Gulf state buzzes with talk that new president could choose son as heir apparent
As world leaders descended on the United Arab Emirates this week to offer condolences on the death of ruler Sheikh Khalifa, diplomatic circles buzzed with speculation over whether his successor Sheikh Mohammed, known as MBZ, will break with tradition and pick his son as crown prince.
The nomination of a crown prince or heir apparent is used to signal stability in Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich emirate that leads the Gulf monarchy, whose ruler wields power in consultation with his siblings and other powerful clans. The UAE plays an increasingly important role across the Middle East.
The UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed — the father of Sheikh Khalifa and Mohammed and other influential officials — had two decades ago indicated that succession should pass through his sons but many anticipate that the powerful Sheikh Mohammed, 61, will instead choose his eldest son, Sheikh Khaled.
“There are obviously concerns that MBZ wants to establish his own dynasty by selecting Khaled. It would be a massive departure from the traditional power dynamics in the UAE,” said Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “MBZ is already doing centralisation — this would be hyper-centralisation.”
Sheikh Mohammed’s 18 years as heir apparent transformed Abu Dhabi, from restructuring local government operations to launching diversification programmes to prepare for a post-oil era. He cracked down on domestic dissent and intervened in regional conflicts from Libya to Yemen to prevent political Islam consolidating gains after the Arab spring.
His control deepened after Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014 and retired from public life. Since then, the ruling family has overseen dramatic domestic reforms seeking to secularise society and torn up the regional rule book by normalising diplomatic relations with Israel.
MBZ’s relative young age would make his sons a more likely choice than his brothers. “MBZ could reasonably expect to be an active leader for at least another two decades, barring ill health or anything unexpected, so my instinct is that he would want to name one of his sons as his crown prince,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Educated in the US, Sheikh Khaled, 40, started his formal government career within the security services, graduating to domestic policy in recent years, including oversight of a powerful Abu Dhabi executive agency. His profile has risen in recent years as he took on more senior government roles.
If Sheikh Mohammed elects to follow familial tradition and put forward one of his brothers, the most obvious candidate is Sheikh Tahnoon, the experienced national security adviser, analysts say.
He has played a pivotal role in the country’s regional interventions over the past decade, including military operations in Yemen and Libya, while also building close relations with the security services of western allies and handling delicate diplomacy with rivals, including Iran and Turkey.
Sheikh Tahnoon oversees pillars of Abu Dhabi’s economy, including a state holding company, ADQ, and the country’s largest bank, FAB. He also has sprawling private business interests, including the IHC conglomerate, which has grown from a fish farming firm into one of Abu Dhabi’s largest companies with a flurry of takeovers.
Another brother, Sheikh Mansour, deputy prime minister and owner of Manchester City football club, is also renowned for his extensive commercial interests, but has been associated with financial scandal, most notably the 1MDB fraud. Other brothers in the frame include Sheikh Hazza, who was tipped as a future crown prince a decade ago.
There is no procedure for the selection of a crown prince. Sheikh Zayed appointed Khalifa as crown prince a few years after his ascent in 1966 and before his death named MBZ as deputy crown prince. But some local observers are convinced that, for the sake of stable government, the announcement could be made after the 40-day mourning period.
Christopher Davidson, associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think-tank, said MBZ’s strength means he has the freedom to act “tomorrow or next year”, but that he may well allow “the dust to settle”, providing some time for his son’s image to be cemented in the media.
MBZ could also take a leaf out of his father’s playbook, nominating a brother as crown prince and his son as deputy crown prince, or a similar balancing act to give Khaled more time to grow into the role.
“They are considering a few options — one is to have a de jure and a de facto crown prince,” said Bianco. “It’s gaining traction because there is absolutely not a consensus candidate.”