The crown prince and de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi has committed the UAE to an aggressive foreign and domestic policy that is intolerant of opposition groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
During the last decade, the UAE under the command of Abu Dhabi’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has emerged as one of the most politically aggressive and ambitious countries in the Middle East.
Bin Zayed, commonly known as MBZ, has used his country’s vast oil wealth to bankroll governments and militias committed to fighting religiously inspired political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The UAE was a supporter of the 2013 coup that brought down the first freely elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abu Dhabi has sent billions in aid to Egypt to shore up support for the autocratic government of Abdel Fattah el Sisi, the general who ousted Morsi.
In Yemen, while ostensibly fighting Houthi rebels to reinstate the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the UAE is also reportedly involved in a clandestine campaign of assassinations targeting members of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islah party.
The country also supports renegade anti-Brotherhood Libyan general, Khalifa Haftar, in his campaign against the UN-recognised government in Libya’s capital, Tripoli.
Closer to home, the UAE is participating in a land, sea, and air blockade of neighbouring Qatar, partly over its alleged support for opposition groups in the Arab World, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
When it comes to anything remotely or even suspectedly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, the UAE is at the forefront of the battle against it.
Its official list of terrorist organisations includes charities and civil society groups, which reject ties to the Muslim Brotherhood but are nevertheless accused by the Emiratis of having links to the group. They include, the Islamic Relief Organisation, one of the world’s largest Muslim charities, as well as think tank, the Cordoba Foundation.
Deep rooted fear
For MBZ, the hatred is a mixture of the personal, ideological, and the political.
A recent New York Time’s profile cites a WikiLeaks US embassy cable that describes his interaction with a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated personal tutor, assigned to him by his father. The tutor is alleged to have attempted an indoctrination, which backfired.
“In the 1970s and early 1980s I was one of them,” MBZ is reported to have said.
The reasons for the bust up are open to speculation but meetings between MBZ and US diplomats described in leaked cables paint a picture of a man obsessed with an entryist plot by Muslim Brotherhood members to take over the UAE and the wider Arab world.
According to the New York Times article, one former US State Department official, describing US support for the UAE as it aggressively pursues its foreign policy objectives said: “We have created a Little Frankenstein.”
According to King’s College London academic Andreas Krieg, that is a fear he picked up from fellow Arab autocrats.
“He (MBZ) used to work intensively with military and intelligence officers from Egypt in his time in the security sector who have imported the Islamist phobia to the UAE,” he told TRT World.
The phobia, Krieg explained, stemmed from a perception that religious political groups were beyond the control of the autocrats that ran their countries.
“The Brotherhood is traditionally antagonistic to authoritarianism and empowers civil societal activism that endorses pluralism, which is a strategic threat to authoritarian regime security,” he added.
In the leaked US cables, dating to the 2003-2006 period, MBZ frequently voices fears on the extent of sympathy for the Brotherhood within the UAE, including the military, civil service, and even within the ruling families of the country.
The crown prince warned an American diplomat that if a free election were held in Dubai, “the Muslim Brotherhood will take over”.
In another, he declares that “we are having a cultural war with the Muslim Brotherhood”.
Yet another cable describes how soldiers identified as Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers were put through a “reverse brainwashing” programme to rid them of their inclinations.
This was considered a softer option, advocated by MBZ’s older brother, Khalifa bin Zayed, who was then the effective ruler of the UAE. The crown prince had advocated harsher tactics.
Since suffering a stroke in 2014, Khalifa, has stepped aside from the day-to-day running of the country; a duty that has been delegated to MBZ.
‘This has to do with control’
The crown prince’s fears appear to have been exacerbated after the Arab uprisings of 2011, in which a handful of autocrats were overthrown, and the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a key political force, with resounding victories in Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections.
“The realisation in 2011 that many of the ministries in the UAE were staffed with al-Islah members that would primarily show loyalty to the group and its principles, was a shock for MbZ,” said Krieg, referring to the Emirati affiliate of the Brotherhood.
He added: “This has to do with control. As an intrinsically paranoid individual, MBZ has developed into a control freak who sees the Brotherhood as a foreign-controlled entity.
“In a centralised political system with no checks and balances on MBZ, the Brotherhood would be a threat to MBZ’s absolute freedom to rule.”
But to believe the crown prince’s fears are limited to religiously-inspired opposition movements is half the picture.
Such groups represent the most organised contemporary opposition in most Arab states, but according to Gulf analysts, the essence of MBZ’s thinking is that opening up political space for any opposition group could lead to a weakening of the current autocratic order which presides over the region.
“My view is that MBZ wishes to see a Middle East where Islamist or any other form of mass-appeal politics is not only contained but also rolled back,” said Rice University academic, Kristian Ulrichsen, adding:
“This is based on a zero-tolerance approach that seems to equate political participation as the first step on a continuum that leads potentially to loss of control and eventual destabilisation of the status quo.”