The President of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, died on 13 May, aged 73, leading to only the second transfer of executive power in the federation since independence. The new President is Sheikh Khalifa’s half-brother, Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, colloquially known as “MBZ”, who has been a powerful voice in state policy for a decade or so, especially in foreign policy, and who is now the ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, as well as the federal executive.
The Pre-State Era
In 1820, the rulers of what would become the Emirates that make up the U.A.E. began signing truces with the British—hence becoming known as the “Trucial States”—and became informal British protectorates: not quite colonies, but London was responsible for their external security and the states were drawn into the broader fabric of the British Empire.
This situation held until 1971, when Britain withdrew “East of Suez” and the seven Trucial States signed a treaty whereby they were recognised as a unified, independent state. The first President of the independent U.A.E. was Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who died in 2004 and was replaced by his eldest son, Khalifa.
The Modern Era
The U.A.E. has undergone a rapid transformation since independence. The U.A.E. is in the top-ten states in terms of proven oil reserves and daily oil production. From a gross domestic product (GDP) of less than $1.5 billion in 1971, those numbers are now more than $350 billion.
This means the U.A.E. economy is 230 times—not percent—larger at the present time than it was half-a-century ago. There has been a vast expansion of population, from a quarter-million people in 1971, to nearly ten million residents now, around a million of them UAE citizens. The GDP per capita has increased from just over $5,000 to approximately $38,500, a nearly eight-fold increase.
The U.A.E. has maintained its close links to the West as partner in security and commerce, as reflected by the visit of the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, to the U.A.E. soon after Sheikh Khalifa’s passing to convey the condolences of the Queen. In an era where the Middle East is racked with intolerance and religious sectarianism, the U.A.E. has pioneered an alternative.
In 2019, for example, the U.A.E. opened the Abrahamic Family House, with a synagogue, a church, and a mosque under one roof. Further steps were taken domestically against extremism, notably banning the Muslim Brotherhood and reforming the deradicalization strategies, particularly in the prisons.
In 2020, the U.A.E., with Bahrain, led the way for regional peace by recognising the State of Israel under the Abraham Accords, and has expanded relations with the Jewish State ever since on multiple fronts from tourism to cyber technology. This, too, was reflected in the condolences sent to Abu Dhabi after Sheikh Khalifa’s death: the Roman Catholic Pope mourned the loss of a leader who had shown “distinguished and far-sighted leadership” and a “commitment to the values of dialogue, understanding, and solidarity between peoples and religious traditions”.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, where several states saw their long-standing rulers replaced by the Brotherhood and other Islamists, the U.A.E. led the way in containing this radicalism, notably by joining with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to ban the Muslim Brotherhood and isolate Arab regimes which support Islamists.
The U.A.E. has also been a potent actor in directly acting against Islamist terrorists, whether it is non-state actors like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, or the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran, acquiring the nickname “Little Sparta” from the Americans for its outsize contributions on these fronts.
In all of these changes, the new President played important roles. As the world moves into perhaps an even more uncertain time than the last decade, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine destabilising world food markets, as well as calling into question the safety of small states and the norms against using terrorism as an instrument of state policy, the U.A.E. will be important partner for world security.