There he is again, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, stirring up all sorts of trouble on the global stage.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, has been putting his fingers into too many pies lately. From mercenaries in Yemen to bombing runs in Libya to cozying up to Israelis, the UAE’s Supreme Commander defies just about every Middle Eastern geopolitical stereotype. He is no flag-burning theocrat, nor a chest thumping Arab nationalist: he’ll kill jihadists, Muslim Brothers, and Ba’athists equally, given the chance. (And torture Emirati liberals for good measure).
Now, he’s been caught up in the middle of the Russia-Trump spy affair. According to the Washington Post:
The United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to U.S., European and Arab officials.
So far, it’s not proven that the Trump transition team had any knowledge of this meeting: Erik Prince apparently did it on his own volition. (Prince is also the brother of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education).
Regardless, the fact that the UAE is even trying to set up back channels between the Russians and the White House goes to show the odd way the country is approaching the world.
Unlike many states, all of this can be attributed to one man: Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan. Not to be confused with Mohammed bin Rashed, the ruler of Dubai, Mohammed bin Zayed has a very specific take on the UAE’s future.
And he has a tale worth telling.
The man born in mud-built town
When Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (or MbZ, as he’s known in leaked State Department cables) was born in the dusty slave-trading town of Al Ain in 1961, the UAE was neither a country nor a nation. It was the Trucial States, a set of British-ruled protectorates set up in the late 19th century to control piracy in the Persian Gulf. MbZ was ten years old when his father, Sheikh Zayed, managed to cobble together a federation of six other major families and form the United Arab Emirates.
MbZ witnessed the rapid rise and changes of his budding country. Slavery gave way to the infamous kafala labor system; mud and coral huts were demolished for Hilton hotels and modern skyscrapers; once murderous desert trade routes were paved by asphalt highways.
MbZ drew the right conclusions from this development. He knew, as both his father and his elder brother, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, knew, that this was impossible without outside support and protection. Iran loomed over the UAE as a giant: the Shah of Iran, after all, had grabbed up three Persian Gulf islands claimed by the UAE mere days before the country’s declaration of independence.
So too did Saudi Arabia, which had tried, and failed, to conquer MbZ’s hometown of Al Ain in the 1950s. Squeezed between two ambitious states, the UAE had a desperate needle to thread.
From 1971 until 2004, MbZ’s charismatic father built the alliance network he hoped would preserve the country. When Britain decolonized, he brought in the Americans, offering air bases and ports for its growing fleet in the Gulf, which exploded in size after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 He helped set up the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Peninsula Shield Force, the political and military alliances with his neighbors that secured the UAE from Saudi invasion. When Iran went revolutionary in 1979, Sheikh Zayed leveraged American antipathy for Iran to gain U.S. protection from Iranian conquest.
Zayed managed to keep the very weak UAE protected from any potential conquerors all the way up to his death in 2004. His elder son, Sheikh Khalifa, had already been running much of the show in the 1990s, but ascended to power hoping to carry on his father’s legacy.
His second son, MbZ, had other plans.
The ambitious son
MbZ had learned a different lesson from the UAE’s early days: sponsorship is great, but it only lasts so long as one is useful. When his elder brother, Sheikh Khalifa, nominally the UAE’s president, began to suffer ill health not longer after Sheikh Zayed’s death, real power transferred to MbZ, who ran day to day affairs.
Shiekh Zayed had turned the UAE into a fine anti-Saddam, anti-Iran military base for the United States. But as the 2000s wore on, MbZ watched in horror as the UAE’s strategic usefulness to the United States withered.
First, the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003; then, President Obama decided it would be cheaper to negotiate with the mullahs than to wage war on them. If the U.S. reached an accord with Iran, it would allow it to shift its strategic power to Iraq and Syria to fight Sunni supremacism, letting the UAE twist in the wind. Ironically, the UAE’s stability had kept Sunni supremacism under wraps, causing American counter-terror thinkers to take the country for granted.
MzB did not share their view. For him, the UAE was a frail place, surrounded by dangers, roiled by internal threats, and barely as old as him. It was an Arab federation, which don’t have a great track record of survival. To keep the UAE safe, he needed to have powerful allies willing to go to war for it. To keep it together, he had to provide the development his people expected. Both required him to dig deep into the world’s geopolitical system to find the strongest strands of power.
Thus MzB does not believe the UAE should rule the Gulf: he merely wants to die before the federation does. Considering the unremarkable geography of the country, that is very ambitious.
If the Americans leave, what then?
This is the great fear of the Sunni Gulf. Since 1971, the United States has kept the independent emirates and kingdoms of the Gulf safe from Saudi, Iraqi and Iranian adventures. The U.S. even deployed half a million troops to save Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. This was all very reassuring to the region’s elites, especially the military-minded MzB.
But the world turns, and no condition is permanent. As the Bush years became the Obama ones, it was a pertinent question as to whether this protection was worth it for the Americans. The Gulf states faced no threat from Saddam; Iran, surely, would never dare embark on a war of aggression. For DC policymakers, shifting power to halt a rising China made all the sense in the world.
Beginning in 2010, alarm bells began ringing in Abu Dhabi. Obama was serious about negotiation with Iran, and saw regime change as a dangerous pursuit for American power. He also oversaw a vast growth in American oil: fracking freed the U.S. from its Persian Gulf shackles. As U.S. interest and concern about Saudi Arabia dwindled, so too did its interest in the UAE. This horrified MbZ, who had kitted out the Emirati armed forces in American gear, fully expecting the alliance to last the rest of his life.
Worse, the Arab Spring washed over the region and proved the Obama administration would not go to the mat for old allies. When Hosni Mubarak was pushed out by his own Deep State, it demonstrated that the U.S. would do nothing to save friends if popular risings were too popular. As Emirati liberals circulated petitions demanding greater representation in the UAE itself, MbZ feared that the U.S. might threaten his power the same way.
The scenario is not so hard to imagine: Emirati liberals might organize protests, gaining access to Western media situated in the UAE itself. (CNN has an Abu Dhabi branch, for example). Suddenly, these handfuls of liberals might gain a megaphone to the superpower: if MbZ and his clique of tribal elite refused to meet with them or give them power, it might cause the U.S. to turn on the UAE, halting critical arms sales or imposing crippling travel bans. That, in turn, could rock a boat already leaky with state mismanagement: without U.S. protection to paper over the UAE’s social cracks, MbZ might be exposed to coups or mass protests. The already unruly labor camps might explode: the country’s economy might grind to a halt.
None of that could be allowed to come to pass. MbZ struck hard against the liberals, arresting and torturing them in 2011-12. He forced them to sign humiliating promises that they wouldn’t dare demand democracy again. When they were released, several did just that, and MbZ then hit them with anti-terrorism laws intended to keep them in prison or exile forever.
That was also meant to send a message to the country’s Muslim Brotherhood, which in 2011-12 looked like it might become the new political party of the Middle East. Having power in Egypt provided the MB with a huge platform to spread its influence. Never a fan of the Gulf monarchies, the MB’s Islamist appeal resonated with Emiratis upset by the hypocrisy wrought by Western-style development.
MbZ smashed them up too: in much larger arrests, he broke up the UAE’s organized MB branches, called Al-Islah, or Reform in Arabic. This shocked the Emirati community, who had never been subject to such purges before. It showed MbZ would do what he had to in order to preserve the system he ruled.
Luckily for him, nearby Bahrain’s thuggish crackdown on its own rebellion distracted the media from his abuses. The UAE faced no sanctions from the Obama administration. Having narrowly avoided criticism for its superpower patron, MbZ focused on his other great enemy: Iran.
The odd couple: Emiratis and Israels
From 2012-15, MbZ saw the Iranian nuclear negotiations as a supreme threat to Emirati security. Obama, in his view, miscalculated Iranian intentions. While Obama saw the Iranians as seeking live-and-let-live security, MbZ saw them as imperial conquerors hoping to expand their influence from Lebanon to Iraq, from Kuwait’s Shi’a to Yemen’s. Anywhere with a Shi’a population was an Iranian target in his view – including his own restive Shi’a population, clustered in the Madinat Zayed portion of Abu Dhabi.
MbZ preferred an American air war on Iran: the Americans could set the Iranians back decades with a long enough struggle. But failing that, he was not above calling on Iran’s other arch-enemy: Israel.
Publicly anti-Zionist, MbZ saw Tel Aviv as a useful vehicle to drag America into an unwanted war. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu saw the Iranians in even more stark terms than MbZ. For him, Iran’s mullahs would stop at nothing to destroy Jewish Israel, including using nuclear weapons. That, at least, is what he wanted everyone to believe: it’s entirely possible he was just pandering to right wing alarmists to win votes back home. It was a classic enemy-of-my-enemy situation.
But Emirati-Israeli ties ran deeper than that. Both needed sponsorship to survive: both had chosen the United States. Neither would benefit from America’s pivot to Asia. The Emiratis didn’t particularly care what happened to Palestine, beyond the easy propaganda. Their borders were so far apart that they weren’t real competitors. Moreover, Israel was friendly with Jordan, a close ally of the UAE. Both wanted to keep Jordan’s monarchy on the map, and so cooperation against radical Palestinian factions made a lot of sense.
There was also the economics of the situation. Both the UAE and Israel stood to benefit from trade: both had American tech they were working to improve on. From an ideological standpoint, MbZ did not see Zionism as the existential threat that other Arab leaders did. He saw another small minority trying to scrape an existence out of a tough spot.
So MbZ tried to prod the Israelis into a strike against Iran. Such a strike would be limited, and would surely drag the Americans into a second round, once Iran launched rockets and missiles in retaliation. A wider war might harm the the Gulf in the short term, but MbZ calculated that a hard enough American response would either cripple the Iranian regime or even cause a rising against it.
But the Americans were not interested. Obama had been elected to end wars; despite their fractious relationship, Netanyahu knew better than to start a new one that Obama did not clear.
Enter President Trump
President Trump’s stridently anti-Iran message must have heartened MbZ. Yet in the Obama years Iran and Russia had grown increasingly close, especially as they support Bashar al-Assad in his butchery. Iran in 2017 was not nearly as exposed as it was in 2009. For MbZ, neutralizing a Russia-America rivalry would be key to destroying the Iranians.
Hence the back channels. If MbZ could help facilitate a friendly Russia-America relationship and get Russia to back off Iran, it might open the door to the hard strike he’s long sought on Tehran. MbZ sees Iran as a strategic threat, nukes or not: so long as its run by expansionist Shi’a supremacists, he will continue to prepare for war. His back dealings hoped to drag the Americans back into a conflict Obama presumably resolved.
Getting caught out doesn’t matter much to MbZ domestically. It might even bolster him, proving he’s a man with stature on the world stage. But it might further harm President Trump in the U.S. MbZ’s current anti-Iran strategy now hinges on getting the Trump administration to tear up the nuclear deal and start a war as soon as possible.
That remains a big ask: the U.S. still worries about China more than Iran, and the Islamic State is still its biggest military priority. But with the right flattery, and enough time, MbZ might just trick Trump into fighting the war he’s long wanted.