Now that power has been seized and monopolized, what is MBZ planning on doing with it? He has never spoken on this matter. Given that he has not yet fully achieved his primary goal of rising to the highest positions, in Abu Dhabi as within the Federation, he does not yet feel fully legitimate at the head of the country, which pushes him to be ever more authoritarian, if not autocratic. If one was to venture into a Freudian interpretation, one could argue that this process is the result of a superego tormented by the figure of his father. In any case, he is evidently influenced by a Praetorian vision of the country and of society, by a paranoia regarding external danger and by the willingness to muffle all opposition, especially when it is religious.
If the Emirates sometimes seems to be a thalassocracy in the making, capable of pursuing the destiny of its historical Omani predecessor in the Indian Ocean, one should not, however, see its development as the premise of a regional security strategy, or as a type of political and economic imperialism. MBZ, the war leader, rather aims to spread the attributes of power so as to deter others, but also to mobilize his fellow citizens. From this perspective, nothing beats military experience. The deep rationality underlying the UAE’s extremely costly external deployment lies in MBZ's desire to be feared in order to be respected. In doing so, he runs the risk of becoming unpopular. It is important to measure the euphoria felt by the Crown Prince of an under-populated emirate when his interlocutors, and sometimes even courtiers, are the leaders of the world’s biggest countries, from the United States to China to India and Russia.
In this perspective, the Emirati army aims above all to demonstrate its capabilities, if not its superiority to the Saudis, with the Saudi-Emirati brotherhood of arms. Anchored in history, Saudi hegemony in the Peninsula is like a sword of Damocles hanging over the other GCC countries, of which the Emirates are the primus inter pares. MBZ's strategic goal is to deter this threat, including by attacking troublemakers like Yemen and Qatar. This strategy seems relevant when one knows the Saudi army’s weakness. It highlights the GCC’s limitations. Behind the friendly gestures, the hawks of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh hold each other in respect, with a perhaps temporary advantage for the experienced MBZ, who has so far been able to take advantage of the layman MBS’s inexperience.
The parallel between MBZ and MBS is striking, even if the latter could be the former’s son. MBS is also his father's favorite, confronted to more legitimate half-brothers, forced to assert himself through spectacular actions. He too is autocratic in his exercise of power. One cannot understand MBS’s engagement in Yemen, nor his drift towards absolute monarchy, without referring to MBZ's path.
Mohammed bin Salman or the awakening of the leopard
The political games in Riyadh since Salman bin Abdulaziz’s accession to the throne in January 2015 have revealed a country in upheaval. The King's poor health rushed things and led him to reign while letting his son Mohammed rule. The latter managed to evict two Crown Princes from collateral branches one after the other, and to turn down the other princes’ claims. In record time, he thus "desaudized" Arabia, the official epithet of which might not be as relevant anymore. The country has de facto become a Salmanite dynasty. This process was completed through complex manoeuvres and to the detriment of his half-brothers, who are older than him and with whom he has difficult relations. Here too, a full and complete succession is expected after the abdication of a long-lived King. Salman is still useful to cushion the impact of shocks caused by his son to the system, but also to defer the delicate problem posed by the appointment of a new Crown Prince. Once MBS is on the throne, he could in fact postpone any decision on the matter.