Rise of the Would-Be Philosopher King
Abu Dhabi's powerful monarchy just had a shake-up. Here's how it's all falling into place.
Hello and welcome to Whale Hunting, a weekly newsletter that delves into the hidden worlds of wealth and power. I'm Bradley Hope, co-founder of Project Brazen and long-time observer of the secretive class of monarchs, low-profile businessmen and criminals who have a much bigger impact on the world than is easily recognizable. This week, I'm taking a closer look at the incredible shifting power dynamics in Abu Dhabi. Happy hunting.
Part 1 – Abu Dhabi's Game of Thobes
(Part 2 coming tomorrow on the New Gulf Cold War)
Abu Dhabi has a new Crown Prince, Khalid bin Mohammed al Nahyan. As first depicted in Whale Hunting in May of 2022, this was the key question in the tiny but influential and hard-hitting emirate of Abu Dhabi after the death of the long-sitting (but largely unknown) President of the U.A.E., Khalifa bin Zayed.
Unsurprisingly, Mohammed bin Zayed (a.k.a. MbZ) instantly succeeded to become president. Ever since Khalifa had a stroke in 2014, MbZ ruled the country in every way but name so the transition was smooth and uneventful. But the question instantly arose as to who would become the second-in-line to rule the country. In other words, what was the future of the U.A.E. going to look like?
MbZ has many brothers (his father had 19 sons and many daughters), including some who believed they should be the successor. As we reported last year, the big contest was between MbZ's brother Tahnoon bin Zayed (the spy-chief and treasure hoarder) and MbZ's son, Khalid. It didn't seem like a fair fight. Tahnoon has the attitude of a James Bond villain, with dark sunglasses, strange hobbies and an unexplainable business empire that includes (alleged) hacking software, artificial intelligence and biological research. I've also heard of Tahnoon referred to as Roman from Succession (😂) because of his general weirdness. Khalid is a gentler soul who likes to fly in philosophers to have deep discussions about the meaning of life and politics.
Tahnoon's claim to power was fascinating because he was such a low-profile character in Abu Dhabi even as recently as the late 2000s. When I was living there in 2008-2011, he was known as the quirky real-estate sheikh with lots of hobbies. Over the years, his power grew by leaps and bounds until he became the top espionage figure (domestic and foreign).
To sate Tahnoon's thirst for power, MbZ granted him an ever expanding portfolio. All of the Emirate's military-industrial complex moved under his umbrella; soon the banks and other deep wells of cash were pushed into his domain. Yet, still he made the case that he should be the Crown Prince, arguing that their father Zayed, the late founder, had wanted succession to move among his sons while they were still of sound age and body.
Other brothers half-heartedly threw their hats in the ring, too, such as Hazza bin Zayed (former national security advisor of the UAE), but it had little consequence. In the last few months, Mansour bin Zayed (best known for his starring role in the 1MDB story) seemed to leg ahead in an unlikely rise from the ashes.
But yesterday, the dust from the battle – known regionally as the Game of Thobes after the name of the white traditional dress of Gulf men – settled. Click ahead to see the new leaderboard and find out what it all means.
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