The UAE’s federal council elected Sheikh Mohammed, commonly referred to as MBZ, as the country’s president, according to state media on Saturday. Sheikh Mohammed has frequently used his clout to intervene in regional conflicts with one of the Middle East’s best-equipped militaries.
Crown prince of Abu Dhabi since 2004, MBZ controls the world’s fourth-richest wealth fund and about 6% of proven reserves of crude oil. He’s also helped hone the UAE’s image as a socially liberal, pro-business oasis in a turbulent region while keeping a tight grip on dissent and blanketing the country with high-tech surveillance.
The 61-year-old is trusted by Washington and has used the UAE’s economic clout to forge influential partnerships from Russia to China, choosing their capitals for his infrequent overseas visits.
He’s less well known outside the Middle East than his Saudi peer, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But in his time as de facto ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Mohamed has driven much of the muscular foreign policy that reshaped Middle Eastern alliances and pushed back against Islamist politics.
Concerned about a US retreat from the Middle East, MBZ has gone on the offensive across the region. A career soldier, he’s built up a formidable arsenal — the UAE has been the world’s eighth-largest arms importer in the past five years — and led his country into wars in Libya and Yemen. It also joined the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State and backed Egypt’s strongman President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi against elected Islamist Mohamed Mursi.
During a rare public address to young Emiratis in 2017, MBZ signaled his priorities as he recalled the words of a fallen soldier’s mother: “She said that we should preempt danger and nip it in the bud.”
On his watch the Gulf Arab state of 10 million people, perched on one of the world’s major transport waterways, has developed an assertive foreign policy and focused on neutralizing all shades of political Islam at home and abroad. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement, and moderate dissenters are all seen as potential threats to security and the region’s dynastic, autocratic rule, particularly since the Arab uprisings of 2011.
MBZ was born in the oasis town of Al Ain in 1961, several years after the first discovery of oil in Abu Dhabi and a decade before his father helped to form a nation out of seven sheikhdoms. A graduate of the UK’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, he served in the UAE’s special forces and as a helicopter pilot.
The UAE’s oil wealth and rapid development since the 1990s made it the Arab world’s second-largest economy after Saudi Arabia. That’s helped shape the country into the Middle East’s business and tourism hub.
Sheikh Mohammed is funneling the country’s energy wealth into new industries like technology and manufacturing to create jobs for nationals and prepare the country for a post-oil future.