3. After Zayed: The Rise of MbZ and the Bani Fatima
Mohammed bin Zayed would not have been able to drive a more aggressive approach to regional affairs had he not first established a formidable standing in Abu Dhabi and across the UAE. Often referred to as MbZ in Western circles (those close to him sometimes call him Abu Khaled or ’bu Khaled), he was educated in Morocco and at the UK’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and is a trained pilot. The first son born to Fatima, Zayed’s third and reputedly favourite wife, who is often referred to as the ‘first lady’ of Abu Dhabi or ‘mother of the nation’, and third born of Zayed’s 19 sons, MbZ was seemingly groomed for power from an early age by both his mother and father, as were his five full brothers, referred to collectively (including MbZ) as the ‘Bani Fatima’, or ‘children of Fatima’.
MbZ was appointed chief of staff of the UAE armed forces (then the Union Defence Force) in 1993, as part of a reorganization that saw a number of Zayed’s sons assigned senior government roles. (This period is sometimes described by contemporary observers as one of ‘internship’ for the next generation of UAE rulers, as many of the non-royal advisers who had risen to senior positions in the early decades of the federation were eased out.) Although technically subordinate to the defence minister (the emir of Dubai) and the supreme commander and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces (respectively the emir and the then crown prince of Abu Dhabi) – he led the modernization of the armed forces, pushing for large-scale arms purchases and multiple defence pacts with both Western powers and Russia, deepening relationships catalysed by the Iranian revolution and the Iran–Iraq war, and given urgency by Iraq’s recent invasion of Kuwait. He also promoted the professionalization of the military, particularly the Special Forces within the Presidential Guard, and the development of a domestic arms manufacturing programme. He reportedly became his father’s principal security adviser.
While other GCC states also accelerated their defence spending after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in part to ensure that they would be protected by the militaries of the nations they purchased those arms from, the UAE was marked out by its willingness to build its own working military, and to send troops into active conflict zones. Already, in 1991, the UAE had participated in the US-led aerial campaign against Iraqi forces in Kuwait, and sent ground troops to participate in the liberation of Kuwait City. During the first decade of MbZ’s military leadership, Emirati forces participated in operations in Somalia, Kosovo and, after 9/11, Afghanistan – where UAE Special Forces were the only Arab force permitted to operate alongside their US counterparts. The UAE armed forces acquired a reputation among Western military officials as being the most capable and best trained in the Gulf, and among the best in the Middle East.
Widely seen as a competent leader, MbZ became crown prince of Abu Dhabi in 2004, after the death of Sheikh Zayed and the elevation of his elder half-brother Khalifa to the position of Abu Dhabi emir and president of the UAE. Zayed had designated MbZ to succeed Khalifa as crown prince shortly before he died. His elevation was interpreted in some circles as a marker of the rise of the Bani Fatima, who by this stage played visible roles across defence, intelligence, foreign affairs and economic policy, having been among the most successful of the next-generation ‘interns’. Advocates for rapid change in Abu Dhabi and a less risk-averse approach to management of state resources and foreign policy, this group reportedly faced resistance from more conservative branches of the family.
The Bani Fatima rose to positions of prominence in key state functions, including foreign policy formulation and oversight of security not just in Abu Dhabi but across the federation.
The Bani Fatima also rose to positions of prominence in key state functions, including foreign policy formulation and oversight of security not just in Abu Dhabi but across the federation. Abu Dhabi’s reach across all aspects of government the UAE arguably grew after the financial crisis of 2008–09. In 2009 Dubai was forced to ask Abu Dhabi for a bailout worth an estimated $20 billion. In exchange, Dubai reportedly ceded some foreign policymaking and some security powers to Abu Dhabi. A major government reshuffle in 2011 largely cemented the Bani Fatima and MbZ’s consolidation of power in Abu Dhabi, leaving the crown prince and his inner circle in a position of dominance over the UAE’s security and foreign affairs portfolios. Dubai had hitherto been seen as a ‘balancing force’ within the UAE, and capable of dissenting when its royal family did not agree with Abu Dhabi’s regional policies.
From the early 2010s onwards, MbZ was described by Western officials as the ‘de facto ruler’ of Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Khalifa, whose health had declined rapidly in the decade since he succeeded Zayed as ruler of Abu Dhabi and UAE president, suffered what is believed to have been the first in a series of strokes in 2014. Although MbZ does not hold a formal cabinet post in the UAE government, the crown prince is chairman of the equally – if not more – powerful Abu Dhabi Executive Council, and it is now widely understood that he is indeed de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi and thus the most powerful figure in the UAE. Functionally, MbZ acts as chief executive officer of both Abu Dhabi and UAE federal government, working with a small cadre of domestic and international policy advisers. He is the director of the Abi Dhabi Investment Authority, the UAE’s offset programme, and the Abu Dhabi Education Council. And, perhaps most importantly, he is deputy supreme commander of the UAE military and leads the UAE Presidential Guard.
As power in the UAE has become more centralized, and in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, the federation has arguably taken a turn towards deeper securitization and authoritarianism, jailing dissidents and stripping some of their citizenship. While Western officials have largely argued that UAE’s internal affairs are its own concern, the treatment of foreign citizens has at times acted as a sharp reminder of their different worldview. In May 2018 UAE security services arrested a British PhD candidate, Matthew Hedges, accusing him of spying for UK intelligence services. Hedges, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in November that year but pardoned shortly afterwards, maintains that he was conducting legitimate academic research on the UAE’s national security strategy; and the UK has confirmed that he was in no way connected to its intelligence services.