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UAE prince who reshaped region named ruler of oil-rich power

Sylvia Westall, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the man who has long controlled the levers of power in the United Arab Emirates, has succeeded his late brother as ruler.

The UAE’s federal council elected Sheikh Mohammed, commonly referred to as MBZ, as the country’s president, according to state media on Saturday. Sheikh Mohammed has frequently used his clout to intervene in regional conflicts with one of the Middle East’s best-equipped militaries.

Crown prince of Abu Dhabi since 2004, MBZ controls the world’s fourth-richest wealth fund and about 6% of proven reserves of crude oil. He’s also helped hone the UAE’s image as a socially liberal, pro-business oasis in a turbulent region while keeping a tight grip on dissent and blanketing the country with high-tech surveillance.

He was born in the oasis town of Al Ain in 1961, several years after the first discovery of oil in Abu Dhabi and a decade before his father helped to form a nation out of seven sheikhdoms. A graduate of the U.K.’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, he served in the UAE’s special forces and as a helicopter pilot.

The 61-year-old is trusted by Washington and has used the UAE’s economic clout to forge influential partnerships from Russia to China, choosing their capitals for his infrequent overseas visits.

He’s less well-known outside the Middle East than his Saudi peer, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But in his time as de facto ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Mohamed has driven much of the muscular foreign policy that reshaped Middle Eastern alliances and pushed back against Islamist politics.

 

Concerned about a U.S. retreat from the Middle East, MBZ has gone on the offensive across the region. A career soldier, he’s built up a formidable arsenal — the UAE has been the world’s eighth-largest arms importer in the past five years — and led his country into wars in Libya and Yemen. It also joined the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State and backed Egypt’s strongman President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi against elected Islamist Mohamed Mursi.

During a rare public address to young Emiratis in 2017, MBZ signaled his priorities as he recalled the words of a fallen soldier’s mother: “She said that we should preempt danger and nip it in the bud.”

President Joe Biden called the UAE an “essential partner” of the U.S. and pledged to strengthen ties further. In a White House statement, Biden recalled previous meetings with Sheikh Mohammed, saying the new president “has long been at the forefront of building this partnership.”

Who will replace MBZ as crown prince of Abu Dhabi is undecided. While there’s no strict rule on succession, MBZ’s brother and influential national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed is a contender. One of his sons could also be chosen, including Sheikh Khlaled bin Mohammed bin Zayed, whose responsibilities have grown in recent years.

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