Under Sheikh Mohammed, who has been the country’s de facto leader since Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014, the UAE had tried to project power militarily across the region as it joined a war waged by the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
But since the lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic, Sheikh Mohammed and the wider United Arab Emirates have tried to recalibrate their approach by largely withdrawing from the war and seeking diplomatic detentes with rivals. The UAE has also diplomatically recognized Israel, which shares Sheikh Mohammed’s longstanding suspicion of Iran. However, ties with the United States have become strained in recent years.
The official WAM news agency described the vote at Al-Mushrif Palace in Abu Dhabi as unanimous among the rulers of the country’s hereditary emirates, which includes the skyscraper-dotted 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 him on the paths of glory and honor, God willing.”
There had been only one presidential death before Friday in the country’s history, which saw Sheikh Khalifa succeed his father and that of Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, after his death in 2004. Sheikh Zayed, whose name adorns a major highway linking the Emirates and whose face appears all over the country, remains widely regarded as the country’s founding father.
The UAE as a whole is observing a three-day period of mourning, which will see businesses across the country closed and performances in honor of Sheikh Khalifa halted. Electronic billboards all showed the image of the late sheikh in Dubai on Friday night as flags flew at half mast. A wider mourning period of 40 days will continue beyond that.
Sheikh Mohammed had served as the de facto president of the United Arab Emirates since a stroke in 2014 saw Sheikh Khalifa disappear from public view.
Known by the acronym MbZ, Sheikh Mohammed has cultivated ties with the West that have proven invaluable to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates which commands tens of billions of dollars in wealth funds from its oil fields. and gas. A 2004 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks called him “charismatic, savvy and very much at home in the West”. He hosted President George W. Bush in 2008 at his desert estate, a tour complete with Bedouin tents and falcons.
The country hosts some 3,500 US troops, many of them at Al-Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi, from where drones and fighter jets have flown missions against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria . Dubai is also the US Navy’s busiest overseas port of call. France and South Korea have also maintained a military presence here.
Sheikh Mohammed was trained at the British military academy in Sandhurst and is a helicopter pilot. His military approach saw the UAE join Saudi Arabia in their years-long bloody war in Yemen that still rages to this day. Sheikh Mohammed enjoys close relations with the upstart crown prince of neighboring Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. However, the Emirates have largely withdrawn their troops from Yemen.
Sheikh Mohammed has also long been suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, likely mounting a campaign targeting Islamists in the UAE after the 2011 Arab Spring and urging the West to take a tougher line on Tehran over concerns. regarding its nuclear program and its support for paramilitary groups throughout the region. The recognition of Israel by the United Arab Emirates in 2020, while opening new trade and tourism exchanges, also serves as a cover in relations with Iran.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, however, the United Arab Emirates under Sheikh Mohammed has sought to restore ties with Iran and Turkey, which have backed Islamists in the region. A quartet of Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, have also dropped their boycott of Qatar over a diplomatic dispute over its support for Islamists, although relations remain frosty between Abu Dhabi and Doha.
“The smooth transition of power in the UAE reflects the sobriety of institutional work and the advanced level of governance mechanisms and their stability,” said Anwar Gargash, a senior Emirati diplomat.
But tensions have arisen in recent years between Sheikh Mohammed and the United States, long the guarantor of security in the wider Persian Gulf. Then-President Barack Obama and the world powers that struck a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 embittered the Emirates. The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 under President Joe Biden has heightened concerns about U.S. withdrawal from the region.
Sheikh Mohammed became entangled in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on then-President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee chairman arrested in 2021 for secretly conspiring to influence American policy for the benefit of the United Arab Emirates.
A planned US sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates also appears stalled in part due to US concerns over the Emirates’ relationship with China. Meanwhile, the UAE has been careful not to alienate Russia as Moscow wages war on Ukraine.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.