Hardly a ruler in waiting
The UAE is a federation of seven emirates formed in 1971. Its highest decision-making body, the Federal Supreme Council, determines the nation's basic political principles. Its members are the seven rulers of the individual emirates, each of which belongs to its respective royal family.
But this formal institution does not reflect the actual distribution of power. The true balance of power corresponds to an emirate's wealth. For example Abu Dhabi, which owns around 95 per cent of all UAE oil and gas reserves, is by far the most powerful emirate, followed by Dubai, the influence of which stems first and foremost from its role as an economic and trading centre in the non-oil sector.
But since the financial crisis of 2008/2009, Dubai has seen its political clout with respect to Abu Dhabi significantly reduced. At that time, a number of state companies were mired in debt and the Emirate of Dubai had to step in with 20 billion U.S. dollars to save them from insolvency. Politically speaking, the other smaller emirates play an increasingly less significant role, because they are too heavily dependent on Abu Dhabi's support.
These days, as a result, the tone of the UAE's foreign and security policies is set by the royal family of Abu Dhabi – in other words, the political power of the autocratically-led UAE is concentrated in the House of Nahyan.
According to the constitution, President Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan is the nation's most powerful man. But Wikileaks documents from 2009 reveal that the U.S. ambassador to the UAE at the time, Richard Olson, suspected that Khalifa only had the last word in decisions with great financial implications and in those affecting oil policies.
The real ruler of the Emirates
This is still the case today and is evident from the fact that Khalifa still chairs both the Supreme Petroleum Council, which sets and regulates oil-related policies, as well as the most important sovereign wealth fund, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. In all other areas, the ambassador described Khalifa's half-brother, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MbZ), as the person at the helm of the UAE. Following President Khalifa's stroke in January 2014, MbZ's influence has increased still further.
MbZ began his career in the military. Following graduation from Sandhurst military academy (1979), he held numerous military command posts. He was appointed Armed Forces Chief of Staff in 1993 and also became the most important security adviser to the then President. In 2005, he took over the position of Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
This position is significant, because although the ruler of Dubai holds the defence ministry portfolio, this is primarily symbolic in character and Abu Dhabi essentially has the final say in military matters. This is the only official title that MbZ has on a national level – he is neither a member of the Federal Supreme Council, nor of the cabinet.
But just how powerful MbZ already was in the 1990s is evident from the fact that his signature is to be found on numerous billion-dollar arms deals agreed during this period. Especially pronounced is MbZ's wish for close co-operation with the West and the U.S. in particular.