The death of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan earlier last month heralded a new era for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Passing away on 13 May 2022, the ailing monarch was succeeded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, also known by his initials as MbZ and de facto ruler of the Emirates since 2014, when a stroke incapacitated his half-brother and forced him to assume a low profile in state affairs. The transition of power was evidently smooth, given the considerable experience accumulated by MbZ in the last few years, when he centralised powers and took control of almost every aspect of the decision-making in the UAE, especially in the foreign policy domain. In the last decade, interventions in Libya, Syria and Yemen all bore the Crown Prince’s mark and were aimed at reinforcing the UAE’s leadership in the Gulf and beyond. However, this assertiveness has produced mixed results and is gradually making way for a more tempered stance that not incidentally coincided with the change of administration in the US.
Relations with US President Joe Biden have been complicated, to say at least, often marked by misunderstandings and diverging views on different regional issues, such as the war in Yemen and the nuclear deal with Iran. Resentment has increased in the UAE, especially in the aftermath of the Houthis’ drone attack against Abu Dhabi that in January 2022 prompted concerns about Washington’s real commitment to the defence and security of its partners in the Gulf. Russia’s war on Ukraine has widened the gap, as shown by the UAE’s abstention on the UN Security Council’s resolution condemning Moscow in late February, which has shown to the US the risks of leaving Abu Dhabi’s adrift as emerging powers try to extend their influence in the region. The high-level delegation dispatched by Washington to pay respect to Sheikh Khalifa was clearly aimed at mending ties and reaffirm the strategic partnership with the new ruler.
Concerns about the global oil supply is obviously driving the US’ re-engagement with Gulf countries, which includes recent efforts to reach out to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (commonly known as MbS) as well. Considering King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s age and recent medical treatments, the generational shift seems also imminent in Riyadh, where in the past few years MbS has consolidated his power despite being visibly ostracised by the Biden administration for his opaque human rights record. However, in an international context dramatically altered by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Washington seems to have no other option than to multiply efforts to repair relations with Riyadh, de facto rehabilitating the Crown Prince. While the Gulf continues to shed its skin, transactionalism will likely remain the main principle guiding bilateral relations with the US. In this context, recent reports about normalisation of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia are particularly noteworthy as they would include trilateral negotiations with Egypt to complete the transfer of the Sanafir and Tiran islands in the Gulf of Aqaba to Riyadh. The two isles, traditionally under Egyptian control since 1950, were claimed by Saudi Arabia, but their return to Riyadh is dividing Egyptian public opinion, a part of which considers the agreement a sell-out.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region