Sheikh Mohamed bin Al Zayed elected UAE president

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The United Arab Emirates’ longtime de facto ruler Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was elected as president on Saturday a day after the death of its former leader.

Sheikh Mohamed was elected by the Federal Supreme Council, the state-run WAM news agency said, after years of calling the shots from behind the scenes while his half-brother President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan was sidelined by poor health.

The rulers of the UAE’s seven sheikhdoms made the decision at a meeting. It comes after Sheikh Khalifa died on Friday at age 73.

After his election, Mohamed expressed appreciation of the “precious trust” placed in him by members of the council, WAM added.

It described the vote as unanimous among the rulers of the country’s sheikhdoms, which also includes the skyscraper-studded city of Dubai.

“We congratulate him and we pledge allegiance to him, and our people pledge allegiance to him,” Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, said on Twitter after the vote. “The whole country is led by him to take it on the paths of glory and honour, God willing.”

Emirati influence

Widely known as MBZ, Sheikh Mohamed is one of the Arab world’s most powerful leaders. A graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he commands one of the best-equipped armies in the Gulf region.

Working behind the scenes for years as de facto leader, Sheikh Mohamed, 61, transformed the UAE military into a high-tech force, which coupled with its oil wealth and business hub status, extended Emirati influence internationally.

Sheikh Mohamed began wielding power in a period when his half-brother Sheikh Khalifa suffered bouts of illness, including a stroke in 2014. Under his low-key direction, the UAE has put a man in space, sent a probe to Mars, and opened its first nuclear reactor.

“Mohammed bin Zayed has set not only the future course for the UAE but for much of the Gulf in his approach to state building and power projection,” said Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“The future direction under him is set and is mirrored in other Gulf leaders adopting state-led and globally-oriented economic diversification and a more assertive foreign policy that looks beyond the Gulf and traditional partners.”

MBZ led a realignment of the Middle East that created a new anti-Iran axis with Israel. He also bolstered the military might of the UAE which, coupled with its oil wealth and business hub status, extended Emirati influence in the region and beyond.

Under his leadership, the UAE took on a more military-focused approach in the region, joining Saudi Arabia in their bloody, years-long war in Yemen that still rages to this day.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE under Sheikh Mohamed’s leadership has sought to rehabilitate ties with Iran and Turkey.

He was first Gulf leader to strike a deal normalising relations with Israel, breaking with the decades-old Arab League consensus to isolate Israel until it agrees to the establishment of Palestinian state.

Officially it was Sheikh Khalifa who issued a 2020 decree formally ending a law on the boycott of Israel, yet it was Sheikh Mohamed who was thanked for pushing it forward.

Later in 2020, the UAE and Bahrain became the first Gulf countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel through US-brokered pacts in what was a major diplomatic shift in the region.

Perceived US disengagement

The transition of power marks only the third time the UAE has selected a president since becoming an independent nation in 1971. The speed of Saturday’s announcement appeared designed to show unity and reassure the world of the stability of this crucial oil-and-gas producing nation that hosts Western military forces.

MBZ becomes president at a time when the UAE’s longstanding ties with the United States have been visibly strained over perceived US disengagement from its Gulf allies’ security concerns.

The Biden administration has moved to mend ties with oil heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both have refused to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and rebuffed Western calls to pump more oil to help tame crude prices.

MBZ has shifted away from a hawkish foreign policy and military adventurism that saw the UAE wade into conflicts from Yemen to Libya to focus on economic priorities. This has seen the UAE engage with foes Iran and Turkey after years of animosity, as well as Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

“MBZ will need to take further steps to cement the UAE’s position as the region’s leading financial, logistics, and trading hub,” James Swanston of Capital Economics said in a note, referring to a push by Gulf states to diversify economies amid a global energy transition away from hydrocarbons.

Condolences

Abu Dhabi, which holds most of the Gulf state’s oil wealth, has held the presidency since the founding of the UAE federation by Sheikh Khalifa’s father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, in 1971.

The UAE as a whole is observing a three-day mourning period that will see businesses shut across the country and performances halted in Sheikh Khalifa’s honour. Electronic billboards showed the late sheikh’s image in Dubai on Friday night as flags flew at half-mast.

Sheikh Khalifa’s death drew condolences from senior figures including US President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Iran, demonstrating the UAE’s diverse allegiances.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron is to travel to Abu Dhabi on Sunday to pay tribute to the late Emirati leader. It was not clear if US President Joe Biden would be among world leaders attending.

New President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan [File: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]