Having successfully carried out the reform of the UAE’s state administration and the suppression of hostile Muslim Brotherhood affiliated groups, Mohamed bin-Zayed moved to play a greater geopolitical role in the Middle East and Arab World. Under MBZ, the UAE built the best equipped and most modern army in the Middle East after Israel. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince balanced the lack of Emirati manpower with a large air force and many offensive drones. MBZ strengthened security ties with Western power, positioning himself as a key partner in counterterrorism operations. These strategic alliances allow Emirati officers to be trained in the world’s best military schools, such as Saint Cyr in France, Sandhurst in England and West Point in the US while giving the UAE’s army access to the most developed weapons systems. MBZ was eager to expand the UAE’s geopolitical influence in the Arab World and leaned on French and American backing to intervene in Libya and Yemen (respectively). Although not always successful, MBZ’s interventionist policies have made the UAE into a regional power in the Arabic Sphere of influence. However, bin-Zayed’s increasingly unilateral decisions in the conflicts he is engaged in have provoked uneasiness with certain allies. Geopolitical mastermind or rogue actor, we will examine MBZ’s actions in the security field.
MBZ’s Core Foreign Policy: Gulfication
Gulfication is the name of MBZ’s guiding foreign policy. Taking into account history, religion, political culture and social trends in the Arab World, bin-Zayed is convinced that the UAE’s socially liberal autocracy is the political model best suited to the Arab World. Indeed, UAE’s political model has provided the Emiratis with political stability, security, widespread economic prosperity, international alliances and the status of regional power. As such, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince is eager to spread this model throughout the Arab World.
“Gulfication” sacrifices democracy and popular representation in exchange for economic prosperity and security, while excluding, for the most part, religion from governance. Essentially, MBZ wants to put in power throughout the Arab world secular strongmen who will develop the economy, guarantee security and become a strong ally of the UAE. Thus, he hopes this political model will stabilize the Arab World, often prone to conflict, while creating a web of Emirati allies.
MBZ’s drive to implement Gulfication throughout the Arab World has increased following the failed democratic movements of the Arab Spring, and the subsequent surge in radical Islamic groups. Gulfication is designed to oppose political Islam while providing a political model popular with citizens who desire economic prosperity and political stability. To implement Gulfication, Bin-Zayed has focused on countries plagued by political instability or conflict. In this format, Gulfication would be implemented in a legitimate way by a new Emirati sponsored government after the end of the conflict. Following these principles, MBZ successfully carried out the Gulfication strategy in Egypt by overthrowing Mohammed Morsi in 2013, but has had far less success in the Libyan and Yemeni conflicts.
Gulfication has been criticized by Western powers, with sceptics labelling MBZ a “democracy killer” or anti-democratic. However, the failure of the Arab Spring and subsequent rise of Islamic groups to power convinced many in the West that MBZ’s strategy is the best option, notably France which has become a major Emirati ally. Bin-Zayed’s foreign policy has stayed true to the principles of Gulfication, but the recent deadlocks in Yemen and Libya obscure the policy’s true efficiency due to the lack of widespread implementation in the Arab World.
Nevertheless, MBZ seeks to alter the political landscape of the region to his own liking and model the Arab World in the UAE’s image. He is not afraid to engage in political, military and economic pressure to further his goals. The Crown Prince has set out an independent strategy for the UAE, which aims to stabilize the region, increase economic ties and expand the UAE’s sphere of influence. Highly popular with his countrymen, but decried due to the intensification of the Yemeni and Libyan conflicts, Gulfication is at the heart of MBZ’s foreign policy and regional ambitions. In the short term, MBZ’s Gulfication policies have led to the emergence of the UAE as a geopolitical regional power in the Arab World.
Security Alliance with US, France, UK
MBZ has been creating close security ties with France and the US since the 1990s, support which he knew would be crucial in the geopolitics of the Middle East. Bin-Zayed also benefits from the UAE’s historical relationship with the UK, as the seven Emirati kingdoms were under British rule until independence in 1972. These Western countries quickly realized MBZ was likely to become a key player in the UAE, and tried to influence his policies to fit Western interests, notably in energy and counterterrorism. Using art deals and cultural rapprochement programs to build trust with Western powers, MBZ was soon able to benefit from these countries’ industrial-military complexes.
Emirati officers are sent to train in the world’s best military schools, such as Saint Cyr in France, Sandhurst in England and West Point in the US. The Crown Prince has also been very enthusiastic with weapons purchases, purchasing the highest levels of military equipment. The UAE is notably the only nation other than France to operate the Leclerc Tanks, while owning a large air force of over 80 F-16s and Mirage planes. Bin-Zayed has also used the peace deal with Israel to increase his chances of buying the new F-35. Of course, these purchases finance the West’s expansive armaments industry, further improving the relations between the states. MBZ’s goal in these armaments purchases is to offset the lack of manpower and experience in the Emirati armed forces, which has no more than 100,000 active members.
MBZ’s opposition to political Islam and Islamic terrorism has made him a key ally of Western States in the Arab World, notably France and the US. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince has exploited the Western powers’ search for a regional power in the Middle East that is ideologically aligned with a liberal capitalist system. Furthermore, his personal childhood experience with the Muslim Brotherhood, subsequent rejection of the ideology and later crackdown gives weight to MBZ’s ideological foundation of counterterrorism and reject of political Islam. As such, bin-Zayed’s vision of Gulfication has gained traction in the West (particularly France) following the failures of the Arab Spring and the subsequent propagation of radical Islamic groups.
MBZ has come to rival Saudi Arabia’s MBS in terms of Western support, as Western powers prefer his opposition to political Islam rather than the extremist Saudi Wahabis, who fund extremist Sunni Islamic groups. Furthermore, Western states have been impressed by UAE’s counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen, Egypt and Libya, finding the UAE to be much more efficient than Saudi Arabia. The UAE’s emergence as a regional power means it will challenge Saudi Arabia’s status as the leading power in the Middle East, and bin-Zayed fully intends to leverage his Western alliances to gain the upper hand.
However, relations with the US soured when President Obama failed to notify or take counsel from MBZ on the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal). Bin-Zayed, who is a frequent advisor to US diplomats in Middle Eastern policy, did not take kindly to Obama’s oversight. As the UAE saw initial success in the Yemeni and Libyan conflicts, bin-Zayed took a more unilateralist approach to the UAE’s geopolitical interests, which are not always aligned with the US. MBZ is largely known as an opponent of democracy in the Arab World, which he views as a political system unfit for the region and likely to promote Islamic political parties.
Abu Dhabi’s crown prince notably supported the coup of Egypt’s President in 2013, as Morsi was part of the Muslim Brotherhood and promoting civil strife in the UAE. In past years, due to the high casualty rate of civilians in UAE drone strikes and unilateral foreign policy, MBZ has been described as a rogue actor by some American diplomats. The West’s support of the UAE has also been challenged by Western public opinion, who critique UAE’s civilian death toll in Yemen, drone strikes, and political repression in UAE.
Nevertheless, MBZ remains a key American ally and relations have warmed under Donald Trump, while the alliance with France strengthened due to converging interests in Libya. MBZ’s efficiency in combatting terrorism, political ideology and friendliness to the West has allowed the UAE to rival Saudi Arabia’s power and influence in the Middle East. The ability to challenge the regional balance of power by exploiting Western backing has made bin-Zayed, a leading statesman of the Arabian Peninsula and the UAE, a regional power.
Regional Ties (Egypt-Iran-Saudi Arabia)
Due to his longstanding opposition to political Islam, MBZ strongly opposed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. When Egypt allegedly trained and sent operatives to the UAE to set up an armed branch of Islah (Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in the UAE) with the goal of overthrowing the Al-Nahyans, MBZ went into action. He arrested 96 suspects and banned Muslim Brotherhood affiliated groups in the UAE. To get to the root cause of the issue, in 2013, bin-Zayed funded and orchestrated a coup of Morsi in favor of General el-Sisi, which succeeded. This was the first success of MBZ’s Gulfication strategy: implement a powerful strongman who could guarantee Egyptian security, political stability, combat religious extremists and maintain strong ties with the UAE.
Since 2013, Egypt has been a major UAE ally in North Africa, with MBZ and Sisi being close. Following MBZ’s recommendation (and for national security reasons), Egypt has threatened to intervene militarily in the Libyan conflict in favor of Haftar. UAE and Egypt have enjoyed strong commercial links while sharing similar interests in the Arab World. MBZ’s success with Egypt has done away with the democratic government, returning to a secular dictator similar to Hosni Mubarak (chased away during the Arab Spring). Thus, MBZ’s Egyptian strategy has worked out in the UAE’s favor, tilting the balance of power in the region in his favor by giving the Emirati kingdoms a key regional ally in North Africa.
MBZ has gotten closer and closer to Saudi Arabia over the 2010s. The two kingdoms were already close thanks to their Sunni roots, close economies relying on petrol and being neighboring countries. Their objectives sometimes overlapped, notably with Saudi Arabia also participating in the overthrow of Morsi in Egypt. The ascension of Mohamed bin-Salman in Saudi Arabia strengthened the ties between both countries, as MBZ saw himself as a mentor to MBS. Bin-Zayed sought to develop a strong relationship with MBS, aiming to give the UAE Saudi backing in regional geopolitics.
Both leaders went to war together in Yemen, aiming to curtail the spread of Iranian Shia influence in the Arabian Peninsula. However, as the conflict in Yemen wore on, it became clear that a swift victory would not be achieved and relations somewhat strained between the two kingdoms. Saudi Arabia’s army was inefficient, while the UAE’s strategy encountered much more success, especially in counterterrorism. To regain the initiative in Yemen, Saudi Arabia started arming and funding extremist Islamic militias in line with Wahhabism, which MBZ strongly opposed.
However, both countries remain linked by their opposition to the expansion of Shia Iranian influence. This was demonstrated by the anti-Houthi (Iranian backed) alliance in Yemen, and the embargo on Qatar. MBS and MBZ also remain partners in other conflicts, such as in Libya in favor of the LNA’s Haftar, and generally in counter-terrorism operations in cooperation with the US.
One element of the MBZ-MBS relation stands out: Saudi Arabia is the embodiment of political Islam, which MBZ so opposes. However, MBZ supports the Saud royal family because although he rejects their ruling through Wahhabism, MBZ recognizes they keep Saudi Arabia under control, with political stability and control over their extremist religious groups. MBZ is far more afraid of a fundamentalist Wahhabi ISIS style group taking power in Saudi Arabia, which then couldn’t be controlled. Furthermore, the fall of house Saud could undermine the power base of the al-Nahyan royal family.
Thus, MBZ is keen to keep good relations with Saudi Arabia to maintain geo-political balance with Iran, minimize the threat of Wahabi extremist groups spilling out of Saudi Arabia, forge a strong alliance with the largest regional power and pursue UAE geopolitical interests with Saudi backing.
MBZ’s relationship with Iran is a complicated one. On one side, he is opposed to Iran geopolitically and militarily (in Yemen). Bin-Zayed’s desire to expand Emirati influence in the Arabian Peninsula by implementing Gulfication strategies in Yemen was thwarted by the Iranian backed (supplied and trained) Houthi rebels, who have put up unexpected resistance to the Saudi-led 2015 intervention. In 2020, MBZ pulled UAE troops out of Yemen, and although he is still highly influential in the conflict, it was clear to the Crown Prince that the UAE could not yet rival Iran. Iran and the UAE also have disputes over 3 islands in the Persian Gulf, which Iran illegally annexed in 1972 during Emirati independence, while MBZ very strongly opposed the JCPOA in 2015.
On the other hand, Iran-UAE trade is booming, as Iran exported nearly $1 billion worth of goods to the UAE in the first 3 quarters of 2020, an increase of 39% in tonnage and 8% in value from last year. 500,000 Iranians live in the UAE, creating further ties between both countries. As such, MBZ’s geopolitical hostility to Iran is offset by both countries’ strong economic ties, forcing both states to maintain relations.
Intervention in Yemen
The UAE intervened in Yemen with Saudi Arabia in 2015 in favor of the Sunni Hadi government against Iranian backed Shia Houthi forces. MBZ intervened in the conflict to expand the UAE’s sphere of influence on the Arabic Peninsula, push back against Iranian influence, fight against Islamic terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, support key ally Saudi Arabia, and try to implement Gulfication.
MBZ has enjoyed extensive support from the US in this theatre of operations due to UAE’s fight against AQ and ISIS. MBZ’s strategy of arming, training and supporting with air power local forces on the ground has been effective, as the UAE is credited by Western intelligence with 90% of successful counter-terrorism operations in Yemen. MBZ has also sent UAE troops to Yemen, notably special forces, in training and combat missions. However, Bin-Zayed decided to fund, train and support multiple armed groups in Yemen, which would all be loyal to him personally.
This strategy failed, as groups within the anti-Houthi alliance started infighting, and the anti-Houthi alliance broke down, losing ground to the Iranian backed Houthis. Due to the competing groups, MBZ has been unable to implement Gulfication in the areas he controls such as Aden. He has also been thoroughly criticized in the West for human rights abuses due to drone/airstrikes killing many civilians, and contributing to the deteriorating living conditions in Yemen (drought, famine, homelessness…). The accusation on the international stage has dented MBZ’s image and led some to label him as a rogue actor the US can no longer contain.
It’s important to point out that Bin-Zayed’s war in Yemen is strongly supported by UAE public opinion, which sees MBZ’s intervention as a guarantor of Emirati security and a global projection of power through UAE forces. Nevertheless, in early 2020, MBZ pulled UAE troops from Yemen, although he continues to be a major player in the conflict thanks to funding, material and air support to allies on the ground. MBZ has also had to contend with the Saudi side of the intervention, which has been far less effective (with more manpower) and employed different strategies with different interests. Saudi Arabia also funds and supports radical Islamic groups that MBZ considers terrorist groups, further undermining the success of the joint intervention.
Although the Yemeni intervention undoubtedly expanded bin-Zayed’s geopolitical influence in the Arabian Peninsula, it was nonetheless a blow to the Crown Prince. The lack of a quick victory, infighting amongst local groups and Houthi victories in 2020, although not completely MBZ’s fault, still showed that the UAE was not militarily strong enough to face other regional powers, notably Iran. The Crown Prince has played a large part in deteriorating the humanitarian situation in Yemen, which has tarnished his international reputation and put a question mark on the Gulfication strategy. Geopolitically speaking, MBZ is strongly opposed to Iran gaining a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, while he wants to keep the influence he built up in Yemen. As such, the Crown Prince is likely to remain a major player in the Yemeni conflict for the years to come.
Intervention in Libya
MBZ intervened in Libya in 2015, giving support to Marshal Haftar to fight ISIS and other radical Islamic groups which had overrun Libya. By 2018, the conflict had evolved, and Haftar’s LNA was now fighting the internationally recognized Tripoli-based GNA in the Libyan Civil War.
Hoping to implement Gulfication strategies with Haftar, benefiting from French support to combat radical Islamic groups and to expand the UAE’s sphere of influence, MBZ continued providing drone strikes, military equipment and Sudanese mercenaries to the LNA. In 2019, Haftar was on the verge of taking Tripoli, but in February 2020, Turkey intervened in favor of the GNA, sending troops, materials and mercenaries. Suddenly, this pitted MBZ against Turkey’s Erdogan, who had many more troops to supply to the GNA.
As the tide of the war turned, with Haftar losing ground all the way to Sirte, MBZ doubled down in favor of the LNA. With his partners in the pro-LNA camp- France, Russia, Egypt- he set the red line of the Turkish advance at Sirte in the middle of the country, essentially dividing Libya in two. Bin-Zayed pushed Egypt to enforce this red line, and al-Sisi threatened an Egyptian armed intervention in Libya if the LNA lost Sirte. However, all of these actors have vastly different objectives in the conflict, notably Russia, and bin-Zayed is not the most powerful figure of the three. Without the ability to manoeuvre how he wants, MBZ’s policies in Libya could be weakened by his partners’ varying interests and Haftar’s multiplying allegiances.
MBZ’s vision of the UAE’s capacity to change to the region by implementing Gulfication without American help was reinforced by the 2013 Egyptian coup in favor of Sisi, and the initial successes in Libya-Yemen. However, caught in a series of complicated alliances and high stakes geopolitical struggles in these proxy conflicts, MBZ could be out of his depth. The Crown Prince has not actually engaged UAE troops in Libya, so the issue of an exit strategy is not as prevalent. Nevertheless, he will be keen to maintain his newfound influence in North Africa, ensuring a friendly partner in Haftar controls some or all of Libya. Unwilling to give up but caught in a difficult situation involving several regional (and global) powers, MBZ has been trapped in a complicated asymmetric conflict.
Although MBZ has not completely lost in Libya, his lofty ambitions were hampered by the Turkish intervention and GNA resistance. It’s now clear the Crown Prince overstepped, and engaged, like in Yemen, in a conflict he was not certain to win. Bin-Zayed suffers from a lack of manpower in the UAE forces and is realizing that air support alone cannot win conflicts, especially when foreign powers like Turkey or Iran are involved. His belief that the UAE could achieve important political, military and economic gains in the Middle East are being blunted by the Libyan and Yemeni conflicts. Although not completely successful, MBZ’s armed interventions in the Arab World have undoubtedly expanded the UAE’s geopolitical influence in the region, making the Emirates not only economic regional power but also a geopolitical regional power.
Intervention in Libya
On the 12th of August, 2020, Israel and the UAE announced they would be normalizing diplomatic ties. The initiative, led by MBZ and Netanyahu, is set to alter the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape. Indeed, the UAE is only the third Arab country to make a peace deal with Israel, after Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994). The peace deal will implement full diplomatic relations between both countries and open trade ties, creating new regional dynamics between two of the Middle East’s most developed countries. In exchange for UAE’s recognition, Netanyahu has pledged to suspend his plan to annex the West Bank.
The peace deal is a major foreign policy win for MBZ. He has been working closely with his Israeli counterpart to make the deal possible, building trust and common interests, notably in business. UAE-Israel relations are an important step in the peacebuilding process in the Middle East, as the formal recognition of Israel makes diplomatic exchanges possible on the region’s challenges.
MBZ knows that the peace deal with Israel is a clear sign that Sunni countries now see Iran as a bigger threat than the Hebrew country. Bin-Zayed is trying to further isolate Iran geopolitically, aiming to limit the spread of Iranian influence in Yemen and in Syria. The Crown Prince’s willingness to break the status quo came as a surprise, as the Palestinian leadership seemed shocked, and UAE adversaries, Iran and Turkey, denounced the deal, calling it traitorous. Other countries praised the deal, while Saudi Arabia’s MBS, considered the defender of the Sunni Palestinian struggle, stayed silent. This points to MBS unofficially supporting MBZ’s move, as the Saudi Prince has been in a precarious situation in the Yemeni conflict, especially because of Iran’s support of the Houthis. Bahrain has already followed suit, with Oman and Sudan poised to follow these footsteps in the near future.
Thus, MBZ has upended the established geopolitical balance in the Middle East. The opening of diplomatic relations with Israel makes him a clear leader on the Arabian Peninsula, expanding his geopolitical influence. Although he faced opposition in the Islamic world, notably due to the lack of attention paid to the Palestinian cause in the deal, MBZ was largely supported by the UAE’s population. Saudi Arabia’s apparent sanctioning of the peace deal reveals a significant shift of Sunni policy in the Middle East, which now opposes Iran rather than Israel. MBZ is proving to be a daring geopolitical leader, willing to challenge the established norms to serve his interests.