The second president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was depicted as a critical figure in the Emirates’ rapid rise in the last two decades, died on May 13 at the age of 73. Following his death, questions have been raised about new President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s goals in the region, especially with regard to Turkiye.
Sheikh Khalifa’s legacy
Sheikh Khalifa’s heirship to the throne overlapped with the British protectorate in the UAE and the emergence of sudden oil wealth. Thus, he was the last ruler to bridge the UAE’s past — when the federal government had not yet been established — and its current status as a global economic and regional power. His legacy and power, thus, are supported by various forms of power amid these transitions and changes.
Unconventionally, before his death in 2004, Sheikh Zayed appointed Mohammed bin Zayed as deputy crown prince to Sheikh Khalifa. Enacting Mohammed bin Zayed as a crown prince to Shaikh Khalifa before his death enhanced the UAE’s political stability and assured the succession among Shaikh Zayed’s sons rather than Sheikh Khalifa’s own family. Since he was already involved in foreign and domestic politics, Mohammed bin Zayed’s succession followed the regular succession tradition and the policymaking procedure.
Mohammed bin Zayed’s path to the throne
Sheikh Khalifa had stepped back from running government affairs after suffering a stroke in 2014. Once Sheikh Khalifa receded from governance, Mohammed bin Zayed began to be perceived as the de facto ruler thanks to his reputation as a proactive leader.
Both Mohammed bin Zayed and Sheikh Khalifa began their careers in the military after graduating from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Despite some public debate about the two leaders’ divergent political viewpoints, Mohammed bin Zayed has represented a wide range of political choices since 2014 by adopting a proactive foreign policy, secular-leaning reforms, and a sort of nationalistic approach to domestic politics.
The death of Sheikh Khalifa will therefore pave the way for Mohammed bin Zayed’s agenda on domestic and regional policies, as he holds almost absolute power despite the federal rule. Several game-changing foreign policy decisions have already been taken under his lead since the Arab Spring. These include; joining a Saudi-led war and supporting secessionists in southern Yemen, imposing an embargo on neighboring Qatar, declaring war on political Islam, normalizing relations with Israel, and taking inconsistent positions towards Turkiye.
Can Mohammed bin Zayed name his son crown prince?
Sheikh Mohammed’s strategies increased his legacy and power both inside and beyond the UAE and centralized the policymaking at the ‘Bani Fatima Block’, which refers to the sons of Shaikh Zayed from his third wife, Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi. As a result of his greater involvement in policymaking than is typical for a crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed’s power within the Al-Nahyan royal family has grown.
Despite the federal rule, concerns about a shift in Abu Dhabi’s succession policy have arisen as a result of the centralization of power and the limitation of decision-making procedures to a small group of people: Can Mohammed bin Zayed name his son crown prince?
There is not a strict procedure for appointing the crown prince in Abu Dhabi. However, thanks to Mohammed bin Zayed’s current position of power, it wouldn’t be surprising if he broke the tradition and chose his eldest son, Sheikh Khaled, given his unusual political choices during the Arab upheavals. Nevertheless, he would also be able to reassure his power and legacy by following the traditional succession line. This would ensure that he would not face any severe challenges in the early stages of his tenure as an Emirati ruler. In any scenario, the earliest nomination of an heir apparent is better for the country’s stability.
Implications for Gulf politics
Mohammed bin Zayed has dominated UAE’s domestic and regional policies since the Arab revolts erupted. Through his initiatives, balanced political and military measures have replaced self-assertive and buck-passing strategies through constructive engagements in Emirates’ foreign policymaking. In contrast to traditional hedging strategies among various power calculations, Mohammed bin Zayed’s regional policy prioritizes economic and military interests while consolidating internal power.
The UAE’s present ties to Egypt, the Syrian regime, and Israel are the most prominent examples of its growing assertiveness, and Mohammed bin Zayed’s consolidated power in the new era may underline these choices. Furthermore, his absolute authority over foreign affairs might lead to further engagements in Libya and Yemen, where the Emirati military has taken both direct and indirect action.
There may be a structural complexity associated with the UAE’s strategies under Mohammed bin Zayed, which must strike a delicate balance between maintaining self-assertive tools and ensuring the legacy of his leadership in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Middle East.
Relations with Turkiye
Like the other world leaders, Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a condolence visit to Abu Dhabi after the death of Sheikh Khalifa. Erdogan’s visit is important for bilateral relations because the two countries have recently begun to discuss disagreements in several areas, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the 2017 Gulf Crisis, and policies regarding the Mediterranean, Egypt, and Libya.
Mohammed bin Zayed is a leader who clearly stated his red lines and pragmatism amid the strains of the past decade. The UAE’s ties with Turkiye will probably not evolve into a new form in this era. This is because Mohammed bin Zayed’s role and preferences are underlined even more thanks to his appointment as the president. On the other hand, since he is the leader who leads a normalization process with Turkiye, the expectation is to improve bilateral ties, as it has been on the cards since last year.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.— AA