Islamist takeover, but more realistically to a palace coup allied to political Islam,” said Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East politics at Durham University.

“The former (a plotting prince) would provide the necessary tribal continuity under the banner of ‘constitutional monarch’ and the latter (the Islamists) would provide the necessary electoral clout and popular support in the northern emirates.

"Arguably, such a scenario is more in tune with the sort of gradual process expected by the signatories of the 1971/1996 constitution, including the much-loved ‘father of the nation’ Sheikh Zayed who always maintained a pragmatic working relationship with al-Islah.”

Mohammed bin Zayed with Spain's King Carlos and Bahrain's King Hamad (AFP)

Hamdan wants to abdicate

In early September 2011 Hamdan was suddenly back in contact with MEE’s source and it is alleged that in a phone call at 6pm on 2 September he said he was “epically frustrated” with “his brothers’ constant infighting”.

A few hours later, at 1am on 3 September, the source said that Hamdan called a mutual contact and said he was resigning as a prince.

“Hamdan was really angry, but in a cold, considered manner,” the source said. “It was clear he was intent on fleeing the country.”

It is claimed that the prince was planning to flee the UAE to begin a new life in Europe with his confidante, Iman Ibrahim Daffala Ahmad, who was in the UK having fled the Gulf state some months earlier. The prince is married and has six sons but, according to his former employee, he had an affair with Iman and desired to marry her.

At 8am on 3 September Iman is said to have received a phone call from Mohammed al-Bawadi, an employee of Crown Prince Mohammed’s office, who told her that she must convince Hamdan to withdraw his abdication.

While Hamdan’s coup plotting was viewed as an act of disloyalty to his family and country, his brothers are said to have viewed a potential abdication as more serious.

MEE’s banking source said that the family priority would have been to deal with the potential abdication, rather than the coup plotting, which was easier to sort out internally.

“The family is everything in the UAE,” the source said. “They can deal with the plotting as long as it remains inside the family, but an abdication would have very much been seen as transmitting a message of weakness to the public.”

After Badawi called Iman from Crown Prince Mohammed’s office early on 3 September, Hamdan’s mobile was then switched off for seven days. He was uncontactable during this period.

“I can’t imagine the amount of pressure Hamdan must have been under at this time,” the source said.

Hamdan under effective palace arrest

On 13 September, MEE’s source, the prince’s former employee, was in Beirut waiting to meet Hamdan for a long-arranged meeting in the foyer of the Four Seasons Hotel to discuss the prince’s personal investments and vision for himself.

After waiting for 12 hours to meet the prince, the source was told that Hamdan was not able to attend.

“The precise quote to me was ‘the sons of Zayed have restricted his ability to move,'" the source said, referring to Hamdan’s brothers Mohammed and Saif.

“I have every expectation I was being told the truth.”

The source said they returned to the UK after the cancelled meeting in Beirut and were subsequently informed that Hamdan’s assets had been frozen and a travel ban implemented indefinitely.

All talk of a coup was ended and Hamdan was confined to his role in the desert as the ruler’s representative in the Western Region.

“The possibility of the UAE becoming democratic was erased,” the source said.

In the four years that have passed, Hamdan has remained “marooned out in the desert,” according to the source, and is not at any of the meetings “where there is serious planning taking place”.

“He is effectively under palace arrest in Liwa, but must make public appearances as instructed by his brothers,” they said.

Hamdan appears in local news sporadically, meeting citizens in the Liwa oasis, donating funds to immunise Syrian children suffering the effects of war, and fulfilling his duties as the chairperson of the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi.

The banking source said that the treatment of Hamdan is in line with how the family deals with problems of this ilk.

“It’s entirely predictable [what’s happened to Hamdan],” they said. “It’s what they do in these circumstances – make people disappear.”

“They [the authorities] know everything and when they act they can be pretty brutal.”

It is not known if there has been any further royal dissent among the ruling families since 2011, and, at least publicly, the ship appears to be going steady under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed, supplemented by Interior Minister Saif, while President Khalifa has been seen rarely due to rumoured ill health.

However, despite apparent stability, it is claimed that Mohammed and Saif have been keen to ensure the story of Hamdan’s attempted coup and abdication is kept hidden.

“The leadership has been desperate to ensure it does not get out that a senior prince was going to abdicate, and that this prince was trying to challenge the country’s economic and power structure,” said MEE’s source.

The United Arab Emirates embassy in London did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.