Abu Dhabi: the ruling family

Summary: rare appearance in public of UAE President Khalifa bin Zayid. Family history, jobs for the boys.
On 9 June the Abu Dhabi press agency and local media reported that the president of the UAE Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayid had received some members of his family on an Eid visit at his residence in Evian, France, Shaikh Hamad bin Zayid, chief of the Crown Prince’s Court, Shaikh Umar bin Zayid, deputy chairman of a charitable foundation, and Shaikh Muhammad bin Khalifa, a member of the executive council. This was unusual though not unprecedented; he was visited in January by his half brother Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid (MBZ) and other family members to pay condolences on the death of his mother Shaikha Hassa (both of whose parents were also close relatives of the ruling line).
Shaikh Khalifa, 69, succeeded his father Shaikh Zayid as president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi in 2004. In poor health since boyhood, he had a stroke in 2014 since when he has been so much out of the news that he was even rumoured to be dead, and MBZ has effectively been in charge.
The ruling family of Abu Dhabi are from the Al Bu Falah, part of the Bani Yas tribe. Based in earlier centuries in the Liwa (a group of small oases in the south-west of modern Abu Dhabi) they moved to Abu Dhabi itself on the coast, despite the shortage of drinkable water, in 1793. Like the other Arab Gulf statelets from Kuwait to Muscat they came under British influence in the 19th century. The seven shaikhdoms which now form the United Arab Emirates signed maritime truces with Britain and consequently became known as the Trucial States (previously the region was known loosely as the Pirate Coast). Britain was responsible for their defence and foreign relations, but they retained independence from each other, and a considerable degree of independence from Britain – for example Abu Dhabi and Dubai fought a war in 1945.
From 1928 to 1966 Abu Dhabi was ruled by Shaikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, who like all previous rulers of Abu Dhabi for several generations came to power on the murder of his predecessor (his father, who had succeeded by murdering one brother and was murdered by another). In a few years in the 1960s, with the development of very large oil reserves, Abu Dhabi moved from extreme poverty to great wealth. Shakhbut was unequal to the challenge, and was deposed in a bloodless coup by his brother Zayid with the help of the British. Shakhbut and his brothers had been persuaded by their mother to swear that they would never shed each other’s blood, and Zayid – previously his brother’s loyal lieutenant – kept his word.
In 1968 the British Labour government of Harold Wilson announced its decision to withdraw from the Gulf, and in 1971 Britain unilaterally terminated its agreements with the Gulf rulers. Britain saw this as acceptance of Arab independence in accordance with the spirit of the times, but many in the Gulf saw it as betrayal.
With the removal of the British defence guarantee the Gulf statelets felt the need to stand together, but the entrenched positions of the different ruling families, including in some cases traditional enmity, made it impossible to bring them all in. The formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971 from the seven Trucial States came as a surprise to most observers. It was made possible by two factors. The first was the enormous wealth of Abu Dhabi (oil production in the other states was limited or non-existent), which enabled Abu Dhabi to take a de facto leading position despite the historic claim of the other six to something like equality. The second was the outstanding personality and prestige among the tribes of Shaikh Zayid, who ruled for 32 years and whose standing today as founding father of the UAE approaches sainthood – exaggerated perhaps, but largely deserved.
All the sons of Gulf shaikhs are considered to be shaikhs. The sheer growth of ruling families, the number of shaikhs, was identified as a problem and a serious cause of strife by the anthropologist Peter Lienhardt as early as the 1950s; how are they to be maintained when neither revenues nor property increase at a proportionate rate? He took as an example a ruler of Ras al-Khaima who had two sons, five grandsons, and twenty-one great-grandsons (he lost count of the great-great-grandsons).
In the other emirates of the UAE a latent problem remains; moreover unrealistic aspirations to equal status with Abu Dhabi have not disappeared. The lesser rulers are given some honour but it can never be enough, hence perhaps problems such as the recent “defection” of a Shaikh from Fujaira (our posting of 31 May).
In Abu Dhabi (and in Saudi Arabia) the problem is solved in the short term because revenue and property have increased at a proportionate rate. There is enough money to go around the family (but is enough ever enough?) And there are for the present plenty of jobs for the sons (we have drawn on Wikipedia for the following): MBZ (Crown Prince), Hamdan (Amir of Western Region), Hazza (National Security Adviser), Tahnun (banker), Mansur (Deputy Prime Minister), Abdullah (Minister of Foreign Affairs), Saif (Deputy Prime Minister), Hamad (Chief of Crown Prince’s Court), Umar (deputy president of Bani Yas sports club), Khalid (businessman, vice-chairman of Etihad airline), Ahmad (MD Abu Dhabi Investment Authority), Isa (property developer), Sa’id (brigadier). There are several other sons below the age of 40, and of course already countless grandsons and not a few great-grandsons – MBZ (57) is said to have nine children. (We have stuck to sons in this posting, but daughters can also cause problems, as the ruling family of Dubai has discovered).

1 thought on “Abu Dhabi: the ruling family”

  1. Nick Stadtmiller

    It is worth noting that MBZ and Sheikhs Hazza, Hamadan, Tahnoun, Mansour, and Abdullah make up the ‘bani Fatima’ bloc of Zayed’s sons, similar to Saudi Arabia’s Sudairi seven. They have increasingly consolidated their grip on power since Zayed’s death and effectively rule the country.
    Also, Sheikh Isa has no role in government or official functions. This was publicly stated when he went on trial (through eventually acquitted) in the UAE after a video surfaced of him torturing a former business associate.
    On this note, both the Al Nahyans and the Al Maktoums have done an effective job of sidelining sheikhs who are ill suited to official duties.

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