What does Sheikh Khalifa’s death mean for the UAE?

UAE Flag waving

In absolute monarchies such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), changes in personnel can be seismic. The death of Sheikh Khalifa is likely to buttress, even galvanise the vision of his successor and half-brother, the inimical Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed. In fact, Bin Zayed has been the de-facto power in the politics of the UAE for quite some time, now. He is credited, and by his opponents vilified, for turning the UAE into a “mini-Sparta” at the helm of military operations from Yemen to Libya. Bin Zayed is a part of a new generation of rulers on the Arabian Peninsula, such as Mohammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, who have been using their immense oil income to make equally gigantic investments into an offensive strike force to be employed all over the Arab world. Bin Zayed was also one of the architects of the so-called “Abraham Accords” which normalised the UAE’s relations with Israel – an unthinkable embrace even a decade ago.

Bin Zayed has also been behind visionary prestige projects to attract foreign investment, in particular in the tech-sector and in Artificial Intelligence, now especially also from Israel. By all standards available, Dubai has been an immense economic success story for its citizens. Abu Dhabi, where Bin Zayed is based, gravitates around the other Emirates as the political star and ensures that there is a nominal unity within the federalised system. The new President of the UAE is likely to build upon this gravitas of Abu Dhabi and centralise power around himself and his closest family members even further, all the while making sure that these policies don’t disturb the status quo or risk upsetting Dubai and the other, smaller sheikhdoms. In the absence of a political resurgence of the traditional republican powers in the Arab world, for instance Egypt and Algeria which seem politically stale, the pendulum of power will continue to swing from the Arab East and rotate around the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. Not only, therefore, but Mohammad Bin Zayed will also be a central figure in the geo-politics of this pivotal region of the world.

Prof. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam published most recently “What is Iran: Domestic Politics and International Relations in Five Musical Pieces” (Cambridge University Press, 2021). He is the current convenor of the SOAS MSc in The Politics of the Middle East.

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