In a November 20, 2020 letter to the Nobel Committee, Former First Minister of Northern Ireland Lord David Trimble, himself a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, nominated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Lord Trimble explained that he was nominating Netanyahu and bin Zayed “in recognition of their historic achievements in advancing peace in the Middle East.”
A few months earlier, on August 13, Netanyahu left a coronavirus cabinet meeting unexpectedly and in great haste, telling his ministers he had to take care of a “national emergency.” A short while later, the world’s view of the Middle East was altered: the United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash signed his country’s agreement to normalize relations with Israel.
It was not the first peace agreement between Israel and an Arab country: Egypt and later Jordan have ended their state of war and launched diplomatic relations with the Jewish state decades earlier. But while those two Arab states have maintained a cold peace with Israel, with almost zero cultivation of a neighborly friendship and nothing but hate from their popular media outlets, the message from Abu Dhabi was radically different.
A joint statement issued by President Donald Trump—who brokered the move, Netanyahu, and Bin Zayed read:
“This historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region and is a testament to the bold diplomacy and vision of the three leaders and the courage of the United Arab Emirates and Israel to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region.”
It was followed, besides the formal ceremony on the White House lawn, by a storm of economic and cultural endeavors: tourism, shopping, television interviews of excited men and women from both countries, news of a thriving Jewish community under UAE rule, with a synagogue, two schools, kosher restaurants, a Chabad emissary, and Chanukah parties.
After more than four decades of a begrudging and often fragile peace with their two Arab neighbors, Israelis were overwhelmed by the hospitality, friendship, and opportunities that became available in a far away spot in the region. It was an easy peace, between merchants and entrepreneurs, not former enemies.
The region owes a debt of gratitude to President Trump for this very big maneuver, and Israel has Netanyahu to thank—although Israeli voters might opt to hand him an electoral defeat instead of thanks. Voters can be ungrateful that way, ask Sir Winston Churchill who lost the UK’s July 1945 election a mere three months after defeating Adolf Hitler.
But the man who stood out with his courage, imagination, and political skill, was the third partner in what became known as the Abrahamic Accords, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, colloquially known by his initials MBZ, the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces.
MBZ is not an Anwar Sadat, a soldier who put his life on the line to change the course of his country’s history. He is a crafty politician who came up with a creative and effective way to secure his unimaginably rich country against its own threat next door, the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran. The UAE has been rewarded with a $23 billion purchase deal of state-of-the-art US military technology, most notably the stealth warplane F-35.
The Emirates, which only a decade ago were reeling from a devastating financial crisis, have also gained great clout in the region, as other countries – Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco – followed in their steps. And the list is bound to grow even longer, depending on the attitude of the Biden administration.
However, before we develop the typical Westerner’s delusion about this friendly Arab ruler, we should point to a NY Times report from last July (Mohammed bin Zayed’s Dark Vision of the Middle East’s Future) which suggested MBZ does not differentiate between Islamist groups, being convinced that they all share the same goal: a caliphate with the Koran for a constitution—which probably frightens him more than it does us. He believes that the Middle East does not need more democracy, it needs more repression, to the benefit of all its inhabitants. And political experts seem to believe that the crown prince is not wrong in his assessment.
In judging his courageous peace effort, we must remain cognizant of the fact that MBZ is committed to a counter-jihad while amassing a staggering wealth and constructing a formidable military and police force.
With fewer than a million Emirati citizens, the crown prince controls more than $1.3 trillion in sovereign wealth funds and a Middle East military that is second only to the IDF. He has cracked down viciously on the Muslim Brothers utilizing a state-of-the-art surveillance system. Membership in the Brotherhood in the UAE is a sure path to a long prison term.
With that in mind, it should not surprise Israelis that MBZ pays lip service to the “Palestinian cause,” but that’s the extent of his commitment.
Like the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and the rest of the oil-rich Gulf states, the Emiratis see the “Palestinians” more as a restless threat to law and order in their country than brethren who merit their help. They prefer to import their workers, who outnumber local citizens by about ten to one, from Pakistan and Bangladesh, not from the PA and Gaza.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan bin Zayed bin Khalifa bin Shakhbout bin Theyab bin Issa bin Nahyan bin Falah bin Yas was born in Al Ain, an inland oasis city on the eastern border with Oman, on March 11, 1961. He is the third son of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding President of the UAE. He grew up under the watchful eye of his father and his mother, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak. He has five younger full-brothers.
Mohamed Bin Zayed was educated at The Royal Academy in Rabat, Morocco, until age 10, with his classmate, King Mohammed VI of Morocco. His father, who wanted to toughen him up, sent him to Morocco with a passport showing a different last name so he wouldn’t be treated like royalty. He worked as a waiter in a local restaurant, cooked his own meals and did his own laundry, and was often lonely. He told the NY Times about his days as a student in the Moroccan capital: “There’d be a bowl of tabbouleh in the fridge, and I’d keep eating from it day after day until a kind of fungus formed on the top.”
He later attended schools in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi and spent a summer at Gordonstoun, a co-ed independent school for boarding and day pupils in Moray, Scotland. He was also schooled by an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Islamist named Izzedine Ibrahim, which was arranged by his father.
In 1979, he graduated from the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where he completed a fundamental armor course, a fundamental flying course, a parachutist course, and training on tactical planes and helicopters, including the Gazelle Squadron. While there, he became good friends with Abdullah of Pahang, who later become the monarch of Malaysia.
He returned home from the UK to join the Officers’ Training Course in the city of Sharjah. He has held a number of positions in the UAE military, from an Officer in the Presidential Guard to a pilot in the Air Force.
As part of his indefatigable efforts to block the path of Iranian terrorism in the region, MBZ has supported Yemen’s internationally recognized government after the Yemen civil war, and the Saudi-led, Western-backed intervention in Yemen to drive out Iran’s proxy Houthi terrorists after the Houthi takeover.
As a result, during MBZ’s visit to France in November 2018, AIDL, a human rights group filed a lawsuit against him accusing him of “war crimes and complicity in torture and inhumane treatment in Yemen” when he “ordered bombings on Yemeni territory.” On July 17, 2020, a French investigating magistrate was appointed to carry out a probe targeting Mohammed bin Zayed for “complicity in the acts of torture.”
Let’s hope this won’t prevent the Nobel committee from awarding him the much-deserved peace prize.
At 58, MBZ has been the UAE’s de facto leader for more than a decade—his older brother, Khalifa, who suffered a stroke in 2014, is a figurehead. He has been shaping his country’s foreign policy, education, finance, culture, women’s rights, and labor for even longer. He shies away from media exposure—he sent his foreign minister to sign the Abrahamic Accords—and conducts very few state visits. He never attended a UN general assembly, where thousands of the world’s rulers come to meet and greet in September. He never goes to Davos, Switzerland, and he very rarely gives speeches.
And yet, because of his forward-thinking, courage, and unabashed dedication to shaping a safer and more prosperous Middle East, we recognize him as the man who stood out with his impact on the year 2020.