With MBZ’s promotion, Sheikha Fatima sons take centre stage

Gulf States Newsletter (GSN) Issue 724 - 12 November 2003

By promoting his favourite wife’s sons, Sheikh Zayed has moved to clarify the long-term succession line in Abu Dhabi, in the process shaping the future direction of UAE politics.
Abu Dhabi’s Ruler Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahayan has moved to clarify the long-term succession line in the Emirate – and implicitly the presidency of the UAE – by appointing armed forces Chief-of-staff Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed as Deputy Crown Prince.

The consensus is that Sheikh Zayed will be succeeded as President of the UAE and Emir of Abu Dhabi by the present Crown Prince, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed. But Sheikh Khalifa is not a young man, while his half-brother Sheikh Mohammed – widely known as MBZ – was born only in 1961.
MBZ is already one of the most prominent figures in the ruling family, a chief of the armed forces and a significant diplomatic and policy player.
The MBZ move comes only weeks after his full brother Sheikh Hamdan was promoted to Deputy Prime Minister (GSN 723/11).

The MBZ appointment reinforces stability in the leadership of the UAE, setting out a long-term leadership line while implicitly confirming the allocation of roles and responsibilities that has emerged in Abu Dhabi over the past few years, and particularly since the octogenarian Sheikh Zayed’s kidney transplant in 2000. Sheikh Zayed continues to undergo regular medical treatment (GSN 722/9, 721/5).

Sheikh Khalifa’s own position as Crown Prince – once the subject of some resentment among younger siblings – is now undisputed. He is effectively head of day-to-day government in Abu Dhabi, having developed his court into what is effectively a prime minister’s office, with its own administration, research department and public relations team, linked to the Akhbar Al-Arab paper.

Sheikh Khalifa has recently begun to assume an international diplomatic role, for example, through visits to the UK and France (GSN 716/7, 712/20).

But the Crown Prince has left much of the day-to-day management of foreign policy and international public relations to Sheikh Zayed’s four sons by Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, the Ruler’s most prominent wife and a substantial liberalising influence – MBZ, Deputy Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamdan, Information Minister Sheikh Abdallah and Sheikh Hazza, head of the security services (GSN 698/7).

This led to some (hotly contested) speculation that while Khalifa would eventually take over in Abu Dhabi, MBZ could emerge as a future federal president. This is unlikely, although Sheikh Mohammed’s appointment has shifted the conventional hierarchy.

Sheikh Zayed’s second son, Sheikh Sultan, is older. However, MBZ has assumed a more prominent role and broad range of responsibilities. Sultan, like Khalifa, has cultivated strong connections among the tribal networks that play such an important role in Abu Dhabi politics, but there have been whisperings about his position following delays to such high-profile projects as the huge Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi city.

MBZ, has taken on a string of public positions. Not only is he chief-of-staff and his father the President’s official adviser on security, MBZ also steered the UAE’s policy response to the challenging post-11 September 2001 environment. He frequently receives foreign visitors and accompanied Sheikh Khalifa on an important official visit to London in mid-2003.

MBZ is close to Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. Because of the latter’s federal Defence Minister post that is partly a professional necessity; but it also reflects personal sympathies. The two Mohammeds enjoy each others’ company, not just as political partners.

This Dubai connection gives MBZ an important role in UAE federal decision-making. He has also built up a position of considerable influence in economic matters, as a member of the Petroleum Council, a regular participant in policy and legislative planning, and head of the of the UAE Offsets Group, the parastatal vehicle for major infrastructure and business projects.

Like many of the Gulf’s younger military officer princes, the Sandhurst-trained MBZ also has a shrewd eye for roles that will bolster his popular profile. He is chairman of Al-Ain football club, which has been featuring prominently in the Asian Champions League. A veiled hint at his forthcoming rise in profile came in late October, with the renaming of Al-Jazira Sports Stadium as the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium.

Clarifying the succession

There have been times when MBZ was rumoured to be resentful of Sheikh Khalifa’s prominence as Crown Prince. But more recently he has appeared comfortable in his reinforced role.

After his appointment, MBZ went out of his way to ensure that his rise was not interpreted as any kind of weakening in Khalifa’s position, stressing his personal loyalty both to the revered Zayed and to the Crown Prince.

Now he is officially designated as second in line to the Emirate, MBZ is certain to attract more attention, among emirates, foreign governments and business interests. He will be seen as a key player whose interest and support is potentially valuable.

Until his official designation, it had been unclear how the succession would evolve. Both Sultan and MBZ were seen as possible crown princes to Khalifa. The latter’s own sons, notably Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalifa, had also begun to take a more prominent role.

But Sheikh Zayed’s 30 November decree on the succession makes matters crystal clear, stating that appointment as Deputy Crown Prince authorises Mohammed to assume the position of Crown Prince when this becomes vacant. The decree formally revokes any earlier provisions that might have had a contrary effect.

In theory Khalifa could yet change the succession in favour of his own sons once he does become ruler. But the decision of Zayed – who commands a unique degree of personal respect and popular affection – to set out a clear succession line will carry enormous weight well into the future. The course he has set could not easily be ignored, especially in a political system where consensus and tribal support is so important.

The Abu Dhabi authorities also announced that, in making the decision, Sheikh Zayed had reviewed Law No. 1 of 1974, which established the structure of governance, and Emiri Decree No. 15, of 1976, which dealt with the formation of the Crown Prince’s Court and chairmanship of the Executive Council.

This obliquely raises the question of whether MBZ will develop a formal office of the deputy crown prince, which assumes officially designated functions, or whether he will continue essentially to work through the various positions he already holds.

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