Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the de facto leader of United Arab Emirates widely seen as forging an anti-Iran axis with Israel, is the new UAE president.

In a consolidation of his leadership, Sheikh Mohammed, known as ‘MbZ,’ was appointed unanimously Saturday by the UAE federal council a day after the death of his half-brother President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, 73. Sheikh Mohammed succeeded Sheikh Khalifa as ruler of Abu Dhabi on his death May 13.

"We congratulate him and pledge allegiance to him as do our people," said Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, UAE vice-president and premier.

At 61, MbZ became a strong figure in a growingly assertive UAE foreign policy after the regional defeat of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, including armed interventions in Libya and Iraq, and in supporting military rule in Egypt, which the UAE justified as curbing the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2020, the UAE and Bahrain ‘normalized’ relations with Israel in an agreement brokered by the United States administration of Donald Trump, breaking a long-standing Arab League policy that this should not be done until Israel recognized a viable Palestinian state in occupied territory.

The ruler of Dubai (R) expressing condolences to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. May 14, 2022

Contain Iran but improve relations

While ‘normalization’ was condemned by all Palestinian groups, it was widely interpreted as a means to contain Iran. The UAE went ahead despite Saudi Arabia’s refusal to follow suit and there have also been differences between the two over the Yemen war – which began 2015 – as the UAE withdrew most of its military presence in 2019.

Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have stood back from taking sides in the Ukraine conflict, contributing to tensions with the United States administration of President Joe Biden, and declining invitations to pump more oil to bear down on rising prices. A planned US sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets to the UAE also appears stalled partly due to American concerns over the UAE’s relationship with China.

Sheikh Mohammed will be only the third president since the UAE gained independence in 1971 as a federation of seven sheikhdoms. His primary task will be consolidating the UAE’s position as a financial and tourism hub while diversifying further from an oil-based economy.

Recent efforts to relax tension with Iran, with speculation of a visit from President Ebrahim Raisi, reflect a desire for regional stability. In December, despite Iran’s strong condemnation of the UAE’s ‘normalization’ with Israel, the UAE national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan met with Raisi in Tehran.

“We look forward to the acceleration of development aimed at consolidating the global sovereignty and pioneering of the Emirates,” said Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed.

Foreign leaders – including US vice-President Kamala Harris, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog – arrive Sunday and Monday to offer condolences over Sheikh Khalifa’s death as the UAE begins 40-day mourning.

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