Rulers in the United Arab Emirates have unanimously appointed Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as the autocratic nation’s president, signalling unity and stability in this key energy-rich country that hosts western militaries.

The ascension of Sheikh Mohammed, 61, had been expected after the death on Friday of his half-brother and the UAE’s president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the age of 73.

It is only the third time this US-allied nation of seven sheikhdoms has selected a president since becoming an independent nation in 1971.

Under Sheikh Mohammed, who has been the nation’s de facto leader since Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014, the UAE had tried to project power militarily across the wider region as it joined a Saudi-led war in Yemen.

But since the lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic, Sheikh Mohammed and the wider UAE has tried to recalibrate its approach by largely pulling out of the war and seeking diplomatic detentes with rivals.

Emirates Leader Funeral
The funeral of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan (Abdulla Al Neyadi/Ministry of Presidential Affairs/AP)

The UAE also diplomatically recognised Israel, which shares Sheikh Mohammed’s longstanding suspicion of Iran. However, ties to the US have been strained in recent years.

The state-run WAM news agency described the vote at the Al-Mushrif Palace in Abu Dhabi as unanimous among the rulers of the country’s hereditarily ruled sheikhdoms, which include the skyscraper-studded city of Dubai.

“We congratulate him, and we pledge allegiance to him, and our people pledge allegiance to him,” Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, said on Twitter after the vote.

“The whole country is led by him to take it on the paths of glory and honour, God willing.”

There had been only one death of a president before Friday in the country’s history, which saw Sheikh Khalifa take over from his and Sheikh Mohammed’s father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan after his death in 2004.

Sheikh Zayed, whose name graces a major highway linking the Emirates and whose face appears everywhere in the nation, remains viewed widely as the country’s founding father.

The UAE is observing a three-day mourning period which will see businesses shut across the country and performances halted in Sheikh Khalifa’s honour.

Electronic billboards all showed the late sheikh’s image in Dubai on Friday night as flags flew at half-mast. A wider mourning period of 40 days will go on beyond that.

Sheikh Mohammed had been the UAE’s de facto president since a 2014 stroke saw Sheikh Khalifa disappear from public view.

Sheikh Mohammed cultivated ties with the West that proved valuable for Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE which commands tens of billions of dollars in wealth funds from its oil and gas deposits.

A US diplomatic cable from 2004 released by WikiLeaks referred to him as “charismatic, savvy and very comfortable in the West”.

He hosted then-president George W Bush in 2008 at his desert estate, complete with Bedouin tents and falcons.

The country hosts 3,500 US troops, many at Abu Dhabi’s Al-Dhafra Air Base, from where drones and fighter jets flew missions combatting the so-called Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Dubai is the US Navy’s busiest port of call abroad. Both France and South Korea also maintained a military presence here.

Sheikh Mohammed trained at the British military academy at Sandhurst and is a helicopter pilot. His military-first approach saw the UAE join Saudi Arabia in their years-long war in Yemen.

He has had a close relationship with neighbouring Saudi Arabia’s own upstart crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, but the Emirates has largely withdrawn its troops from Yemen.

Sheikh Mohammed has long been suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, and is believed to have organised a campaign targeting Islamists in the UAE after the 2011 Arab Spring and urging the West to take a harder line towards Tehran over concerns about its nuclear programme and its support of paramilitary groups throughout the region.

The UAE’s recognition of Israel in 2020, while opening new trade and tourism, also serves as a hedge in dealing with Iran.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE under Sheikh Mohammed has sought to rehabilitate ties to Iran and Turkey, which has backed Islamists in the region.

A quartet of Arab nations including the UAE also dropped their boycott of Qatar over a diplomatic dispute regarding its support of Islamists, though relations remain icy between Abu Dhabi and Doha.