On June 5, the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprised by the six Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, was hit by the gravest diplomatic crisis in its 36 years of existence after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain (followed by Egypt) cut ties overnight with Qatar, accusing it of destabilising the region and supporting extremist groups. The countries ejected Qatari diplomats, ordered Qatari citizens to leave their states within 14 days and halt all land, air and sea traffic with Qatar. This last measure is particularly dramatic given that the tiny country depends heavily on the globalised liberal economic order to survive, importing over 80 percento of its food consumption and exporting its main resource, energy, and is currently left with only a sea and air border with Iran. All considered, the move, accompanied by a formidable diplomatic pressure worldwide and the first instance of an intra-GCC media and information war, is unprecedented. It was even more surprisingly to realise, by a careful analysis of details and insiders’ information, that the architect behind the whole operation was the leader of another tiny country, Mohammad bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the United Arab Emirates.
The main signal of the UAE’s role was in the accusations. Qatar is accused of supporting and funding extremist and terrorist non-state actors of all kinds, and colluding with Saudi Arabia’s archenemy Iran. However, arguably, these accusations may represent a packaging attractive to the Western public opinion of other, deep-seated grievances. For example, if on one hand Qatari individuals and charities have indeed been identified in reports compiled by institutions worldwide, including the United States’ Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, as channeling money towards terrorist groups, all the same reports point to Kuwait as the most permissive – or negligent – in enacting counter-terrorism financing laws. If, on the other hand, Qatar has had for years a direct engagement with Iran, and Iran-backed groups in the region, it is Oman that was the GCC country playing a key role in the rehabilitation of Iran in the international community, by facilitating the nuclear deal signed in 2015. Still, nor Kuwait or Oman have been targeted by this isolation blitz. What is unique to Qatar, instead, is its relationship with political Islam, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood, at home and thorough the region.
When the Arab Spring erupted and Muslim Brotherhood groups began to emerge, challenging and obtaining power, the then ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, saw an opportunity to leverage Qatar’s long-standing relations with Brotherhood figures inside Doha’s bureaucracy to expand the country’s influence from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Syria and beyond. While the current leadership in Saudi Arabia has developed a working relation with key figures from the Brotherhood’s regional affiliates - including Rachid al-Ghannouchi of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani of Yemen’s al-Islah, and Hammam Saeed of the Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood - the Brotherhood is anathema to Abu Dhabi and to Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ). Under his input, the UAE since 2011 launched a full-fledged attack against the Muslim Brotherhood locally and regionally. The UAE declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group, arrested hundreds of supporters, heavily sponsored and backed the anti-Islamist leaders in Egypt, AbdelFattah al-Sisi, and Libya, Khalifa Haftar, both fighting directly against Qatar’s proxies in the two countries. A man of military culture, MbZ perceives political Islam as an existential threat to the UAE’s domestic and regional politics. First of all, the Brotherhood has sympathizers in the Northern Emirates of the UAE, who are thought to be plotting to establish independent political entities, thus disintegrating the UAE Federation. In addition, the emergence of the Brotherhood at a regional level would mean the defeat of the UAE’s regional allies, while losing regional influence would mean also the downsizing of Abu Dhabi’s posture with global allies. A hard—built posture.
Since his appointment as Crown Prince in 2004, when his father Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, died, Mohammad bin Zayed has overruled his elder, very ill, half-brother Khalifa, current president of the UAE. Under his leadership the UAE has first and foremost built its military profile internationally, through numerous small training missions abroad. These started with limited contributions to peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and East Africa in the 1990s, and continued from 2008 with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in Afghanistan led by NATO. Even though the Emiratis mostly provided niche capabilities, these theatres, and Afghanistan in particular, were key in testing its military forces in hostile, internationalised and politically important environments. The UAE forces started to earn praise and approval from global powers for their strategic contribution to battles as a small state, in particular due to the modernization and advanced capabilities of their air force. The 2011 NATO-led operation in Libya provided the opportunity to showcase this military prowess, as did air campaigns against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and, in particular, the Saudi-led war in Yemen, where the UAE managed to secure the southern region of the country more effectively and rapidly than Saudi Arabia. While in 2009 and then again in 2015 the Saudi military campaigns tarnished the reputation of their military as “unprofessional”, many in the international security community started to address the UAE with the nickname “Little Sparta”. In fact, already in the late years of the presidency of Barack Obama, the UAE had emerged as the Pentagon’s most reliable ally in the Arab world. Now, the presidency of Donald Trump provided the opportunity to also become the White House’s marshal in the region. The UAE is one of the main destinations, globally, for Trump’s business interests. In addition, the UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba, widely recognised as one of the more successful diplomats in DC, and very close to MbZ, developed a key relationship with presidential senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Otaiba is thought to have orchestrated, with Kushner’s help, MbZ’s semi-secret trip to the Trump Tower to meet President-elect Trump during the transition. Beyond that, Otaiba is also credited with arranging an informal lunch between Trump and the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman. Rumours have it that Otaiba and Kushner were constantly in contact regarding the Riyadh Summit during President Trump's visit in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Mohammad bin Zayed has determined to leverage the UAE’s privileged position with the White House in Riyadh, to cement his relationship with MbS, his bet for heir to the Saudi throne.
The relationship between Muhammad bin Zayed and Mohammad bin Salman can be really crucial for the region’s future. Oddily enough, they appear to have a mentee/mentor relationship, with the older MbZ acting as a brother-type figure to MbS. The Emirati Prince supports MbS as the next to the Saudi throne over the current Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Nayef, whose relationship with MbZ is of mutual contempt. Therefore, by cultivating his relationship with MbS and his chances to the throne, MbZ secures for himself a golden direct line with Riyadh and the unconditional support of the regional giant, Saudi Arabia, in his political endeavours. Putting together the UAE’s reputation in the international security community and its effective high-level network of diplomats around the world, with Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the Muslim world and its economic weight, the UAE’s leader could even become the reckless mastermind of a new Middle East.