May 14 marks the one-year anniversary of the appointment by the Federal Supreme Council of Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan as president of the United Arab Emirates. The appointment came the day after his accession as the ruler of Abu Dhabi, following the death of his half-brother, Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The anniversary provides a useful opportunity to review developments in the UAE that followed this pivotal transfer of power, particularly the Abu Dhabi ruler’s March 29 decision naming his son, Khaled bin Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince, and related appointments affecting three of his full Bani Fatima brothers. Such a review also sheds light on royal family dynamics, not only in Abu Dhabi, but also in the Gulf Arab states more broadly. It is likewise a useful prism for getting a read on the interplay between the reach of the Emirati state, centered in Abu Dhabi, and federal institutions for the seven emirates.
As now widely reported, on March 29, in his capacity as ruler of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed named his eldest son, Khaled, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the confirmed stepping stone to eventually becoming ruler of the emirate and by default the president of the UAE. That designation represents the culmination of what appears to have been a concerted effort by Mohammed bin Zayed over a number of years to prepare his son for the elevation, ensuring he gained experience and authority in security, governance, and energy and oil policymaking.
While crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed appointed his son to a series of important positions to provide him with the required underpinnings for eventual succession and maybe also to test his leadership and intellectual skills. Khaled was appointed head of the State Security Department in February 2016 and became deputy national security advisor in 2017. He also served as chairman of the powerful Abu Dhabi Executive Office, a government body that oversees implementation of strategic and executive plans. In December 2020, Khaled became a member of the board of the Supreme Council of Financial and Economic Affairs, a relatively new, empowered body overseeing Abu Dhabi’s economy. In 2019, he joined Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council, the main governing body of Abu Dhabi, and in a separate decree in late March, he was elevated to the top post of chairman – reporting directly to Mohammed bin Zayed.
Parallel with this gradual accession to pivotal positions of leadership, Khaled has, over the past couple of years, elevated his public profile, participating in international conferences in Abu Dhabi, meeting with visiting leaders, and going on official trips. He has also been regularly featured in the local media, leading initiatives in business, the arts, sports, climate, clean energy, and youth activities, among others.
Mohammed bin Zayed Appoints Bani Fatima Brothers to Key Positions
At the same time that he elevated his son to crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed issued separate decrees offering senior appointments to three of his full brothers. He named Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan (already serving as deputy prime minister and minister of the presidential court) as UAE vice president, a position he will share with the ruler of Dubai and prime minister, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Earlier in the month, Mansour was selected by the Mohammed bin Zayed-headed Supreme Council for Financial and Economic Affairs for Abu Dhabi to be chairman of Mubadala, the UAE’s $272 billion sovereign wealth fund where he had been serving as deputy chairman.
Mohammed bin Zayed also appointed his brothers Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan (who is presently national security advisor) and Hazza bin Zayed al-Nahyan deputy rulers of Abu Dhabi. With this appointment, Mohammed bin Zayed is formalizing their roles as two of his key advisors while providing the new crown prince with added support and guidance from his two uncles. In a related and highly significant appointment, Mohammed bin Zayed named Tahnoun chairman of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the emirate’s more than $750 billion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s second largest after Norway. The ADIA appointment consolidates Tahnoun’s position as one of the most influential members of the royal family overseeing both the family’s private wealth and the emirate’s key investment institutions. Tahnoun’s other positions include chairman of the smaller sovereign wealth fund, ADQ (with $157 billion in assets), and head of the First Abu Dhabi Bank, the country’s biggest lender. In line with these critical financial oversight positions, Tahnoun also heads the Royal Group, a private investment firm, which, according to Bloomberg, manages one of the world’s biggest family fortunes. In addition, he runs the huge International Holding Company, which grows non-oil business sectors in the UAE, including investments in health care, real estate, agriculture, information technology and communications, and retail (372 subsidiaries in all) in some 20 countries worldwide. Tahnoun has also been entrusted by Mohammed bin Zayed with behind-the-scenes statecraft, undertaking sensitive outreach to Turkey and Qatar, among others.
Mohammed bin Zayed, Tahnoun, Mansour, and Hazza are part of a cohort of six full brothers, the Bani Fatima, sons of UAE founder Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan and his third highly influential wife, Fatima bint Mubarak al-Ketbi. Analysts cite the new additional appointments in March for Mohammed bin Zayed’s brothers as further consolidating the power and influence of this group. It also includes Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the current foreign minister, and Hamdan bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the former minister of state for foreign affairs and now the ruler’s representative for the Al Dhafra region. Widely considered a talented group of administrators and modernizers, they also have a reputation for being dedicated hard workers with a strong sense of loyalty to each other and in particular to Mohammed bin Zayed, the eldest brother.
The past year for Mohammed bin Zayed has been one of moving up from de facto ruler finally into the new role of president. From accession to first anniversary, with these appointments, it appears he has grown comfortable enough in his new role to delegate some key responsibilities while remaining fully in charge as he consolidates power at the emirate and federal level with his full brothers. This consolidation was assessed by one Gulf-based analyst as “no secret,” even as Mohammed bin Zayed makes clear the royal line passes lineally rather than laterally. With this decision, he is following the tradition of his father, as founder and ruler, who passed power to his son, Khalifa, and in the manner in which Mohammed bin Zayed was chosen when his father named him deputy crown prince before his death in 2004. Given Zayed’s stature as the founding father of the nation, once he was named as deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed was on track to become crown prince when Khalifa became ruler. A number of analysts viewed these recent appointments as building on a tendency in the UAE, already evident, to centralize power in the hands of the Bani Fatima in running the emirate of Abu Dhabi but also in a careful manner that maintains power sharing dynamics and overall unity.
A Balancing of Division of Labor Between State and the Federal Government
Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla took issue with analysts perceiving in the recent moves an increase in political leverage for Abu Dhabi at the expense of commercial powerhouse Dubai. He noted that the appointments were in line with carefully balanced state and federal government divisions of labor long established in the country’s constitution.
Few analysts understand the strength of the relationship between Abu Dhabi and Dubai as the two most important emirates in the federation. Dubai, with its regional role as the commercial and transportation hub between East and West, is a strong, albeit a more junior, partner for Abu Dhabi. The oil wealth of Abu Dhabi allows it to play the key role in the federation as it covers the largest share of the federal budget, pays the full expense of the UAE’s armed forces, and spends heavily on development projects and infrastructure in the northern emirates, including a massive bailout of Dubai during the 2008-09 financial crisis. Since 9/11 and certainly after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, Abu Dhabi leadership, and Mohammed bin Zayed in particular, prioritized the importance of strengthening the unity of the federation and promoting the identity of a nation-state, especially among Emirati youth.
Recent Moves Viewed in Broader Gulf Context
Mohammed bin Zayed’s naming of his son as crown prince clarified the succession in a way that has been anticipated in several other Gulf states in the past decade, as ruling families moved away from informal but long-standing, often tribal-influenced consultative structures that drove succession decisions. Those traditions kept the succession path open for lateral successions by brothers or even cousins considered fit to rule and with the ability to build “supportive family coalitions.” Leaders in several Gulf states – including Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia – have moved away from those traditions and taken a range of steps, whether promulgating a new constitution and eventually abdicating the throne as in Qatar, amending the Basic Law to allow for the naming of a crown prince as in Oman, or improvising over time, in Saudi Arabia, as the long line of King Abdulaziz al-Saud’s sons came to an end and King Salman bin Abdulaziz chose to install his seventh son as crown prince. Mohammed bin Zayed’s moves, albeit unique in their way (with the 1996 constitution leaving it to each of the seven emirates to provide their own rules of succession), fit within this broader regional trend as he makes clear the royal line passes vertically rather than laterally. Commenting on Mohammed bin Zayed’s recent moves, AGSIW Senior Resident Scholar Kristin Smith Diwan, noting “the vertical consolidation of ruling lines” in the region, also found useful as a point of comparison a pattern of “greater state centralization” in Gulf states over time. Diwan and other scholars have noted these patterns, included but not limited to succession mechanisms, in the Gulf over the past two few decades, as the needs of modern statecraft in a “current complex era of strategic multipolarity” and fast-breaking economic events put a premium on streamlined power structures that expedite decision making, at the expense of the slower consultative, consensus-prizing traditions of monarchies in the past. Such developments are all the more key in the UAE, which has witnessed in its modern history, as Gulf scholar Kristian Coates Ulrichsen noted in his book on the UAE, a marked acceleration in the “processes of state formation and institutional consolidation.”
Naming a crown prince in monarchical politics also represents a preemptive insistence on a smooth, streamlined transfer of power that diminishes uncertainty in a succession and regarding the future. From this perspective, Mohammed bin Zayed’s careful clustering of decrees empowering his full brothers and son underscores the emphasis on smooth transition. Kuwait-based analyst Bader Al-Saif termed them a “well-executed mix of decrees” that support the stability and strength of the Al Nahyan rule, one that absorbs the change to a lineal model. Another analyst, speaking on background, also discerned a deft touch in the combination that wrapped a bold but well-prepared move, naming his son crown prince, with moves further empowering already powerful brothers, all of it in a way that further strengthens the rule of Mohammed bin Zayed.
With Mohammed bin Zayed calling the shots, several tendencies will continue: There will likely be further consolidation of the Bani Fatima, both in Abu Dhabi’s and in federal UAE politics. There will also likely be further entrenchment of the UAE’s regional and international ambitions, both political and economic, as well as a ruling vision that prizes education, tolerance, the role of women, and youth empowerment. Abu Dhabi is likely to continue to be supportive of the weaker emirates to ensure unity of the federation.
Moves Unlikely to Impact Foreign Relations
Regionally, partially because Mohammed bin Zayed’s decisions and new appointments fit with tendencies already well in train, these moves are not likely to be a cause of concern. On the other hand, such moves are unlikely, in themselves, to have impact in easing any frictions that may have developed with neighbors. Similarly, they are unlikely to affect the UAE’s traditionally strong although – occasionally in recent times – friction-pocked relationship with the United States.
As the UAE looks to commemorate Mohammed bin Zayed’s upcoming first anniversary as ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the country, it continues to keep its outward-facing political and economic ambitions, in tandem with its effective soft power and branding efforts, at the fore. Mohammed bin Zayed’s important but deftly managed moves – clarifying succession, further empowering his Bani Fatima cohort of siblings, while strengthening the UAE federation – allow the UAE to continue playing an ambitious leadership role in regional politics and on the global stage.