Mohammed Bin Zayed Becomes U.A.E. President


Sheikh Mohammed has used his small country’s oil wealth to exert great influence across the Middle East and in Washington.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan became the president of the United Arab Emirates on Saturday, formalizing the rise of a 61-year-old prince who has deftly wielded his country’s oil wealth to become one of the most influential leaders in the Arab world and a close partner of the United States.

At the helm of the Emirati state, Sheikh Mohammed succeeds his older half bother, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who died on Friday at 73 after leading the Persian Gulf country for 18 years.

Sheikh Mohammed, who had previously served as the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, one of the seven city-states that make up the United Arab Emirates, was unanimously chosen as president by a council of the rulers of the seven emirates, the Emirati state news agency said.

Sheikh Mohammed thanked the other rulers for their trust and prayed that God would help him “serve his country and the loyal people of the Emirates,” the news agency said.

Known across the region and in Western capitals for his inquisitive mind and for an understated demeanor that masks ambitions that extend far beyond his country’s borders, Sheikh Mohammed has effectively been ruling the Emirates since 2014, when Sheikh Khalifa had a stroke and stepped back from public life.

Often referred to by his initials, M.B.Z., Sheikh Mohammed has built close ties in Washington by offering up the services of the Emirates and its armed forces to help with Western military endeavors in the region. His country has also spent copiously on American-made weapons and on lobbyists to ensure that his views are promoted in the United States.

Pool photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Emirati special forces have deployed with Americans in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Somalia and Libya, and the United Arab Emirates was a member of the international coalition that the United States formed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

As head of state, Sheikh Mohammed will also oversee the decisions of one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds as well as of a major oil and gas producer and member of OPEC at a time of turbulence in global energy markets exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

In the Middle East, Sheikh Mohammed considers the biggest threats to stability Iran and its network of armed proxies and political Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood, a Muslim social and political organization connected to political parties in a number of Arab countries.

He is close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and played a large role in marketing the young Saudi prince in Washington as the future of Saudi Arabia after his father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015.

Their two countries spearheaded a military intervention in Yemen shortly after that has accomplished none of its main goals, settled into a grinding stalemate and fueled one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings that spread across the region in 2011, Sheikh Mohammed worked behind the scenes to support strongmen and undermine political Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia.

More recently, his government has resisted Western entreaties to help isolate President Vladimir V. Putin over his invasion of Ukraine, making the Emirates a refuge for fleeing Russian oligarchs and their money.

The United Arab Emirates is a desert country about the size of South Carolina on the coast of the Persian Gulf and on the Gulf of Oman. It is the home of Dubai, a flashy, futuristic metropolis. Of the Emirates’ estimated 10 million people, about 1.2 million are citizens. The rest are foreign workers.

Christopher Pike/Reuters

Domestically, it is an autocracy with no political parties and where political activists and critics of government policy are heavily surveilled, have been targeted with sophisticated hacking software and are sometimes jailed. But its strong economy has made it one of the most popular destinations for educated professionals from across the region.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, its closest ally, the Emirates allows for freedom of religion and hosts mosques, churches, temples and other houses of worship. It also has a Ministry of Tolerance, intended to promote acceptance of others, and a woman who serves as the minister of state for happiness and well-being.

Sheikh Mohammed’s relationship with the White House has seesawed in recent years. He privately expressed frustration with President Barack Obama because of his push to secure an international agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, which was signed in 2015. Along with Israeli and Saudi leaders, Sheikh Mohammed felt that focusing only on Iran’s nuclear program left it free to pursue other activities that destabilized the region, like arming proxy militias.

After the election of Donald J. Trump, Sheikh Mohammed actively courted the incoming president and his entourage, and even canceled a meeting with Mr. Obama in order to meet Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

His ties were much warmer with Mr. Trump, who in 2018 withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and, initially at least, cheered on a blockade that the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other countries imposed on Qatar, another close American partner in the gulf, in 2017. (The Trump administration later worked to heal the rift, which was more or less resolved in 2021.)

In August 2020, the Emirates handed Mr. Trump another win by establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel, making it the third Arab country to open formal relations with the Jewish state and the first new one to do so in 28 years. The Kingdom of Bahrain, a gulf island, followed the same day, and Morocco and Sudan later.

U.A.E. Ministry of Presidential Affairs, via Reuters

Sheikh Mohammed’s relationship with President Biden has been less smooth. The Emirates was alarmed by the United States’ sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan and the swiftness of the Taliban’s takeover of the country.

And Emirati officials have told American interlocutors that they feel the United States has done too little to protect the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia from attacks by armed Iranian proxies, raising questions about the longstanding American commitment to ensuring the security of gulf countries and their oil production.

Sheikh Mohammed is the Emirates’ third president since the country gained independence from Britain in 1971 and named his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, its first head of state.

Sheikh Mohammed is a trained fighter pilot who, like other gulf royals, was educated at the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.


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