Mohammed bin Zayed-Socio-Cultural

Mohammed bin Zayed

To further domestic and geopolitical goals, MBZ has frequently sought to exploit the UAE’s socio-economic strengths and weaknesses. In continuation of his political reform of UAE’s administration, MBZ realized that he had to strengthen the country’s social fabric, uniting citizens around common objectives, goals and the UAE’s president. To do this, he implemented a mandatory military service in 2014, which was highly successful. A patron of the arts, MBZ uses arts to forge alliances with Western nations while shaping the UAE into a pivotal cultural hub in the Middle East. However, MBZ has come under fire by the international community for his extensive use of a surveillance state, human rights abuses and the use of Sharia law. In this section, we will see how Mohamed bin-Zayed’s socially liberal autocracy handles cultural and social challenges. 

Mandatory Military Service

MBZ’s reform of the political administration in the mid-2000s made the Crown Prince realize that the UAE’s social fabric needed to be strengthened. Indeed, the UAE had historically been inhabited by loose confederations of tribes, which each held allegiance to their Sheikh. Even after the creation of the UAE, many Emiratis were not united around the President, but around their tribe’s Sheikh. To reinforce the UAE’s central power (led by Abu Dhabi), in 2014 MBZ made military service mandatory in the UAE. 

This military service has been efficient, as it reinforced social cohesion while providing the manpower to match the UAE’s constant purchases of new weapons. Social cohesion is key, especially amongst the different tribes that make up the 7 Emirati kingdoms, to guarantee internal stability. By training young men under the banner of the UAE (and not the individual kingdoms), MBZ made all military draftees loyal to the UAE’s President (and indirectly to him, as Khalifa is the president and head of the army, but MBZ has the power). The Emirati population has strongly supported this military service, appreciating the state building practice, experience given to the youth, and the surge in power of UAE’s military. Thus, MBZ has used the military service to build a sense of common purpose and national identity in the UAE.

Louvre Abu Dhabi and Patronage of the Arts

MBZ is known as a prominent patron of arts. He recognizes that arts are a universal point of interest, capable of providing the link between countries and continents. Through art, MBZ seeks to display that the UAE is a cultural hub, ready to welcome cultures, art and individuals from across the world. Furthermore, art is a key diplomatic tool, allowing MBZ to strengthen ties with other world leaders through the loan or purchase of artwork. 

In light of his will to make the UAE a cultural center in the Middle East, MBZ approached the French government in mid-2007 to build a Louvre in Abu Dhabi. The Crown Prince faced significant opposition within France, as many in the art world rejected the sale of the brand- “The Louvre is not for sale!”, while others disagreed with sending a cornerstone of French culture to the Middle East. By 2007, the French government accepted the deal, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi was inaugurated in 2017. The naming rights, loan of artwork and counsel by the Louvre cost bin-Zayed over $1.3 billion.

Bin-Zayed showed his diplomatic cunning, as through diplomacy and his checkbook, he was able to overcome the opposition of French public opinion to seal the deal. The displayed art is mostly European, with Da Vinci, David, Van Gogh, Monet, Gaugin, Magritte and many others. The museum also has a renowned exposition of photography. The Louvre Abu Dhabi strongly reinforced relations between UAE and France, giving bin-Zayed a key European ally and France a key Middle Eastern ally. The alliance between France and the UAE would only grow from the Louvre Abu Dhabi, notably on security questions, with both countries working together in the Libyan Civil War. 

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is part of a US$27 billion tourist and cultural development project for Saadiyat Island, a complex which is planned to include three other museums, including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum. This MBZ led-project is spearheading the internationalization of museums and art, while representing the drive to fashion the UAE as a cultural center in the Middle East. The Crown Prince successfully exploited the art world’s new direction, using its newfound globalization to forge strong links with Western powers. The art exchanges MBZ orchestrated have filled key trust building stages in the construction of UAE’s strategic alliances with France and the US. This surge in alliances and cultural wealth increases UAE’s influence in the Middle East, bolstering its status of regional power.

MBZ’s Surveillance State and Human Rights in the UAE

When MBZ cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and reformed the administration in the mid-2000s, he sought to guarantee domestic security at all costs. His political system, a socially liberal autocracy, depends on his ability to guarantee domestic security while elevating the standard of living of his citizens in a capitalist system. To fight back against the Islamic threat, MBZ heavily invested in surveillance technology, notably targeting the internet, phone calls and financial services such as money transfers. MBZ leads an autocratic political system, and as an autocrat, he is unwilling to surrender his leadership position. Therefore, bin-Zayed’s surveillance state quickly became a way for him to spy on fellow family members who might pose a threat and political dissidents while continuing counterterrorism measures. Constant surveillance of the web means freedom of speech is limited, while there have been many accounts of arrests and torture of political dissidents. 

As such, the UAE is listed as “Not Free” by Freedom House. Furthermore, the UAE still uses a form of Sharia law for certain legal rulings (family law, alcohol consumption, robbery), which is not considered a free and equitable justice system. UAE citizens can be flogged, imprisoned for crimes such as drinking, blasphemy, or extramarital sex. Over 100 political activists were arrested during the Arab Spring in the UAE. Expatriates are sometimes deported for violating Emirati law, for instances such as kissing in public, blasphemy (even on social media), and drinking in public.

UAE does not have a labor system with the right of demonstration, strike or labor unions for migrant workers. Most workers in the UAE are migrants (of the 9.5 million people living in the UAE, 11.5% are Emirati citizens and 88.5% are immigrants), who are often brought on tourism visas as it is cheaper for companies to hire them. If they protest their work conditions, they are deported. Domestic servants have also shared the same fate.

MBZ has stuck with this system, as it fits the UAE’s power structure which is based on political stability, security and economic development. Although MBZ toned down the regularity and severity of Sharia Law rulings, he has stepped up political repression through the surveillance state. The UAE’s economic development, notably in infrastructure, is partly achieved through the exploitation of foreign workers, while Sharia laws keep citizens in line. 

MBZ has little power to alter the dynamics of Sharia law. As the UAE is an Islamic country, with many prominent Islamic scholars, the Crown Prince cannot ignore the influence or historical rights of the religious community. Furthermore, some Islamic scholars sided with bin-Zayed throughout the “culture war” with the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, MBZ had to reward these moderate influences by giving them positions of power. Unwilling to bring political Islam into UAE politics, MBZ upheld the religious courts, creating a new “Fatwa Court” in 2017 which would handle judicial rulings of certain cases, while fighting against extremist Islamic teachings. 

Thus, through the surveillance state, MBZ is able to guarantee domestic security, while solidifying his power through espionage and political repression. The use of Sharia law in certain judicial rulings satisfies the Islamic leaders in the UAE, showing the UAE is still an Islamic federation and keeping these religious leaders on his side. The lack of labor laws for migrant workers gives MBZ a large pool of cheap workforce, driving infrastructure and other economic projects. This system perfectly fits bin-Zayed’s socially liberal autocracy. However, the Crown Prince has been criticized at home and abroad for the human rights abuses and lack of free speech. He has paid out a couple of large settlements in foreign courts to individuals accusing him of torture and forced disappearance but bar these setbacks, has not truly faced backlash for his political system

Promoting Tolerance and Philanthropy

MBZ has also been a driver for tolerance, amidst the traditionally rigid Islamist societies of the Arabian Peninsula. In February 2019, MBZ welcomed Pope Francis to the UAE, marking the first papal visit to the Arabic Peninsula. 180,000 people from 100 different countries gathered to listen to the Pope, painting the UAE as an open country accepting all peoples and cultures. These efforts are in continuation of MBZ’s patronage of the arts, which seek to fashion the UAE into a cultural hub in the Middle East, open to all.  MBZ then launched a conference entitled “Global Conference of Human Fraternity” and the Zayed Global Fund for Coexistence, which promotes tolerance, mutual understanding and countering extremism. 

Bin-Zayed is also involved in philanthropy, using his personal fortune to fund humanitarian causes, notably disease prevention. He has donated tens of millions of dollars to buy anti-malaria vaccines, medication and research. MBZ also launched the Zayed Charity Marathon, raising millions for prevention of kidney disease (in honor of his father). 

Political manipulation or pure conviction, these efforts paint MBZ and the UAE in a more moderate light, counterbalancing the West’s negative view of Sharia law and labor laws. These philanthropic and tolerance programs have strengthened MBZ’s alliances with Western allies, while improving his image to international public opinion. Through these humanitarian projects, MBZ seeks to make the UAE stand out in the Middle East as a cultural hub and center of tolerance. However, these acts clash with the Crown Prince’s human rights violations in Yemen and Libya, surveillance state and curtailment of free speech in the UAE. 

David Salinger

R&A Editor in Chief