But in the Middle East, royals hold undeniable power and their personalities have lasting impacts on the world. The rise of King Salman and his power-hungry son, Mohammed bin Salman, in Saudi Arabia has spawned a terrible war in Yemen, economic and social transformation in one of the world's most conservative countries, and even inflated technology company valuations in Silicon Valley.
With the death last week of Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, the long-sitting president (effectively the king) of the United Arab Emirates, a new succession battle is underway. What isn't surprising is that Mohammed bin Zayed, Khalifa's half-brother, instantly was appointed as the president.
MbZ, as he's often referred to in the West (or "the Boss" by his advisors), has effectively run the country for eight years after Khalifa had a pretty serious stroke in 2014. (Small explainer: Mohammed sits at the top of the Al Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi, the biggest emirate and home of most of the country's oil and gas – and money. Abu Dhabi essentially leads the federation of seven "states," including Dubai.)
The succession battle is for the job of Crown Prince, the first-in-line for the throne. The position is empty with the elevation of MbZ to president. A decision on who will take the job should be coming within weeks.
As MbZ's own career and that of MbS in Saudi Arabia have shown, the number two person is extremely important in an absolute monarchy. Often times, it's the position from which all actual power is exerted. The UAE was ruled by MbZ as Crown Prince for eight years (and even before Khalifa's stroke, MbZ ran a lot of the country) and all aspects of the day-to-day affairs of Saudi Arabia are run by MbS.
Whoever becomes the Crown Prince will have a major impact on the future of the country in the years to come – and the region.
The battle is between two men:
- Tahnoon bin Zayed, the younger full brother of Mohammed, and acting spy chief of the country with close ties to Saudi Arabia, Russia and China. He and MbZ are sons of Fatima (the mother of the nation) and are the top two members of this powerful group, known as the "Bani Fatima," sons of Fatima.
- Khalid bin Mohammed, Mohammed bin Zayed's son and head of the executive office
To a lesser extent, Hazza bin Zayed, is also in the running, but my sources say it's a bit more of a face-saving exercise than him being a true contender.
The Abu Dhabi Crown Prince succession battle is fascinating because it represents two very different worldviews. Call it the battle of the Spymaster and the would-be Philosopher King.