Who is Mohammed bin Zayed, the new president of the United Arab Emirates?

Prince Mohammed bin Zayed was elected on Saturday, “unanimously” by members of the Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates, to succeed his half-brother Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, who died the day before at the age of 73.

This election formalizes his position as leader of this rich Gulf monarchy of some 10 million inhabitants, which in less than ten years has become a key player in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

An ambitious man

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, often referred to as “MBZ”, is the third son of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the first president and founding father of the United Arab Emirates Federation. Trained in the famous British military academy of Sandhurst, from which he graduated in 1979, he quickly rose through the ranks of the armed forces to become chief of staff in 1993. He holds the rank of general and assumes, in fact, the command of the armed forces.

On the death of his father in November 2004, “MBZ” was named Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and became chairman of its Executive Council, which controls the strategic finances of the emirate. He also joined the Supreme Petroleum Council of the United Arab Emirates, an organization endowed with broad powers in the energy field.

At the same time, he became a special adviser to his half-brother, President Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. This function allows him to take in fact command of the federation in 2014, when a stroke prevented Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan from performing his duties as head of state.

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A more assertive international policy

Under the leadership of “MBZ”, the UAE becomes an influential player in the Middle East and Africa. Allied country of Saudi Arabia and the United States, the Emirates of Mohammed bin Zayed were the first Gulf country to normalize relations with Israel in 2020, as part of an agreement negotiated by Washington.

Abu Dhabi participates in the international anti-jihadist coalition led by the United States in Iraq and Syria, but also in a military coalition under Saudi command in Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels since 2015.

Considered particularly hostile to the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring of 2011, “MBZ” can count on the wealth of Abu Dhabi, which holds 90% of the oil reserves of the Emirates, to assert its power in the region and show its support for certain regimes. , like that of the Egyptian Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

Crucial relations for Europe and France

On Sunday May 15, several European leaders traveled to Abu Dhabi to meet the new President Mohammed bin Zayed. Among them, President Emmanuel Macron, who wished “to express his support to his brother the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nayane, as well as to the rest of the family and to all the Emirati people“, according to the presidency. In recent years, the United Arab Emirates have become a privileged interlocutor, and the two countries are multiplying partnerships.

– Energy: in addition to oil exports to Europe, the two countries signed a fundamental agreement in Vienna in 2014 for civil nuclear cooperation, starting in 2018 a collaboration in the field of renewable energies, with the installation of a photovoltaic park in the Emirate of Dubai by the EDF group.
– Geopolitics: a defense agreement signed in January 1995 and reinforced in 2009 by which France undertakes to participate in the defense of the Emirates in the event of a threat from a third State. It is in Abu Dhabi that the only permanent military establishment of France abroad outside Africa is located, with nearly 700 soldiers on site.
– Defence: in 2021, the UAE federation concluded several purchases of French military equipment, in particular a record order for 80 Rafale aircraft and twelve Caracal helicopters, for a total of 16 billion Euros.
– Culture and Education: the two countries are jointly developing numerous projects in this field, such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi. Throughout the year, teachers from Paris come to give lessons on a campus that brings together nearly 80 nationalities.

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A close relationship with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia

Beyond certain differences, Mohammed bin Zayed can count on his closeness to the young and ambitious Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, “MBS”. Some analysts believe that “MBZ” is the mentor of “MBS”, with whom he shares a deep hostility towards Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. They were the architects of the diplomatic banishment for several years of Qatar, considered too close to them.

Sheikh Mohammed is said to have encouraged the policy of liberalizing Saudi society led by Mohammed bin Salman, whose image has been tarnished at the same time by a fierce repression of dissidents.

“MBZ” is trying to build a reputation for tolerance and openness in the United Arab Emirates. In 2017, he announced that the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque would be renamed the Mariam Umm Issa (Mary, Mother of Jesus) Mosque in order to “consolidate the bonds of humanity between the followers of different religions“.

However, human rights NGOs regularly deplore violations in the Emirates, in particular the fate of Ahmed Mansour, a pro-democracy activist imprisoned since 2017, as part of a merciless internal security policy.