When Mohamed bin-Zayed took a public governance role within the UAE in the early 2000s, he was confronted with a number of security and administrative issues. The Emirati administration was large, inefficient and corrupt. Extremist Islamist groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, who opposed the Al-Nahyan rule, held many civil servant positions. As such, MBZ realized he had to ensure domestic security and solidify Abu-Dhabi’s leadership of the UAE, both from the Islamist threat and the rise of Dubai. Bin-Zayed initiated a series of key political reforms to deal with these threats, aiming to streamline the state and remove political Islam from the UAE’s politics. The outcome of these reforms led to the creation of a surveillance state, the consolidation of UAE’s rule by the Al-Nahyan family, and the end of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Emirates.
Reform of the Political Administration
The integral role Emirati citizens played in carrying out the 9/11 US terrorist attacks made MBZ realize how vulnerable the UAE was to terrorism and extremist Islamic ideologies. The groups that espoused these ideas were fervently against the royal family, arguing that the country should be governed according to Islamic law. Furthermore, these groups were deeply ingrained within the Emirati state. In the early 2000s, UAE’s administration was based on Nasser’s model of the 1950s, with over 64,000 civil servants forming a bloated and inefficient state. This large administration allowed Islah, the equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE, to have many members employed in the administration. Islah members were especially present in education, shaping UAE’s youth with Islamic teachings through textbooks and teachers which acted independently from the State.
When MBZ rose to power in the mid-2000s, he set out to reform UAE’s political system, aiming to mold a modern, efficient state, while rooting out the Islamist influence within the administration. This would allow him to kill two birds with one stone: modernize the UAE while securing the Al-Nahyan family’s power base by eliminating Islah. The threat Islah posed to the royal family was mounting, as the group was increasingly critical of the liberalization and globalization of the UAE’s big cities. In 2004, MBZ warned: “We are having a culture war with the Muslim Brotherhood in this country”.
From 2005 to 2008, MBZ cut the number of civil servants from 64,000 to 7,000. Having streamlined the state, he made sure to create job opportunities by investing in other economic sectors (tourism, services, defense industry) with the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. The Crown Prince’s reform of the internal administration successfully implemented a meritocratic model, separation of political Islam from the state and an administration organized around the leadership of Abu Dhabi. Following Singapore’s model, MBZ fashioned the UAE into a socially liberal autocracy (non-democratic government following the principles of liberalism).
Bin-Zayed tried to negotiate with Islah, offering to let the group continue its religious education separately from the State and refusing its participation in UAE politics. However, the Islamic group refused, and MBZ soon cracked down on Islah and other Muslim Brotherhood affiliated members. Bin-Zayed’s negative experience with the Muslim Brotherhood in his childhood played a large role in the high intensity of the repression. Over the 2000s, the UAE foiled several terrorist attacks and pushed by MBZ, created a technologically advanced surveillance state. Emirati security forces could monitor the internet, phone calls, financial networks and trace money transfers. In 2013-2014, Islah was accused of planning to create an armed branch in the UAE with the backing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, aiming to overthrow the royal family. This allowed MBZ to ban the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE in 2014, effectively ending the internal Islamist threat.
However, it’s important to point out that the UAE is an Islamic country, and MBZ did not crack down on Islam, only domestic groups that threatened the Al-Nahyan family’s power. The Crown Prince was wary that public opinion might see him as an opponent of the faith, and so made steps to promote his personal vision of Islam, notably training imams in the Emirati Islamic approach. To legitimise the separation of political Islam from the Emirati states, MBZ created a speaking platform for religious leaders who sided with him throughout the “culture war” with the Muslim Brotherhood. Prominent Islamic scholars such as Ali al-Jifri, Aref Ali Nayed, Hamza Yusuf and Abdallah bin Bayyah are now part of the “Fatwa Council”, overseeing religious rulings and fighting extremist religious teachings.
Thus, MBZ successfully reformed the UAE’s administration, eliminating the “State within a State” by rooting out Islah members, then banning the organization altogether. He streamlined the UAE’s administration, making it an efficient, modern and the model state in the Middle East. The modernization efforts raised the standard of living in the UAE and came to be very popular within the Emirati population, bolstering support for MBZ. The restructuring of the State strongly reinforced Abu Dhabi’s leadership of the UAE, while the development of surveillance technology and counterterrorism methods guaranteed domestic security. The UAE’s surveillance state strengthened MBZ’s domestic power, giving the Crown Prince the opportunity to focus on the Middle East’s geopolitics and promoting the UAE internationally.
Qatar Diplomatic Crisis
In 2017, a host of Arab nations led by UAE and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin-Salman (MBS) severed diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar’s Tamim al-Thani. They accused Qatar of funding radical Islamic terrorist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, while criticizing close relations with Iran and increasing ties to Turkey. The nations imposing the embargo demanded Qatar cease funding to the Islamic groups, reduce ties with Iran and remove Turkish bases in Qatar. Al-Thani refused, and the conflict is still ongoing.
MBZ organized the blockade with MBS of Saudi Arabia and was particularly critical of Qatar’s funding of Islamic terrorist groups, which the UAE actively opposes and fights. This bolstered MBZ’s relations with the West, who saw in the Crown Prince a committed actor in counterterrorism. MBZ and MBS have received support from Donald Trump, solidifying their position in the diplomatic crisis.
MBZ is also strongly opposed to the expansion of Turkish influence in the Arab World, notably through military bases in Qatar. Indeed, Turkey has clashed with the UAE in Libya, as Erdogan seeks to influence the Arab World (which the Turkish president considers part of the historical Ottoman zone of influence) while increasing Turkish influence in the Eastern Mediterranean areas MBZ considers Emirati zones of influence. As such, he aims to pressure Qatar to reject the construction of the Turkish military base, in exchange for renewed business and diplomatic exchanges.
MBZ’s participation in the blockade on Qatar has solidified his regional alliance with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He actively leans on these allies to further his geopolitical aims in the Middle East, so it’s key for the Crown Prince to build common interests with these countries. However, he has to contend with the other leaders in the coalition, notably MBS, who has taken the spotlight in leading the blockade on Qatar. Although MBZ likes ruling from the shadows, Saudi leadership of the coalition could lead to his objectives being left behind.
However, the Qatar diplomatic crisis has largely been a success for MBZ. The Crown Prince’s geopolitical manoeuvring has led to Qatar losing influence in the Arabian Peninsula while falling out of grace with the US. By extension, the blockade on Qatar has partially reduced Iran’s influence on the Peninsula, while the UAE is rapidly expanding its influence in the region. Although he consolidated ties with his allies, MBZ faces a major blowback from the diplomatic crisis: a potential Turkish military base in Qatar. Were this project to be carried out, it would be a significant blow for MBZ’s geopolitical ambitions in the Arabian Peninsula, allowing the Turks to encroach in the Arabic sphere of influence. Thus, MBZ is set to be wary of the current status quo with Qatar.
Expanding UAE’s Global Influence
MBZ has sought to expand UAE’s global influence through diplomacy, and by making the UAE a central business, travel, and cultural hub in the Middle East. To this end, MBZ has managed to secure a US border preclearance that is staffed and operated by the US Customs and Border Protection officers, allowing travelers to reach the US as domestic travelers (the only country in the Middle East with this status). Bin-Zayed’s outreach to the US aims to make the UAE a strong ally of the US, not only on security grounds but also economically and culturally. MBZ knows that a closer alliance with the US is key in deciding influence and power projection in the Middle East. The development of cultural and business links with the US could give the UAE an edge over Saudi Arabia in the region, although the UAE cannot match the size of Saudi Arabia’s population, landmass or oil/gas reserves.
MBZ is invested in shaping the American public debate in favor of UAE interests, often through lobbying. In 2013, the United Arab Emirates spent more money than any other nation pushing its agenda in the United States. US Department of Justice records reveal that the UAE spent over $14 million in Capitol Hill. The large number of foreign expatriates also helps strengthen ties between UAE and other powers such as the UK, Germany and India. Thus, MBZ is able to project a positive image of the UAE, while manoeuvring to get Western states to act in his interests.