UAE: How Mohammed Ben Zayed has transformed the Arab world

By Amélie Mouton
Posted on Friday, 18 December 2020 10:30

Mohammed Ben Zayed in March 2016 in Abu Dhabi © Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Ten years on from the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Crown Prince of the UAE now heads a regional power, not only militarily but also one that is ideologically at odds with political Islam.

This story begins in a camp on the Albanian border in 1999, where the Kosovo War has been raging for a year. A contingent of soldiers from the UAE patrols the perimeter in huge Humvees, while Puma helicopters piloted by members of its air force, fly over a landscape of dizzying mountains and ravines.

A tall, bearded man with a hook nose accentuated by a pair of glasses, brushes his teeth with ease. Frank Gardner, the BBC‘s security correspondent, recognises him. It is Mohammed Ben Zayed (MBZ), the future Crown Prince, then Chief of Staff, at the head of the armed forces of this young nation that is only 28 years old.

This graduate of the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England, only ten years older than his country, has already made a name for himself. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he went to the US with the intention of buying military equipment; in such large quantities that Congress became concerned about the possible destabilisation of the region.

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Gardner takes a chance and requests an interview with him. MBZ, a discreet man who is accustomed to avoiding the media, accepts. He says that he is there as part of a strategic partnership with France. In exchange for the purchase of 400 Leclerc tanks, the French army provides training to the UAE troops under real combat conditions.

“Little Sparta”

This is the first time that a modern Arab country has deployed, as part of a NATO operation, a military force in Europe. “At more than 3200 km from home, MBZ already clearly shows that he has ambitions beyond the shores of the Gulf,” said the journalist.

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Guaranteeing the security of the oil-rich kingdom – a small federation of seven emirates ruled by the popular Sheikh Zayed, his father – is already an absolute priority for this seasoned pilot. He wants to modernise the national army, make his country more independent and diversify his alliances. Even though, as a local defence specialist points out, he also intends to impose himself as a serious partner for the Americans, who remain the go-to reference for security in the Gulf.

Military force thus becomes a preferred tool in the UAE’s foreign policy. “And when you choose one, it’s difficult to change it,” he said. While remaining discreet, the UAE is beginning to evolve into what James Mattis, Secretary of Defence in the Trump administration, would later nickname “little Sparta”, in 2014. His comparison with one of the most powerful city-states of Ancient Greece hits the nail on the head: It corresponds well to the temperament of this very rich micro-state, populated by barely 10 million inhabitants, which does not hesitate to punch above its weight.

Rejection of political Islam

After the Gulf War, another major event was to forge what would become one of the trademarks of the Emirati vision: the rejection of all forms of political Islam. The attacks on 11 September 2001 sent an enormous shock within the Emirati government, recalls Hussein Hibish, associate researcher at the Arab Gulf States Institute, a think tank in Washington. “They set in motion a process that led to the UAE’s categorical rejection of Islamism and efforts to promote this perspective throughout the Arab world.”

On board the Boeing 767 that crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York were two Emirati nationals: Marwan al-Shehhi from the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, who was flying the lethal device, and Fayez Banihammad from the emirate of Sharjah.

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The shockwaves pushed Abu Dhabi to cut its relations with the Taliban regime and to send troops to support NATO manoeuvres in Afghanistan. In 2002, French Rafale aircraft also took off from the Al Dhafra air base, 30 km south of Abu Dhabi, to support Operation Enduring Freedom, conducted under American command in Afghanistan.

As UAE historian Fatma Al Sayegh explains in an article by the Middle East Policy Council, 9/11 profoundly transformed the relationship between the political elites of the Gulf and the US. Washington pressured these states, previously perceived as harmless, to implement “extraordinary political, social and educational reforms.”

In the UAE, these reforms have resulted in tighter control over what is preached in the mosques, ruling out any question or notion of politics being discussed in these places of worship. “The Friday sermons were carefully written, so as to speak only of theology,” says the historian.

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In 2003, MBZ met with members of the Al Islah movement, the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood, to convince them to renounce their ideology or to change their activities. He was worried about their influence on the youth of the UAE. Many supporters of Al Islah, including many Egyptians, hold key positions in the country’s educational and judicial institutions to the point of constituting a real “state within a state”, according to the journalist and researcher Sultan Al Qassemi, quoted in The New York Times.

The real purge, however, would only take place after the Arab Spring. According to Cinzia Bianco, a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the government then considered the Brotherhood, which had taken power in Egypt, as both an internal and external threat. In December 2011, seven members of Al Islah were accused of posing a security threat and had their citizenship revoked. Imprisoned in April 2012, dozens of other supporters of the Islamist movement would also face trial that same year.

Alongside the Saudis, Somalia and Libya

“From that moment on, MBZ, who feels safe at home, starts working on the Egyptian case,” says the researcher. “It was unacceptable that the Muslim Brotherhood had a safe haven there.” The fact that the US refused to come to the rescue of Hosni Mubarak, who was in power for almost 30 years, and validated the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory, is shocking: it shows that the US will not intervene in the event of a setback. All the more so, as another American “betrayal” will follow: the negotiation of the Vienna agreement on Iranian nuclear power, which will be done behind the backs of the oil-rich kingdoms.

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For Hussein Ibish, the Arab Spring has clearly intensified the UAE’s determination to play a more active role at the regional level. “They have consolidated a position,” says the defence specialist. In Egypt, Abu Dhabi supports the popular movement against President Morsi and approves the coup led by General Sisi.

In the years that followed, the UAE became increasingly active outside its borders, sending a force into Somalia to combat piracy and extremists while also supporting Saudi Arabia in its war against Yemen. It is also defying the UN embargo by shipping arms to Khalifa Haftar in Libya, a country which shares its border with Egypt, where allowing political Islam a chance to develop was out of the question.

Conflict with Qatar and Doha

“If we don’t take care of the bad guys, they will take care of us.” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political science professor, summed up the government’s motivation in The New York Times. One of these “bad guys”, however, turned out to be a close neighbour. “After the Arab Spring, Qatar’s ambition was to become a leader that would bridge the gap between the old monarchies and the new regimes, with a place for the Muslim Brotherhood. Head-on opposition was inevitable,” said a diplomat in the region.

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The result was a dispute the likes of which the Gulf has never known: the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with the support of Bahrain and Egypt, banned Doha, accusing it of supporting terrorism and being a haven for the Muslim Brotherhood. This cold war has been going on since 2017, and even if Saudi Arabia now seems ready to resume dialogue, Abu Dhabi seems unlikely to show any flexibility.

Normalisation with Israel

The issue of normalisation with Israel is perhaps the most emblematic of the Crown Prince’s policy in the region. Isolated on this issue from the beginning, in an Arab world where the Palestinian cause is still considered sacred, MBZ was able to anticipate and initiate a diplomatic movement which seemed unlikely to succeed, profoundly upsetting regional balances.

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After the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have in turn normalised their relations with the Jewish State. Thanks to this audacious diplomacy, Abu Dhabi was able to acquire the American F35s that MBZ had long dreamed of. The new order of the Arab world imagined by the Crown Prince now finds a powerful echo in other Arab capitals.

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