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Mohammed bin Zayed: Abu Dhabi's crown prince plays a long game

Unlike the rash Saudi crown prince, MbZ knows when to retreat from hard power strategies that aren't working
Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan in Berlin on 12 June (Reuters)

The Abu Dhabi crown prince and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed, is seen by some observers as a leader who has stumbled badly in his efforts to propel a small Gulf state onto the world stage as a significant and powerful Middle East player.

Critics point to the disastrous Yemen war which MbZ, as he is known, entered into with his younger counterpart the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in March of 2015. They note his backing of the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar whose efforts to seize Libya’s capital city Tripoli have come to nothing save stalemate.

They argue that relations with the United States are frayed because the Emiratis have shown what can only be called lukewarm support for Donald Trump’s efforts to break Iran and force it to renegotiate the nuclear arms deal.

Unlike the rash Saudi crown prince, MBZ is prepared to play the long game and to weigh up consequences and likely outcomes

Such criticisms, though valid in part, rather tend to overlook one simple fact about Mohammed bin Zayed: unlike the rash Saudi crown prince, he is prepared to play the long game and to weigh up consequences and likely outcomes.

Consider Yemen. When the Saudis and the Emiratis launched their war on the rebel Houthis, it was ostensibly to restore the  internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. That was the claim at any rate.

In fact, the Emiratis had - from the beginning - a different agenda to that of the Saudis. It was to create in South Yemen a client state with the city of Aden as a key link in a military and commercial port strategy stretching to the Horn of Africa and beyond. 

Allying its forces with the secessionist movement in the south allowed the Emiratis to take control of Aden and the vital island of Socotra which sits in the Gulf of Aden and links maritime trade routes to the Far East and to Africa.

Meantime Mohammed bin Salman has made no headway against the Houthis while taking much of the blame, and rightfully so, for the near endless atrocities the bombing campaign has inflicted on the Yemeni people. 

Little scrutiny

The Emiratis themselves stand accused of numerous war crimes, as do the Houthis, but to the great chagrin of the Saudis, it is they who are bearing the brunt of international opprobrium. It is the Saudis who are the target of US politicians in both houses and on both sides, while the Emiratis, skilfully piloted by their Washington ambassador Yusuf al-Otaiba, have faced little scrutiny.

With Iran, events in the chaotic White House of Donald Trump, look increasingly to have gone MbZ’s way

Now, to the consternation of the Saudis, the Emiratis are drawing down their troops and seem poised for a near complete pullout from the Yemen war. 

With Iran, events in the chaotic White House of Donald Trump look increasingly to have gone MbZ’s way. The architect of the hardline strategy, National Security Advisor John Bolton, has been abruptly sacked by Trump. Now, this most unpredictable of presidents is ruminating on a meeting with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. 

The ultra-hawk Bolton who had called for regime change is gone, leaving both Mohammed bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, currently fighting for his political life, out on a limb. It’s a situation that MbZ cleverly avoided by playing down maritime incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, including the apparent mining of oil tankers off the coast of the UAE.

Drums of war

The Emiratis declined to join the clamour of voices accusing the Iranians of the attack. As their foreign minister put it: “We cannot accuse any nation at the moment because we don’t have indisputable proof.”

He also called for calm and stability at a time when Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Washington were enthusiastically beating the war drums. Now with Bolton gone and President Trump talking of a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, that looks a very shrewd call. 

And in the wake of last weekend's drone attacks on the Saudi Aramco oil facilities, which the US immediately blamed on Iran, a senior UAE officials said the attack was a dangerous escalation, but did not assign blame.

Libya's Khalifa Haftar must be wondering how much longer the Emiratis will support his incompetent campaign

Meantime Khalifa Haftar must be wondering how much longer the Emiratis will support his incompetent campaign, one that has already costs the lives of more than 1000 people.

Just as the Emiratis abruptly withdrew their support for Syrian rebels in 2016 when it became clear that Washington wasn’t happy, so it can be anticipated they will soon pull their support from Haftar by calling for peace talks and mediation.

This is not to say that MbZ has had an entirely successful run. The UAE’s clumsy fake news attack on fellow Gulf Co-operation Council member Qatar in 2017 and the subsequent rupture of the GCC has proved an own goal.

The Qataris have ridden out the economic blockade imposed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, leaving them in the drivers seat, seemingly the only adults in the room.

But there again what pressure has been brought by the Americans to end the rift has been aimed mostly at the Saudis. The Emiratis, who are the chief culprits, have mostly escaped Washington’s censure.

Members of UAE-backed southern Yemeni separatist forces stand atop a tank during clashes with government forces in Aden, Yemen on 10 August (Reuters)
Members of UAE-backed southern Yemeni separatist forces stand atop a tank during clashes with government forces in Aden on 10 August (Reuters)

The brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October may well have been the signal that MBZ needed to put some distance between himself and Mohammed bin Salman who stands accused by, amongst others, the CIA and the UN, of being responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. 

An awful rights record

In the human rights arena, the Emiratis have a record pretty much as awful as the Saudis. Like the Saudis they have jailed critics and democracy activists in show trials using evidence secured by torture.

When the Saudis and Emiratis fall out
Read More »

In one appalling case they refused to allow a young women dying of cancer to be released, choosing to leave her chained to a hospital bed rather than let her die at home surrounded by her family. 

MbZ’s critics portray him as someone who has bitten off more than he can chew. That underestimates how shrewd a player he is, one prepared to move away from hard power when it has served his aims, as it has in Yemen, or threatened his objectives as it is doing in Libya.

The pivot to soft power is not a retreat, it is a retrenchment by a leader who has proven himself more than able to learn from his mistakes, something his counterpart in Riyadh continues to show himself incapable of doing. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Bill Law
Bill Law is an award-winning journalist who reported extensively from the Middle East and North Africa for the BBC. In addition to numerous radio documentaries, his films have focused on the Arab Spring and its aftermath. He has also reported from West and Central Africa, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Before leaving the BBC in 2014, Mr Law was the corporation’s Gulf analyst. He now runs TheGulfMatters.com, providing analysis and journalism focusing on the Gulf states and the wider Middle East. He [email protected]