The president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed, died on May 13, 2022. Although he officially became the Head of State in 2004, Sheikh Khalifa had not ruled long before a bout of ill-health in 2008 forced him to place the affairs of state in the hands of his half-brother, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ). In 2014, a stroke forced to the Sheikh to withdraw entirely from public life. However, even before his stroke, Sheikh Khalifa appeared overshadowed by his Crown Prince brother who had been handpicked by his father in a manner that deprived Sheikh Khalifa from choosing his own successor.

The lengthy absence of Sheikh Khalifa from state affairs allowed MbZ to establish himself as the de facto ruler. This reality is smoothing the transition to MbZ’s as successor and helped prevent the fierce power struggles seen in recent times in neighboring families, such as Saudi Arabia’s Al Saud.

MbZ’s choice for his own Crown Prince appears to be more complicated.

Yet, while MbZ’s ascension is so far a smooth affair, his choice for his own Crown Prince appears to be more complicated. Questions regarding Abu Dhabi’s apparent dominance over state politics are being asked.

Abu Dhabi’s Dominance

Article 51 of UAE’s 1971 Constitution states that the president is elected from among the seven rulers of the emirates. Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, was renowned for his ability to forge consensus between the various ruling families in a manner that enabled the cohesion necessary for the UAE to become the powerhouse that it is today. As part of maintaining this cohesion, Sheikh Zayed introduced a complicated set of checks and balances into the constitution to ensure the buy-in of the various families in a manner that facilitated the unity of the state.

Sheikh Zayed was renowned for his ability to forge consensus between the various ruling families.

Yet, with MbZ’s ascension as president, there is an apparent hierarchy unfolding in which Abu Dhabi now appears to have a solid grip over the presidency. This raises uncomfortable questions among the UAE leading families over the extent to which the checks and balances of the constitution remain effective in preventing the over-centralization of power. Many analysts viewed Abu Dhabi’s bailout of Dubai following the financial crisis as a means by which MbZ was able to establish a permanent check on the traditionally-influential ruler of Dubai and UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. With Dubai no longer the effective political power it once was as a result of its dependence on Abu Dhabi’s loans, the question as to how the other Emirates feel about MbZ’s centralization of power is compounded by their inability to effectively do anything about it even if they wanted to.

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Appointing a Crown Prince

Although Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed succeeded his father, his Crown Prince was already chosen for him by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, who had fast-tracked his son Mohamed through the state positions and elevated him to the position of Deputy Crown Prince. This suggests his father had already ear-marked MbZ for the leadership of the UAE. The decision brought about its own dynamics through which MbZ was able to amass power (perhaps even at the expense of Khalifa Bin Zayed) and cement his authority without needing to assume the title of President.

Unlike his predecessor, MbZ is in a more advantageous position regarding the selection of a Crown Prince. The first advantage is that, barring ill health, MbZ is expected to rule the UAE for at least another decade –– if not more. This means that whoever he chooses as Crown Prince is unlikely to be able to overshadow him during this period in which he is expected to continue to be in his prime. It also means an effective continuity regarding his domestic and foreign policy that has been carefully built by him over a decade in which he has been able to transform the state into one that is loyal and conducive to achieving his goals.

MbZ is in no rush to appoint his preferred Crown Prince.

The second advantage is that MbZ is in no rush to appoint his preferred Crown Prince. The two names currently being touted are those of his brother Tahnoun Bin Zayed and his son Khalid Bin Mohammed. As with any matter concerning the appointment of Crown Princes, MbZ will need to consider the dynamics of a family that traditionally expects rulership to pass horizontally from brother to brother rather than vertically from father to son. Yet, given the time that MbZ can reasonably expect to have in power, he does have the option to appoint a candidate that appeases the family while grooming a preferred, less-public candidate by appointing him to key decision-making posts. MbZ can then maintain the power dynamics in his favor by limiting the Crown Prince’s involvement in actual decision-making processes and limiting the role to low profile attendances at local events.

Yet, MbZ is not the only heavyweight in Abu Dhabi. His brothers, Tahnoun Bin Zayed and Mansour Bin Zayed, are considered integral to his rule and have amassed their own power and wealth. Both are also notably younger than MbZ. Their experience in power and business also suggest that they may legitimately have expectations of succeeding MbZ in the long run, or at least ensuring that he passes on the rulership horizontally rather than to his son Khalid.

Much of MbZ’s power stems from his ability to maintain unity among those of influence within his family. Tahnoun represented MbZ in talks with Iran and in the rapprochement process with Turkey. Mansour is the Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE, the owner of Manchester City Football Club, and is heavily involved in the PR soft power machine that has helped Abu Dhabi avoid the public scrutiny that its certain controversial actions and expansive foreign policymight otherwise attract.

However, all things considered, MbZ is expected to maintain the balance of power in the UAE and surge ahead with his foreign policy. This has propelled the UAE to such a level that US President Joe Biden sent an exceptionally high-level delegation to the UAE in a bid to make amends with a new UAE President, who is currently unhappy and irritated with Washington. For now, it appears that MbZ’s has everything where he needs it to be to continue ruling uninterrupted.