President Biden sent more than condolences when the nominal leader of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) died. The entire top tier of his Cabinet—Vice President, CIA Director, Secretaries of State and Defense – journeyed across the globe to shake the hand of the new boss, Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan, previously described as the Arab world’s most powerful ruler. He may be. Long before the May 13 death of the half-brother disabled since a 2014 stroke, the strongman known as MbZ was turning a “small state” (about the size of Maine) into a global player that demands the attention even of a U.S. pivoting away from the Middle East.
The UAE has Special Forces operating in Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Eritrea, and armed proxies challenging the political status quo in Tripoli and Aden. Its financial institutions harbor the monies of mobsters, sanction-evaders, regime kleptocrats, and warlords. The Emirates maintains information networks that helped ripen military coups in Egypt and Tunisia. And its spin doctors help shape policymaking in Washington, London, and Brussels.
Behind it all is MbZ, 61, a Machiavellian Svengali with a deep understanding of the power of networks. Fifteen years ago, while still Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, he began strategically moving pawns to monopolize the power of the capital’s royal family within the federation of seven emirates, the best known of which is Dubai. At the same time, MbZ wove strategic networks across both the Middle East and the world, using connections to fill the gap between the UAE’s ambitions and its in-house capabilities.
That web went to work when the new U.S. President irked the Emiratis twice in his first year in office: First, by suspending the sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets promised by the Trump administration, then with a middling response to missile attacks on the UAE from Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. But with oil prices skyrocketing, Washington is eager to patch things up, hoping the UAE will use its influence in OPEC+ to pump more crude. The rapprochement necessarily involves the Emiratis’ network of lobbyists, think tankers, journalists and diplomats led by including Yousef Al Otaiba, long one of the highest profile ambassadors in Washington despite representing a nation with only a few more citizens (1.1 million) than a U.S. congressional district.
MbZ prefers to delegate statecraft away from the bloated state-run bureaucracy, relying instead on largely non-state actors, from militia groups and mercenary outfits to cyber operatives, lobbying firms and financiers. All are paid handsomely, thanks to oil. It’s how Abu Dhabi punches above its weight in what MbZ perceives to be dog-eat-dog world and secure the Emirates against the perceived anarchy left behind by great powers’ disengagement from the region.
The U.S. pivot to Asia—where President Biden went in person—is only the latest challenge. It was the chaos of the Arab Spring, which that shook the authoritarian regime to its core, that first prompted the UAE to take initiative without hedging or bandwagoning, but often defying the interests and values of Europe and the United States. So while lobbying for cutting-edge U.S. military technology like the F-35, Abu Dhabi also finances Russia’s mercenary operations in Libya against US-backed allies, and joins leading Chinese tech companies to develop disruptive information technology.
If all that makes the UAE appear to be playing a double game, MbZ sees it the other way around. The perceived unreliability of Washington has been a crucial factor in the tribal monarchy’s pivot towards the East, where the emerging authoritarian order aligns more with the UAE’s notion of the survival of the ‘smartest’ and MbZ’s cynicism over the values-based liberal order. Like Russia and China, Abu Dhabi, through its networks, exploits the gray zone between war and peace, achieving influence through Machiavelli’s maxim of “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception”.
The UAE is itself a kind of network. The new President heads a triumvirate that includes his two most influential brothers: Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, billionaire businessman and minister; and Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s national security adviser. Together they control hundreds of billions of dollars of equity through Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth funds, joint ventures and intricate networks of shell companies, using investments strategically to secure stakes in companies with ties to political elites in Africa, Central Asia and Russia. State-owned companies like Dubai Ports World—one of the world’s largest port operators—have become vehicles of statecraft in their own right, granting the UAE control over critical supply chains globally, something that makes Abu Dhabi an indispensable partner for China’s Belt-Road Initiative.
And where Abu Dhabi’s empowerment of Russia and China in the region has caused friction with the West—most notably in the U.S.—MbZ and his brothers can rely on networks in Washington, London, and Brussels to iron out any reputational hiccups, and to influence policymaking. Abu Dhabi regularly tops the list of Gulf donors to Washington’s think tank bubble, notoriously spending more than $20 million in 2016 and 2017 on the renowned Middle East Institute alone. Top recipients of UAE money in the U.S. also include The Atlantic Council, the Center for American Progress and its very own Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington. In 2015 it encouraged the UK government in 2015 to revisit its domestic approach to the Muslim Brotherhood and in the early days of the Trump administration persuaded the most powerful nation in the world to take its side in a neighborhood quarrel by endorsing the UAE-led blockade against Qatar—one of the most important U.S. allies in the Gulf. Those same information networks also help shape policy and the discourse of experts to ostracize other competitors, such as Turkey or Iran.
Meanwhile, Dubai is one of the world’s leading dirty-money hubs, a key node in illicit financial networks offering a financial safe haven for warlords, sanction-evaders, terrorist organizations and mobsters. It’s no surprise that the Kremlin’s kleptocrats have washed up on the shores of the Emirates of late. Allowing Putin and his inner circle to bypass sanctions makes the UAE a key enabler of Russia’s great power interests. It has so far declined to condemn the invasion of Ukraine.
MbZ, who attended Sandhurst, the U.K. version of West Point, can tap into networks that generate guns-for-hire. Military and cyber mercenaries constitute the backbone of Emirati gray-zone operations. In Libya and Yemen, much of the Emirati punch on the ground comes from mercenary outfits, including the infamous Russian Wagner Group. In addition to from providing funds to Putin’s ‘dogs of war’, Abu Dhabi opened up its bases in southern Libya, which Wagner mercenaries are still using as logistical hubs for operations in the Sahel.
In a multipolar world no longer dominated by the West, MbZ has found room not only for a city-state to maneuver, but often to get its own way. The question is where he wants to take it.
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