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Portraits of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) - Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and Chairman of the Executive Council of Abu Dhabi

Portraits of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) - Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and Chairman of the Executive Council of Abu Dhabi
 Ahmed Fathi
Academic familiar with the Gulf monarchies

Why paint a double portrait of the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, MBS and MBZ? Because the destinies of the two Mohammed are closely linked. Because they embody in the eyes of many Arabs a "Gulf moment". Because they both put forward a specific "neo-authoritarian" project amongst the ruins of Arab nationalism and political Islam. We asked an academic familiar with the Gulf monarchies to share his insight, under a pseudonym.

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor, editor of this series

Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) the Saudi and Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) the Emirati share a common point: both govern their countries despite only being Crown Princes. Other similarities justify that their portraits be combined: their autocratic tendencies, their dreams of power, and, finally, a certain conception of politics and society. On this last point, it seems evident that the older of the two Mohammed, MBZ, influenced the younger one, MBS.

Mohammed bin Zayed, the Gulf’s sword

Like the other Arab countries of the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates suffers from the absence of established succession rules. The struggles for power are therefore structural. They oppose a limited number of Sheikh Zayed’s descendants, the founder of the Federation, in contrast with a plethora of Saudi contenders for instance. Since the death of the "Father of the Nation" in 2004, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed has been the Emir of Abu Dhabi and the President of the Federation. Since Sheikh Khalifa had a stroke in 2014, another of Zayed’s son, Mohammed, has been ruling the country. He does not, however, hold any federal responsibility, and is only second in command in his emirate, Abu Dhabi, the Executive Council (government) of which he chairs. He nonetheless seems driven by an unquenchable thirst for power and recognition.
His conception of the exercise of power is certainly marked by a father who embodied the archetype of the patriarch, and who was so harsh with his 19 sons that he threw one in prison for a drug case. The Father of the Nation’s guardian figure appears every night on the odd memorial set up last April on the roundabout leading to the Khalifa palace, like a light spectrum hovering over the city. Convinced that he was Zayed's favourite son, MBZ's ultimate hope is to match him, if not to surpass him. He considers that he must respect his father’s wishes in terms of succession: this is why he does not remove Sheikh Khalifa from his official duties, even though, at the age of 57, he could.

MBZ sees himself as an epic character, similar to his barefoot father.

Another reason explaining why MBZ leaves Sheikh Khalifa alone is probably that he wants to reserve the position of Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi for his son Khalid, to the detriment of Sultan and Mohammed, the sons of Emir Khalifa, but also of his five younger uterine brothers, Hamdan, Hazza', Tahnoun, Mansour and Abdallah, whose ambitions he thus neutralizes. He is leaving time for Khalid to assert himself.

The latter’s date of birth has not been made public, but he would apparently be the same age as the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia (32 years). This could be one of the reasons for his coaching by MBZ. Appointed general in record time after his studies at Sandhurst, Khaled began his career in the country’s national security, of which he became head in February 2016. He is already being compared to his father.
MBZ sees himself as an epic character, similar to his barefoot father eliminating his brother Shakhbut to access the head of a state forged by his own willingness, and then become a wise man listened to by his peers. MBZ had to disqualify his two older half-brothers Khalifa and Sultan in the race for power. As in fairy tales, Abu Dhabi’s hero overcame successive obstacles thanks to his exceptional qualities and to his worthy collaborator - in his case, his mother Fatima, the former favorite, mother of the "Fatimids" and the only spouse that Zayed did not repudiate. The cohesion of the Fatimids seems ensured for as long as Sheikha Fatima stays alive. Publicly worshiped thanks to her beloved eldest son, the "Mother of Arabs" has a strong influence over her sons, even though she never comes out and her face is unknown to the public.
Unlike his father, MBZ did not only recruit his close collaborators from the great tribes, from which he sought to emancipate. For the state’s daily administration, he hired a cluster of technocratic collaborators who can be revoked at any time, and who owe him everything. He divides them and pits them against each other in order to prevent them from weaving horizontal networks of solidarity. Many of them are head of entities attached to his own person, which lowers the responsibilities of ministers down to mere functions of execution. The long history of violent settling of accounts within the region’s families in power explains why the priority was given to securing MBZ’s entourage.

Was it his ambition that pushed MBZ towards a military career? One of the core components of his power, perhaps even the main one, is the army. Educated in Sandhurst, MBZ has a real sensibility for the military, which impresses his men and earns him a certain degree of respect from his foreign peers. Over the years, he has built a customer base like no other: overly developed, the Emirati army employs at least 6% of the active male population.

His obsession with discipline, inherited from his father, makes him dream of a country that would resemble a vast military base, thus contrasting with the Bedouin anarchy.

The army is by far the first channel for the redistribution of profit to the oil-deprived emirates in the north of the Federation (Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al-Quwain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah), who account for majority of the troops and who thus entirely rely on MBZ. The latter gathered the garrisons in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, in order to replace local or tribal ties with the allegiance to the nation. Building an army in such a loose and endogamic federation was a considerable feat, from which MBZ derives an unparalleled prestige and aura. This is what allows him to pride himself on completing his father's work, that of building a state and forging a regimented nation.
His obsession with discipline, inherited from his father, makes him dream of a country that would resemble a vast military base, thus contrasting with the Bedouin anarchy. Taking MBZ for a Bedouin because he is fond of falconry would be a misinterpretation, given that he aspires to an urban technicist order similar to that in Dubai. He wants to break with his father's Bedouin saga, which he considers to be anachronistic in one of the world’s most urbanized countries. He is the first leader to have introduced a military service for societies of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), which are reluctant to indulge in the type of efforts military training involves. An amateur of spectacular military manoeuvres, MBZ satisfies his desire to display his power, which his critics qualify as bordering megalomania. The Iranian threat, which appeared from the Federation’s birth (occupation of the Gulf’s three Emirati islands in 1971) is paradoxically his best asset, because it justifies that priority be given to the army's equipment.

For a very long time, however, MBZ’s main obstacle was the monopolization of the oil sector and its financial appendix by Khalifa and his supporters, who were blocking his access to this vital resource. Thanks to the offset program (Mubadala in Arabic), MBZ skilfully established a financial channel managed by an ad hoc organization, on which he built his financial autonomy and thanks to which he composed a team of liegemen, the "Mubadala boys". One can well see how challenging MBZ's rise to power has been, the perseverance it required, and the obscure battles in the halls of economic, financial and political power he had to lead.

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.

Finally, the alliance with the United States is the key foundation on which MBZ is seated. The Emirates were able to take advantage of the difficulty two predatory neighbors have in existing so as to attract significant American security investment. This consistency turned into connivance under the Trump presidency, in particular thanks to MBZ’s personal ties with Jared Kushner. The Emirates have arguably become the United States' best ally in the world.

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.

The country’s young master sees himself as the Kingdom’s refounder. His model is his grandfather Abdulaziz, who took Riyadh at the age of 26. His ascension began at the age of 24, in 2009, when his father, then Governor of Riyadh, appointed him special advisor. His rise to power is linked to the control exercised over Salman by his third and last wife Fahda (who is not an Al Saud), known for her strong personality and of whom MBS is the eldest and favorite son. His intelligence and appetite for power are important assets for MBS, but he suffers from an impulsive character linked to his lack of experience.

His intelligence and appetite for power are important assets for MBS, but he suffers from an impulsive character linked to his lack of experience.

MBS surprised everyone by destroying the existing system of power and by launching an equally radical de-Wahhabization program, which, for the moment, has been successful. His skill was to leave the founding pact of Abd al-Wahhab in the very name of the Wahhabi doctrine, which suits him because it commands the faithful to leave politics to politicians. To this commandment, he added society, which he also intends to govern. His hostility is not directed towards Wahhabism, but rather to the wave of political Islam that overwhelmed the Arab world after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its social consequences, particularly regarding the role of women. His "vision 2030" for Arabia's future seems devoid of any ideology other than an implicit faith in market economy. It is marked by the absence of politics as such, which in itself is very telling, as if the metamorphosis it assigns to the country could occur without any change in the matter. It does not set any intellectual, moral or religious goal. One might wonder whether the purely materialistic strategy of power it puts forward is not worth abandoning the Wahhabi torch and the pan-Islamic ideology that Saudi Arabia has been developing for decades.
What will MBS do once he will have, if not defeated, at least distended the alliance between the mosque and the state? Saudi Arabia, once a gentle monarchy, is becoming an authoritarian power. Will it abandon the tyranny of clerics to fall into autocracy? The collegial system has, in fact, given way to the power of one. There is hardly any countervailing power, nor even a political system. MBS's distrust is such that he often prefers to consult foreigners, to the great displeasure of his fellow citizens. He wants to extend the power of the state to forge a nation and realize his Promethean dream of new Arabia. The future will tell whether, once his power is consolidated, he will join the sinister gallery of Arab dictators.

He intends to lead an authoritarian "Chinese-style" modernization, which supports the refoundation of the system around his person, and bypasses any possible opening of the political system.

Although he courageously granted women the right to drive, he was careful enough not to concede the other keys of the country to a population he distrusts. In record time, MBS took over an unprecedented field of expertise and launched a hasty reform that leaves anyone familiar with the country's administrative inertia in awe. He intends to lead an authoritarian "Chinese-style" modernization, which supports the refoundation of the system around his person, and bypasses any possible opening of the political system. The Riyadh leopard understood that everything needed to change for everything to remain the same.

MBS is leading this revolution without hiding his appetite for absolute power, like MBZ, who seems to be his only advisor, or even model. The despot is hardly enlightened by the courtiers around him. Like Mubadala in the Emirates, he set up the Misk Foundation, which in theory aims to promote youth, but is in fact in charge of attracting young technocrats who are entirely dedicated, revocable at any time, and who will compete with the existing structures by overtaking the ministries. He therefore intends to replace the traditional princely supporters by a clientele of commoners that could pass for meritocracy, under the pretext of fighting corruption.
At the international level, MBS is seeking global recognition for a country that has hitherto been introverted and little concerned by its image, mainly because it was obsessed with its religious centrality. His "vision" contrasts with the moderation and low profile that has characterized Saudi Arabia for decades. It is inseparable from the Crown Prince's immense thirst for respect. Proponent of a real top-down cultural revolution, MBS aims to speak for the youth, suffocated by tradition. He breaks the taboo of a generational conflict as acute as it is occulted in Arabia, and yet key to the understanding of current developments. He wants to change the mindset of a population often unaware of the scale of the problems the country faces, and that he himself does not hesitate to emphasize.

A new wave of Arab autocrats?

The two Mohammed embody a new wave of Arab autocrats, of whom MBZ is the archetype. Unlike the dictators who preceded them, their authoritarian model was fed neither by anti-imperialism nor by the fight against internal opposition. The Federation of the United Arab Emirates is, on the contrary, a product of British imperialism, which also brought about Saudi Arabia.
Far from populists, these autocrats do not feel the need to justify their power, be it through ideological, religious or identity-based narratives. They come from a princely family, which by definition monopolizes politics, and thus spontaneously consider that society has no say in this field. These new despots are particularly allergic to the emergence of civil society and citizenship announced by the Arab Spring. They ensure by all means the submission of a population composed of "nationals", to whom they grant advantages rather than rights, and of foreigners, asked to remain silent. They face problems, to which they aim to provide technical and economic solutions, without any cultural or political dimension. Yielding to a worship of national power equating to self-assertion, they are not specifically oriental because, fascinated by globalization, they are in fact more similar to Xi Jinping or Putin than to Nasser or Saddam. Will their dream of power not, at some point, collide into the inertia of populations that are both hedonistic and undergoing an important cultural metamorphosis?

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

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