Most Powerful Arab Ruler Isn’t M.B.S. It’s M.B.Z.
By David D.
New York Times
June 2, 2019
DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the 29-year-old
commander of the almost negligible air force of the United Arab Emirates, had
come to Washington shopping for weapons.
1991, in the months after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the young prince wanted
to buy so much military hardware to protect his own oil-rich monarchy — from
Hellfire missiles to Apache helicopters to F-16 jets — that Congress worried
he might destabilize the region.
the Pentagon, trying to cultivate accommodating allies in the Gulf, had
identified Prince Mohammed as a promising partner. The favorite son of the
semi-literate Bedouin who founded the United Arab Emirates, Prince Mohammed was
a serious-minded, British-trained helicopter pilot who had persuaded his father
to transfer $4 billion into the United States Treasury to help pay for the 1991
war in Iraq.
A. Clarke, then an assistant secretary of state, reassured lawmakers that the
young prince would never become “an aggressor.”
U.A.E. is not now and never will be a threat to stability or peace in the
region,” Mr. Clarke said in congressional testimony. “That is very hard to
imagine. Indeed, the U.A.E. is a force for peace.”
years later, Prince Mohammed, now 58, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto
ruler of the United Arab Emirates, is arguably the most powerful leader in the
Arab world. He is also among the most influential foreign voices in Washington,
urging the United States to adopt his increasingly bellicose approach to the
Mohammed is almost unknown to the American public and his tiny country has fewer
citizens than Rhode Island. But he may be the richest man in the world. He
controls sovereign wealth funds worth $1.3 trillion, more than any other
influence operation in Washington is legendary (Mr. Clarke got rich on his
payroll). His military is the Arab world’s most potent, equipped though its
work with the United States to conduct high-tech
surveillance and combat operations far beyond its borders.
decades, the prince has been a key American ally, following Washington’s lead,
but now he is going his own way. His special forces are active in Yemen, Libya,
Somalia and Egypt’s North Sinai. He has worked to thwart democratic
transitions in the Middle East, helped install a reliable autocrat in Egypt and
boosted a protégé to power in Saudi Arabia.
times, the prince has contradicted American policy and destabilized neighbors.
Rights groups have criticized him for jailing dissidents at home, for his role
in creating a
humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and for backing the Saudi prince whose agents
killed the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi.
under the Trump administration, his influence in Washington appears greater than
ever. He has a rapport with President Trump, who has frequently adopted the
prince’s views on Qatar, Libya and Saudi Arabia, even over the advice of
cabinet officials or senior national security staff.
diplomats who know the prince — known as M.B.Z. — say he is obsessed with
two enemies, Iran and the
Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Trump has sought to move strongly against both and
last week took steps to bypass
congressional opposition to keep selling weapons to both Saudi Arabia
and the United Arab Emirates.
has an extraordinary way of telling Americans his own interests but making it
come across as good advice about the region,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy
national security adviser under President Barack Obama, whose sympathy for the
Arab Spring and negotiations with Iran brought blistering criticism from the
Emirati prince. When it comes to influence in Washington, Mr. Rhodes added,
“M.B.Z. is in a class by himself.”
Mohammed worked assiduously before the presidential election to crack Mr.
Trump’s inner circle, and secured a secret meeting during the transition
period with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The prince also tried
to broker talks between the Trump administration and Russia, a gambit that later
entangled him in the special counsel’s investigation into foreign election
at least five people working for Prince Mohammed have been caught up in criminal
investigations growing out of that inquiry. A regular visitor to the United
States for three decades, Prince Mohammed has now stayed away for two years, in
part because he fears prosecutors might seek to question him or his aides,
according to two people familiar with his thinking. (His brother, the foreign
minister, has visited.)
United Arab Emirates’ Embassy in Washington declined to comment. The
prince’s many American defenders say it is only prudent of him to try to shape
United States policy, as many governments do, and that he sees his interventions
as an attempt to compensate for an American pullback.
Prince Mohammed’s critics say that his rise is a study in unintended
consequences. The obscure young prince whom Washington adopted as a pliant ally
is now fanning his volatile region’s flames.
arming the United Arab Emirates with such advanced surveillance technology,
commandos and weaponry, argued Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department
official and fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We have created a little
Arab royals are paunchy, long-winded and prone to keep visitors waiting. Not
graduated at the age of 18 from the British officers’ training program at
Sandhurst. He stays slim and fit, trades tips with visitors about workout
machines, and never arrives late for a meeting.
officials invariably describe him as concise, inquisitive, even humble. He pours
his own coffee, and to illustrate his love for America, sometimes tells visitors
that he has taken his grandchildren to Disney World incognito.
makes time for low-ranking American officials and greets senior dignitaries at
the airport. With a shy, lopsided smile, he will offer a tour of his country,
then climb into a helicopter to fly his guest over the skyscrapers and lagoons
of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
was always a ‘wow’ factor with M.B.Z.,” recalled Marcelle Wahba, a former
American ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
the capital, Abu Dhabi, he has overseen a construction craze that has hidden the
former coastline behind man-made islands. One is intended to become a financial
district akin to Wall Street. Another includes a campus of New York University, a
franchise of the Louvreand a planned extension of the Guggenheim.
he meets Americans, Prince Mohammed emphasizes the things that make the United
Arab Emirates more liberal than their neighbors. Women have more opportunities:
A third of the cabinet ministers are female.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates allow Christian churches and Hindu or
Sikh temples, partly to accommodate a vast foreign work force. (The country is
estimated to have nine million residents, but fewer than a million citizens; the
rest are foreign workers.)
underscore the point, the prince last year created a Ministry of Tolerance and
declared this the “Year of Tolerance.” He has hosted the Special Olympics
and Pope Francis.
think he has done admirable work not just in diversifying the economy but in
diversifying the system of thought of the population as well,” said Gen. John
R. Allen, former commander of United States and N.A.T.O. forces in Afghanistan,
now president of the Brookings Institution. (In between, General Allen was an
adviser to the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Defense.)
United Arab Emirates are a tiny federation of city-states, yet Abu Dhabi alone
accounts for 6 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, making it a
tempting target to a larger neighbor like Iran. In 1971, when the U.A.E. gained
independence from Britain, the shah of Iran seized three disputed Persian Gulf
Muslim Brotherhood, a 90-year-old Islamist movement founded in Egypt, has
become mainstream in many Arab countries. On that subject, Prince
Mohammed says his dread is more personal.
father assigned a prominent Brotherhood member, Ezzedine Ibrahim, as Prince
Mohammed’s tutor, and he attempted an indoctrination that backfired, the
prince often says.
am an Arab, I am a Muslim and I pray. And in the 1970s and early 1980s I was one
of them,” Prince Mohammed told visiting American diplomats in 2007, as they
reported in a classified cable released by WikiLeaks. “I believe these guys
have an agenda.”
worries about the appeal of Islamist politics to his population. As many as 80
percent of the soldiers in his forces would answer the call of “some holy man
in Mecca,” he once told American diplomats, according to a cable released by
that reason, diplomats say, Prince Mohammed has long argued that the Arab world
is not ready for democracy. Islamists would win any elections.
any Muslim country, you will see the same result,” he said in a 2007 meeting
with American officials. “The Middle East is not California.”
United Arab Emirates began allowing American forces to operate from bases inside
the country during the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Since then, the prince’s
commandos and air forces have been deployed with the Americans in Kosovo,
Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as against the Islamic State.
has recruited American commanders to run his military and former spies to set up
his intelligence services. He also acquired more weaponry in the four years
before 2010 than the other five Gulf monarchies combined, including 80 F-16
fighters, 30 Apache combat helicopters, and 62 French Mirage jets.
American officers describe the United Arab Emirates as “Little Sparta.”
advice from former top military commanders including former Secretary of Defense
James Mattis and General Allen, Prince Mohammed has even developed an Emirati
defense industry, producing an amphibious armored vehicle known as The Beast and
others that he is already supplying to clients in Libya and Egypt.
United Arab Emirates are also preparing a low-altitude propeller-driven bomber
for counterinsurgency combat — an idea Mr. Mattis had long recommended for the
United States, a former officer close to him said.
Mohammed has often told American officials that he saw Israel as an ally against
Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel trusted him enough to sell him upgrades
for his F-16s, as well as advanced mobile phone spyware.
many in Washington, Prince Mohammed had become America’s best friend in the
region, a dutiful partner who could be counted on for tasks from countering
Iranian influence in Lebanon to funding construction in Iraq.
was well known that if you needed something done in the Middle East,” recalled
Richard G. Olson, a former United States ambassador to Abu Dhabi, “the
Emiratis would do it.”
Prince Goes Rogue
Mohammed seemed to find a kindred spirit when President Barack Obama took office
in 2009, White House aides said. Both were detached, analytic and intrigued by
big questions. For a time, Mr. Obama sought out phone conversations with Prince
Mohammed more than with any other foreign leader, several senior White House
the Arab Spring came between them. Uprisings swept the region. The Muslim
Brotherhood was winning elections. And Mr. Obama appeared to endorse the demands
for democracy — though in Syria, where the uprising threatened a foe of the
Emiratis, he balked at military action.
it emerged that the Obama administration was in secret nuclear talks with Iran.
felt not only ignored — they felt betrayed by the Obama administration, and I
think Prince Mohammed felt it particularly and personally,” said Stephen
Hadley, a national security adviser under President George W. Bush who has
stayed close to the prince.
the uprisings, Prince Mohammed saw the United Arab Emirates as the only one of
the 22 Arab states still on its feet, with a stable government, functional
economy, able military and “moderate ideology,” said Abdulkhalleq Abdulla,
an Emirati political scientist with access to the country’s senior officials.
U.A.E. is part of this very dangerous region that is getting more dangerous by
the day — full of chaos and wars and extremists,” he said. “So the
motivation is this: If we don’t go after the bad guys, they will come after
home, Prince Mohammed hired a company linked to Erik Prince, the founder of the
private security company formerly known as Blackwater, to
create a force of Colombian, South African and other mercenaries. He
crushed any hint of dissent, arresting five activists for organizing a petition
for democratic reforms (signed by only 132 people) and rounding up dozens
suspected of sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood.
United Arab Emirates revved up its influence machine in Washington, too. They
were among the biggest spenders among foreign governments on Washington
advocates and consultants, paying as much $21 million in 2017, according to a
tally by the Center for Responsive Politics. They earned good will with
million-dollar donations after natural disasters, and they sought to frame
public debate by giving millions more to major think tanks.
Middle East Institute recently received $20 million. Its chairman is Mr. Clarke,
the former official who pushed through the U.A.E. defense contracts. After
leaving government in 2003, he had also founded a consultancy with the United
Arab Emirates as a primary client. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Ambassador Yousef Otaiba hammered his many contacts in the White House and on
Capitol Hill, arguing that Mr. Obama was ceding the region to extremists and
Iran. The prince himself made the case at the highest levels. He “gave me an
earful,” former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recalled in a memoir.
the Middle East, Prince Mohammed did more than talk. In Egypt, he backed a
military takeover in 2013 that removed an elected president who was a Muslim
Brotherhood leader. In the Horn of Africa, he dispatched a force to
Somalia first to combat piracy and then to fight extremists. He went on to
establish commercial ports or naval bases around the Gulf of Aden.
Libya, Prince Mohammed defied American pleas and a United Nations embargo by arming
the forces of the militia leader and would-be strongman Khalifa Hifter.
Emirati pilots carried out airstrikes in Tripoli and eventually established an
air base in eastern Libya.
the past, the prince looked for a “green light” from Washington, said Ms.
Wahba, the former American ambassador. Now he may send a heads-up, she said, but
“he is not asking permission anymore.”
Arabia, the giant next door, had quarreled with the United Arab Emirates over
borders and, as the regional heavyweight, also constrained U.A.E. foreign
policy. By the end of 2014, the position of crown prince — next in line for
the throne — had passed to a known foe of the Emirati prince.
he plunged into the internal Saudi succession battle and waged an all-out
lobbying campaign in Washington on behalf of a little-known alternative: the
29-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a favorite son of the aged Saudi king.
message was, if you trust me and you like me, you will like this guy because he
is cut from the same cloth,” recalled Mr. Rhodes, the Obama adviser.
March 2015, the two princes had invaded Yemen together to roll back a takeover
by a faction aligned with Iran. Then in 2017, as the Saudi prince consolidated
his power, they cut
off all trade and diplomatic ties with Qatar to pressure it into
abandoning support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
the Yemen and Qatar conflicts are routinely described as Saudi-led, but the
Emirati prince first sought to sell them to Washington, Mr. Rhodes and other
former officials recalled.
late 2015, American diplomats say, Prince Mohammed was also suggesting that the
United Arab Emirates and a new Saudi leadership could be crucial in bringing the
Palestinians around to some new peace agreement — the so-called
“outside-in” approach to a deal.
for that, Prince Mohammed awaited a new administration.
the Prince’s Men
was meant to be a personal farewell.
their sharp differences, Prince Mohammed had remained cordial with Mr. Obama,
and the president thought they shared a mutual respect, according to four senior
White House officials. So when the prince requested a final meeting, as friends,
Mr. Obama agreed to a lunch at the White House in December 2016.
Prince Mohammed backed out without much explanation. He flew instead to New York
for his first face-to-face meeting with Jared Kushner and other advisers to the
president-elect, Donald J. Trump.
arrange the meetings, Prince Mohammed had turned to a financier, Richard Gerson,
founder of Falcon Edge Capital. He had worked with the prince for years, and he
was also a friend of Mr. Kushner.
am always here as your trusted family back channel any time you want to
discreetly pass something,” Mr. Gerson wrote to the prince after the election
in a private text message, one of several provided to The Times by a third party
and corroborated independently. He signed off another message as “your loyal
trip was supposed to be secret, but intelligence agencies detected the
prince’s arrival. Mr. Obama’s advisers were stunned. But Prince Mohammed was
already working to reverse the administration’s policies, talking to Mr.
Trump’s advisers about the dangers of Iran and about Palestinian peace talks,
according to two people familiar with the meetings.
were deeply impressed with you and already are convinced that you are their true
friend and closest ally,” Mr. Gerson wrote to the prince after the meetings.
Mohammed was positioning himself as an intermediary to Russia, too.
of Prince Mohammed’s younger brothers had introduced Mr. Gerson to a Russian
businessman who acts as a liaison between President Vladimir V. Putin and the
Persian Gulf monarchs, according to the special counsel’s report. The Russian
businessman, Kirill Dmitriev, conferred with Mr. Gerson about a
“reconciliation plan” for the United States and Russia, and shortly before
the inauguration Mr. Gerson gave a two-page summary of the plan to Mr. Kushner.
Gerson declined to comment for this article.
next month, in January, Prince Mohammed invited Mr. Dmitriev to an Emirati
retreat in the Seychelles to meet with someone else they thought represented the
Trump team: Mr. Prince, the Blackwater founder who had recruited mercenaries for
the United Arab Emirates.
Prince Mohammed would seek to connect Russia with Mr. Trump’s circle remains a
matter of debate, but he has worked for years to try to entice Mr. Putin away
from Iran, according to American diplomats and leaked emails from the Emirati
ambassador in Washington.
prosecutors are also investigating the activities of other operatives and
go-betweens working for the prince who tried
to insinuate themselves around Mr. Trump.
are still examining the campaign contacts of an
Israeli specialist in social media manipulation who has worked for
Prince Mohammed and of a
Lebanese-American businessman who acted
as his emissary. Other prosecutors are investigating whether another top
Republican donor whose security company worked for the prince should legally
have registered as his agent.
special counsel’s office has also questioned Rashid al-Malik, an Emirati
real-estate developer based in Los Angeles who is close to Prince Mohammed and
to his brother — the head of Emirati intelligence. Mr. al-Malik is also close
to Mr. Trump’s friend Tom Barrack, and investigators are asking whether Mr.
al-Malik was part of an illegal influence scheme, according to two people
familiar with the matter.
investigation, prompted by a whistle-blower, is examining the possibility that
the United Arab Emirates used cyberespionage techniques from former American
operatives to spy on American citizens.
the prince’s courtship of the Trump administration has not been damaged. In
the two and a half years since his first meeting with Mr. Kushner, Prince
Mohammed has received almost everything he sought from the White House.
winter, Prince Mohammed invites financiers and former officials to Abu Dhabi for
a salon that demonstrates his global influence.
guest list last December included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair;
former French President Nicolas Sarkozy; former Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice; Mr. Hadley, the Bush-era national security adviser; the American investors
Mohamed A. El-Erian, David M. Rubenstein and Thomas S. Kaplan; and the Chinese
computer scientist and investor Kai-Fu Lee.
the prince also included Mr. Dmitriev, the Russian businessman linked to Mr.
Mohammed’s post-Arab Spring interventions have hardly stabilized the region.
An aide he sent to Cairo to help turn around the moribund economy has returned
military-backed government still depends on billions of dollars a year in
assistance from the United Arab Emirates and its Gulf allies, and despite
Emirati help and Israeli airstrikes, Cairo has not yet quelled a militant
backlash centered in the North Sinai.
isolation of Qatar has failed to change its policies. In Libya, Khalifa Hifter
is mired in a bloody stalemate.
Mohammed’s push in the Horn of Africa has set off a competition for access and
influence among rivals like Turkey and Qatar. In Somalia, after allegations of
bribery by the fragile central government, Emirati forces have shifted to the
semiautonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland.
alleging neglect, last year replaced its Emirati port managers with a Chinese
thinks he is Machiavelli but he acts more like Mussolini,” said Bruce Riedel,
a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former official in the Central
Saudi Arabia, the Emirati prince has been embarrassed by the conclusion of
American intelligence agencies that his Saudi protégé had ordered the brutal
murder of Mr. Khashoggi, a Virginia-based Saudi dissident and Washington Post
columnist. Their joint, four-year-old intervention in Yemen is turning into a
quagmire, with horrific civilian casualties.
U.A.E. is a stain on the world conscience — the U.A.E. as it is currently
governed is violating every norm of the civilized world,” said Representative
Ro Khanna, Democrat of California.
the prince’s standing remains strong inside the Trump administration. The
“outside-in” proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace passed over by the
Obama administration are at the core of Mr. Kushner’s emerging plans.
Trump has repeatedly backed the positions of the Emirati prince: by endorsing
his Saudi protégé after the Khashoggi killing, by applauding the isolation of
Qatar even as the secretary of state and secretary of defense publicly opposed
it, by canceling the nuclear deal with Iran, by seeking to designate the Muslim
Brotherhood a terrorist group, and by vetoing
legislation to cut off American military support for Saudi and Emirati
forces in Yemen.
April, Mr. Trump publicly endorsed the Emiratis’ favored militia leader in
Libya one day after a phone call with Prince Mohammed — even through Secretary
of State Mike Pompeo had previously urged the same leader to retreat.
Mattis, the former secretary of defense, last month delivered a lecture in Abu
Dhabi sponsored by Prince Mohammed. When he joined the Trump administration, Mr.
Mattis disclosed that he had received $242,000 in annual fees as well as
valuable stock options as a board member at the defense contractor General
Dynamics, which does extensive business with Abu Dhabi. He had also worked as an
unpaid adviser to Prince Mohammed.
“It’s the Year of Tolerance. How many countries in the world right now are having a year of tolerance?” Mr. Mattis asked. “I don’t know of any,” he said. “You are an example.”