Coming from around the globe, airplanes carrying world leaders have landed in the capital of the United Arab Emirates to offer condolences for the death of the country’s president — and acknowledge the influence of the man now fully in charge.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan rarely speaks publicly. The new president shies away from the United Nations’ annual summit in New York. And his thoughts on the world around him come filtered through a tight-knit coterie and leaders who interact with him rather than from his pronouncements.
But MbZ as he’s known has become a major influence in the wider Middle East, whether through his longtime relationship with the U.S. military, his opposition to Islamists or his autocratic country’s new ties with Israel.
Following the death of his half-brother, President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Sheikh Mohammed’s new reign comes with the opportunity to cement the rapid advance from villages to skyscrapers made by the UAE since its founding just over 50 years ago.
But it also comes as tough decisions loom for a nation mired in a deadlocked, bloody war in Yemen, facing choices on whether to embrace an America increasingly suspicious of its ties to China and Russia and concerned about an Iran whose nuclear program now races toward weapons-grade levels.
Even before becoming president, Sheikh Mohammed was believed to have been the country’s de facto leader since a 2014 stroke saw Sheikh Khalifa disappear from public view. His mystique and his younger age compared to other regional leaders — today he’s 61 — set him apart.
He’s also a symbol in this young country that is home to Dubai, where his silhouette in aviator glasses remains a popular car window sticker.
“MbZ is a leader not just in the UAE, but more broadly in the Middle East, where he is seen as a particularly dynamic member of the generation succeeding the geriatric cases who have dominated the region for decades,” a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks said.
Trained at England’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and a fluent English speaker, Sheikh Mohammed’s style also found favor with allied militaries. Today, some 3,500 U.S. troops remain stationed in the UAE. Dubai’s Jebel Ali port is the busiest port of call for the U.S. Navy outside of America.
Abu Dhabi’s Al-Dhafra Air Base hosts American drones and fighter jets that bombed the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. American Patriot missile batteries there defended the capital this year against attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
As part of the relationship with America, the UAE deployed forces to fight in Afghanistan. MbZ also fully backed the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaida. Two of the 19 hijackers had come from the Emirates.
That also marked the hardening of Sheikh Mohammed’s opinions toward pan-Arab Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood members taught in Emirati schools in the 1980s, formative years for a young Sheikh Mohammed.
“I am an Arab, I am a Muslim and I pray. And in the 1970s and early 1980s I was one of them,” Sheikh Mohammed told U.S. officials in 2007, according to another diplomatic cable. “I believe these guys have an agenda.”
After the 2011 Arab Spring, Sheikh Mohammed led a crackdown on members of Islah, a Brotherhood-associated group in the Emirates. Groups like the Brotherhood challenge the hereditary rule of the UAE’s seven sheikhdoms. Political parties and labor unions remain illegal in the country, which has been accused of employing spyware to monitor activists and dissidents.
Former President Barack Obama in his recent autobiography described Sheikh Mohammed as “young, sophisticated … and perhaps the savviest leader in the Gulf.”
But MbZ was critical of Washington’s support of the 2011 protests that toppled Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and briefly installed a Brotherhood member as president.
Obama quoted Sheikh Mohammed as saying that the U.S. position “shows that the United States is not a partner we can rely on in the long term.” The UAE backed Egyptian Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s 2013 coup that brought him into the presidency.
That suspicion has grown. Sheikh Mohammed reportedly described himself as surprised by the U.S. secretly negotiating with Iran on what later became Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
The UAE’s diplomatic recognition of Israel, while boosting trade, serves as a hedge against an Iran suspected of attacking shipping in waters just off its shore in 2019. Yet Emirati officials have opened discussions with Iran as well. The country’s foreign minister even offered condolences Monday for Sheikh Khalifa’s passing, the same day as a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Kamala Harris.
Dubai and the wider Emirates remain open to Russians despite Moscow’s war on Ukraine. Ties to China grow ever closer, despite Beijing allegedly running a secret prison in the country and concerns over a possible military dimension to its operation at an Abu Dhabi port.
But while described as a tactician, some of Sheikh Mohammed’s larger bets haven’t paid off. He found himself entangled in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on former U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia.
An indictment appears to link Sheikh Mohammed to Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee chair, who faces charges alleging he secretly conspired to influence U.S. policy to benefit the Emirates. Meanwhile, a yearslong boycott of Qatar as part of a political dispute ended just before President Joe Biden took office.
Then there’s the war in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, where Iran-backed rebels still hold its capital. The UAE and Saudi Arabia face international criticism over civilian casualties in the war. The war killed dozens of Emirati soldiers and wounded more.
Though the Emiratis largely pulled out of the conflict, the attacks on Abu Dhabi at the start of this year show the country remains a target.
For Sheikh Mohammed, the responsibility for all this now falls solely on him.
“Every decision has risks, undoubtedly,” he once said.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Jon Gambrell, the news director for the Gulf and Iran for The Associated Press, has reported from each of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iran and other locations across the world since joining the AP in 2006. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.