Who is Mohammed bin Zayed? As crown prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, known as MBZ, is one of the most powerful leaders in the Middle East. Jutting out from the southeastern edge of Saudi Arabia, the UAE is a tiny federation of city-states, home to 1 million citizens and 8 million foreign workers. But it sits in a strategically crucial spot opposite Iran on the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway in the Persian Gulf through which much of the world’s oil is exported. The UAE was founded 49 years ago by MBZ’s father, Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, and in that time the Sunni Muslim nation has transformed from the desert home of squabbling Bedouin tribes into an oil and natural gas powerhouse and global business hub. MBZ, 59, controls a sovereign wealth fund of $1.3 trillion and has made it his mission to contain Shiite Iran and to crush any form of populist Islamism—particularly the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood—that might endanger the rule of Arab monarchies.
How is MBZ taking on those threats? MBZ has spent hundreds of billions of dollars building the most advanced military in the Arab world, leading U.S. officials to nickname the UAE “Little Sparta.” The UAE has an arsenal of American weaponry; an army led by former U.S. officers and bulked up with Colombian, South African, and other mercenaries; and a high-tech intelligence service shaped by ex–U.S. spies. MBZ has used the military freely, most prominently to wage war alongside the Saudis against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. In Libya, MBZ has violated a United Nations embargo by sending arms, air support, and Sudanese fighters to warlord Khalifa Haftar, who is battling the Turkish-backed, Islamist-dominated central government. In Syria, he has sought to help Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in his war on Turkish-supported Islamist rebels. “We have created a little Frankenstein,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Is he close with the Saudis? MBZ is considered the true force behind the rise of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 35-year-old de facto ruler. When bin Salman ousted and succeeded his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince in 2017 and then purged all those loyal to the previous leadership—detaining hundreds of officials and members of the royal family—it was MBZ who was whispering in his ear. MBZ then convinced Washington that bin Salman was a man they could deal with. The relationship, says William Law, editor of Arab Digest, is “one where MBZ exploits the immaturity, the arrogance, and the ambition of MBS to achieve his ends.” Bin Zayed helped push Saudi Arabia to invade Yemen in 2015, for example, and two years later to blockade Qatar (see box), which has cooperated with Iran and funded Islamist movements.
What does the U.S. think of him? Trained at a British military academy, MBZ impressed American officials early on by persuading his father to pay $4 billion to the U.S. in 1991 to help fund the Gulf War. Former President Barack Obama spoke often with MBZ while in office, until the two fell out over the Arab Spring. Obama supported the rise of Arab pro-democracy movements, but MBZ argued that elections would produce only Islamist leaders. “The Middle East,” he once said, “is not California.” His prediction proved true in Egypt, and the UAE bankrolled the 2013 military coup that replaced President Mohammed Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—with Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Ties with the U.S. have strengthened under President Trump, whose son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner held a secret meeting with MBZ a month before Trump took office. More recently, the White House agreed to sell the UAE 50 advanced F-35 fighter jets as part of a $23 billion arms deal. That sale is seen by many analysts as a reward for the UAE normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel this summer.
What’s MBZ’s human rights record? The UAE is more tolerant than many Arab nations. Unlike Saudi Arabia, it allows foreign workers to worship in Christian churches and Hindu temples. Women have more rights than in neighboring countries; a third of UAE cabinet members are women. But the UAE has no press freedom and a hideous record of abusing the low-wage Asian migrants who have built and worked in cities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai. MBZ has viciously suppressed domestic dissent— voicing support for Qatar on social media can result in prison time—and closely surveils activists, journalists, and politicians. The war in Yemen has caused massive suffering, with more than 20,000 civilians dead and 10 million at risk of famine.
How will he deal with Biden? MBZ knows Joe Biden well from the Obama administration, and he was quick to congratulate the president-elect on his victory in November. But he realizes that a Biden administration will be less accommodating toward Emirati military adventurism, and more critical of its human rights record. Biden did support Trump’s Abraham Accords deal between Israel and the UAE, but Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has expressed “concerns” about the F-35 sale. A bipartisan group of senators failed to block that deal last week, but because delivery of the planes will take years, the Biden administration could still undo the transfer. Preventing that will be a top goal for MBZ over the next four years.