Prince Mohammed bin Zayed grew the U.A.E.’s power by following America’s lead. He now has an increasingly bellicose agenda of his own. And President Trump seems to be following him.
By David D. Kirkpatrick
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the 29-year-old commander of the almost negligible air force of the United Arab Emirates, had come to Washington shopping for weapons.
In 1991, in the months after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the young prince wanted to buy so much military hardware to protect his own oil-rich monarchy — from Hellfire missiles to Apache helicopters to F-16 jets — that Congress worried he might destabilize the region.
But the Pentagon, trying to cultivate accommodating allies in the Gulf, had identified Prince Mohammed as a promising partner. The favorite son of the semi-literate Bedouin who founded the United Arab Emirates, Prince Mohammed was a serious-minded, British-trained helicopter pilot who had persuaded his father to transfer $4 billion into the United States Treasury to help pay for the 1991 war in Iraq.
Richard A. Clarke, then an assistant secretary of state, reassured lawmakers that the young prince would never become “an aggressor.”
“The U.A.E. is not now and never will be a threat to stability or peace in the region,” Mr. Clarke said in congressional testimony. “That is very hard to imagine. Indeed, the U.A.E. is a force for peace.”
Thirty years later, Prince Mohammed, now 58, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, is arguably the most powerful leader in the Arab world. He is also among the most influential foreign voices in Washington, urging the United States to adopt his increasingly bellicose approach to the region.
Prince Mohammed is almost unknown to the American public and his tiny country has fewer citizens than Rhode Island. But he may be the richest man in the world. He controls sovereign wealth funds worth $1.3 trillion, more than any other country.
His influence operation in Washington is legendary (Mr. Clarke got rich on his payroll). His military is the Arab world’s most potent, equipped through its work with the United States to conduct high-tech surveillance and combat operations far beyond its borders.
For decades, the prince has been a key American ally, following Washington’s lead, but now he is going his own way. His special forces are active in Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Egypt’s North Sinai. He has worked to thwart democratic transitions in the Middle East, helped install a reliable autocrat in Egypt and boosted a protégé to power in Saudi Arabia.
At times, the prince has contradicted American policy and destabilized neighbors. Rights groups have criticized him for jailing dissidents at home, for his role in creating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and for backing the Saudi prince whose agents killed the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi.
Yet under the Trump administration, his influence in Washington appears greater than ever. He has a rapport with President Trump, who has frequently adopted the prince’s views on Qatar, Libya and Saudi Arabia, even over the advice of cabinet officials or senior national security staff.
Western diplomats who know the prince — known as M.B.Z. — say he is obsessed with two enemies, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Trump has sought to move strongly against both and last week took steps to bypass congressional opposition to keep selling weapons to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“M.B.Z. has an extraordinary way of telling Americans his own interests but making it come across as good advice about the region,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, whose sympathy for the Arab Spring and negotiations with Iran brought blistering criticism from the Emirati prince. When it comes to influence in Washington, Mr. Rhodes added, “M.B.Z. is in a class by himself.”
Prince Mohammed worked assiduously before the presidential election to crack Mr. Trump’s inner circle, and secured a secret meeting during the transition period with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The prince also tried to broker talks between the Trump administration and Russia, a gambit that later entangled him in the special counsel’s investigation into foreign election interference.
Today, at least five people working for Prince Mohammed have been caught up in criminal investigations growing out of that inquiry. A regular visitor to the United States for three decades, Prince Mohammed has now stayed away for two years, in part because he fears prosecutors might seek to question him or his aides, according to two people familiar with his thinking. (His brother, the foreign minister, has visited.)
The United Arab Emirates’ Embassy in Washington declined to comment. The prince’s many American defenders say it is only prudent of him to try to shape United States policy, as many governments do, and that he sees his interventions as an attempt to compensate for an American pullback.
But Prince Mohammed’s critics say that his rise is a study in unintended consequences. The obscure young prince whom Washington adopted as a pliant ally is now fanning his volatile region’s flames.
By arming the United Arab Emirates with such advanced surveillance technology, commandos and weaponry, argued Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official and fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We have created a little Frankenstein.”
The Perfect Prince
Most Arab royals are paunchy, long-winded and prone to keep visitors waiting. Not Prince Mohammed.
He graduated at the age of 18 from the British officers’ training program at Sandhurst. He stays slim and fit, trades tips with visitors about workout machines, and never arrives late for a meeting.Wahba, a former American ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
In the capital, Abu Dhabi, he has overseen a construction craze that has hidden the former coastline behind man-made islands. One is intended to become a financial district akin to Wall Street. Another includes a campus of New York University, a franchise of the Louvre and a planned extension of the Guggenheim.
When he meets Americans, Prince Mohammed emphasizes the things that make the United Arab Emirates more liberal than their neighbors. Women have more opportunities: A third of the cabinet ministers are female.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates allow Christian churches and Hindu or Sikh temples, partly to accommodate a vast foreign work force. (The country is estimated to have nine million residents, but fewer than a million citizens; the rest are foreign workers.)
To underscore the point, the prince last year created a Ministry of Tolerance and declared this the “Year of Tolerance.” He has hosted the Special Olympics and Pope Francis.
“I think he has done admirable work not just in diversifying the economy but in diversifying the system of thought of the population as well,” said Gen. John R. Allen, former commander of United States and N.A.T.O. forces in Afghanistan, now president of the Brookings Institution. (In between, General Allen was an adviser to the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Defense.)
The United Arab Emirates are a tiny federation of city-states, yet Abu Dhabi alone accounts for 6 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, making it a tempting target to a larger neighbor like Iran. In 1971, when the U.A.E. gained independence from Britain, the shah of Iran seized three disputed Persian Gulf islands.
The Muslim Brotherhood, a 90-year-old Islamist movement founded in Egypt, has become mainstream in many Arab countries. On that subject, Prince Mohammed says his dread is more personal.
His father assigned a prominent Brotherhood member, Ezzedine Ibrahim, as Prince Mohammed’s tutor, and he attempted an indoctrination that backfired, the prince often says.
“I am an Arab, I am a Muslim and I pray. And in the 1970s and early 1980s I was one of them,” Prince Mohammed told visiting American diplomats in 2007, as they reported in a classified cable released by WikiLeaks. “I believe these guys have an agenda.”
He worries about the appeal of Islamist politics to his population. As many as 80 percent of the soldiers in his forces would answer the call of “some holy man in Mecca,” he once told American diplomats, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks.
For that reason, diplomats say, Prince Mohammed has long argued that the Arab world is not ready for democracy. Islamists would win any elections.
“In any Muslim country, you will see the same result,” he said in a 2007 meeting with American officials. “The Middle East is not California.”
The United Arab Emirates began allowing American forces to operate from bases inside the country during the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Since then, the prince’s commandos and air forces have been deployed with the Americans in Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as against the Islamic State.
He has recruited American commanders to run his military and former spies to set up his intelligence services. He also acquired more weaponry in the four years before 2010 than the other five Gulf monarchies combined, including 80 F-16 fighters, 30 Apache combat helicopters, and 62 French Mirage jets.
Some American officers describe the United Arab Emirates as “Little Sparta.”
With advice from former top military commanders including former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and General Allen, Prince Mohammed has even developed an Emirati defense industry, producing an amphibious armored vehicle known as The Beast and others that he is already supplying to clients in Libya and Egypt.
The United Arab Emirates are also preparing a low-altitude propeller-driven bomber for counterinsurgency combat — an idea Mr. Mattis had long recommended for the United States, a former officer close to him said.
Prince Mohammed has often told American officials that he saw Israel as an ally against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel trusted him enough to sell him upgrades for his F-16s, as well as advanced mobile phone spyware.
To many in Washington, Prince Mohammed had become America’s best friend in the region, a dutiful partner who could be counted on for tasks from countering Iranian influence in Lebanon to funding construction in Iraq.
“It was well known that if you needed something done in the Middle East,” recalled Richard G. Olson, a former United States ambassador to Abu Dhabi, “the Emiratis would do it.”
Prince Mohammed seemed to find a kindred spirit when President Barack Obama took office in 2009, White House aides said. Both were detached, analytic and intrigued by big questions. For a time, Mr. Obama sought out phone conversations with Prince Mohammed more than with any other foreign leader, several senior White House officials recalled.
But the Arab Spring came between them. Uprisings swept the region. The Muslim Brotherhood was winning elections. And Mr. Obama appeared to endorse the demands for democracy — though in Syria, where the uprising threatened a foe of the Emiratis, he balked at military action.
Then it emerged that the Obama administration was in secret nuclear talks with Iran.
“They felt not only ignored — they felt betrayed by the Obama administration, and I think Prince Mohammed felt it particularly and personally,” said Stephen Hadley, a national security adviser under President George W. Bush who has stayed close to the prince.
After the uprisings, Prince Mohammed saw the United Arab Emirates as the only one of the 22 Arab states still on its feet, with a stable government, functional economy, able military and “moderate ideology,” said Abdulkhalleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist with access to the country’s senior officials.
“The U.A.E. is part of this very dangerous region that is getting more dangerous by the day — full of chaos and wars and extremists,” he said. “So the motivation is this: If we don’t go after the bad guys, they will come after us.”
At home, Prince Mohammed hired a company linked to Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company formerly known as Blackwater, to create a force of Colombian, South African and other mercenaries. He crushed any hint of dissent, arresting five activists for organizing a petition for democratic reforms (signed by only 132 people) and rounding up dozens suspected of sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The United Arab Emirates revved up its influence machine in Washington, too. They were among the biggest spenders among foreign governments on Washington advocates and consultants, paying as much $21 million in 2017, according to a tally by the Center for Responsive Politics. They earned good will with million-dollar donations after natural disasters, and they sought to frame public debate by giving millions more to major think tanks.
The Middle East Institute recently received $20 million. Its chairman is Mr. Clarke, the former official who pushed through the U.A.E. defense contracts. After leaving government in 2003, he had also founded a consultancy with the United Arab Emirates as a primary client. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Emirati Ambassador Yousef Otaiba hammered his many contacts in the White House and on Capitol Hill, arguing that Mr. Obama was ceding the region to extremists and Iran. The prince himself made the case at the highest levels. He “gave me an earful,” former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recalled in a memoir.
In the Middle East, Prince Mohammed did more than talk. In Egypt, he backed a military takeover in 2013 that removed an elected president who was a Muslim Brotherhood leader. In the Horn of Africa, he dispatched a force to Somalia first to combat piracy and then to fight extremists. He went on to establish commercial ports or naval bases around the Gulf of Aden.
In Libya, Prince Mohammed defied American pleas and a United Nations embargo by arming the forces of the militia leader and would-be strongman Khalifa Hifter. Emirati pilots carried out airstrikes in Tripoli and eventually established an air base in eastern Libya.
In the past, the prince looked for a “green light” from Washington, said Ms. Wahba, the former American ambassador. Now he may send a heads-up, she said, but “he is not asking permission anymore.”
Saudi Arabia, the giant next door, had quarreled with the United Arab Emirates over borders and, as the regional heavyweight, also constrained U.A.E. foreign policy. By the end of 2014, the position of crown prince — next in line for the throne — had passed to a known foe of the Emirati prince.
So he plunged into the internal Saudi succession battle and waged an all-out lobbying campaign in Washington on behalf of a little-known alternative: the 29-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a favorite son of the aged Saudi king.
“M.B.Z.’s message was, if you trust me and you like me, you will like this guy because he is cut from the same cloth,” recalled Mr. Rhodes, the Obama adviser.
By March 2015, the two princes had invaded Yemen together to roll back a takeover by a faction aligned with Iran. Then in 2017, as the Saudi prince consolidated his power, they cut off all trade and diplomatic ties with Qatar to pressure it into abandoning support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both the Yemen and Qatar conflicts are routinely described as Saudi-led, but the Emirati prince first sought to sell them to Washington, Mr. Rhodes and other former officials recalled.
By late 2015, American diplomats say, Prince Mohammed was also suggesting that the United Arab Emirates and a new Saudi leadership could be crucial in bringing the Palestinians around to some new peace agreement — the so-called “outside-in” approach to a deal.
But for that, Prince Mohammed awaited a new administration.
All the Prince’s Men
It was meant to be a personal farewell.
Despite their sharp differences, Prince Mohammed had remained cordial with Mr. Obama, and the president thought they shared a mutual respect, according to four senior White House officials. So when the prince requested a final meeting, as friends, Mr. Obama agreed to a lunch at the White House in December 2016.
But Prince Mohammed backed out without much explanation. He flew instead to New York for his first face-to-face meeting with Jared Kushner and other advisers to the president-elect, Donald J. Trump.
To arrange the meetings, Prince Mohammed had turned to a financier, Richard Gerson, founder of Falcon Edge Capital. He had worked with the prince for years, and he was also a friend of Mr. Kushner.
“I am always here as your trusted family back channel any time you want to discreetly pass something,” Mr. Gerson wrote to the prince after the election in a private text message, one of several provided to The Times by a third party and corroborated independently. He signed off another message as “your loyal soldier.”
The trip was supposed to be secret, but intelligence agencies detected the prince’s arrival. Mr. Obama’s advisers were stunned. But Prince Mohammed was already working to reverse the administration’s policies, talking to Mr. Trump’s advisers about the dangers of Iran and about Palestinian peace talks, according to two people familiar with the meetings.
“They were deeply impressed with you and already are convinced that you are their true friend and closest ally,” Mr. Gerson wrote to the prince after the meetings.
Prince Mohammed was positioning himself as an intermediary to Russia, too.
One of Prince Mohammed’s younger brothers had introduced Mr. Gerson to a Russian businessman who acts as a liaison between President Vladimir V. Putin and the Persian Gulf monarchs, according to the special counsel’s report. The Russian businessman, Kirill Dmitriev, conferred with Mr. Gerson about a “reconciliation plan” for the United States and Russia, and shortly before the inauguration Mr. Gerson gave a two-page summary of the plan to Mr. Kushner.
Mr. Gerson declined to comment for this article.
The next month, in January, Prince Mohammed invited Mr. Dmitriev to an Emirati retreat in the Seychelles to meet with someone else they thought represented the Trump team: Mr. Prince, the Blackwater founder who had recruited mercenaries for the United Arab Emirates.
Why Prince Mohammed would seek to connect Russia with Mr. Trump’s circle remains a matter of debate, but he has worked for years to try to entice Mr. Putin away from Iran, according to American diplomats and leaked emails from the Emirati ambassador in Washington.
But prosecutors are also investigating the activities of other operatives and go-betweens working for the prince who tried to insinuate themselves around Mr. Trump.
Investigators are still examining the campaign contacts of an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation who has worked for Prince Mohammed and of a Lebanese-American businessman who acted as his emissary. Other prosecutors are investigating whether another top Republican donor whose security company worked for the prince should legally have registered as his agent.
The special counsel’s office has also questioned Rashid al-Malik, an Emirati real-estate developer based in Los Angeles who is close to Prince Mohammed and to his brother — the head of Emirati intelligence. Mr. al-Malik is also close to Mr. Trump’s friend Tom Barrack, and investigators are asking whether Mr. al-Malik was part of an illegal influence scheme, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Another investigation, prompted by a whistle-blower, is examining the possibility that the United Arab Emirates used cyberespionage techniques from former American operatives to spy on American citizens.
Yet the prince’s courtship of the Trump administration has not been damaged. In the two and a half years since his first meeting with Mr. Kushner, Prince Mohammed has received almost everything he sought from the White House.
Each winter, Prince Mohammed invites financiers and former officials to Abu Dhabi for a salon that demonstrates his global influence.
The guest list last December included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; former French President Nicolas Sarkozy; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Mr. Hadley, the Bush-era national security adviser; the American investors Mohamed A. El-Erian, David M. Rubenstein and Thomas S. Kaplan; and the Chinese computer scientist and investor Kai-Fu Lee.
Undeterred, the prince also included Mr. Dmitriev, the Russian businessman linked to Mr. Putin.
Prince Mohammed’s post-Arab Spring interventions have hardly stabilized the region. An aide he sent to Cairo to help turn around the moribund economy has returned in frustration.
Egypt’s military-backed government still depends on billions of dollars a year in assistance from the United Arab Emirates and its Gulf allies, and despite Emirati help and Israeli airstrikes, Cairo has not yet quelled a militant backlash centered in the North Sinai.
The isolation of Qatar has failed to change its policies. In Libya, Khalifa Hifter is mired in a bloody stalemate.
Prince Mohammed’s push in the Horn of Africa has set off a competition for access and influence among rivals like Turkey and Qatar. In Somalia, after allegations of bribery by the fragile central government, Emirati forces have shifted to the semiautonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland.
Djibouti, alleging neglect, last year replaced its Emirati port managers with a Chinese rival.
“He thinks he is Machiavelli but he acts more like Mussolini,” said Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former official in the Central Intelligence Agency.
In Saudi Arabia, the Emirati prince has been embarrassed by the conclusion of American intelligence agencies that his Saudi protégé had ordered the brutal murder of Mr. Khashoggi, a Virginia-based Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist. Their joint, four-year-old intervention in Yemen is turning into a quagmire, with horrific civilian casualties.
“The U.A.E. is a stain on the world conscience — the U.A.E. as it is currently governed is violating every norm of the civilized world,” said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California.
Yet the prince’s standing remains strong inside the Trump administration. The “outside-in” proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace passed over by the Obama administration are at the core of Mr. Kushner’s emerging plans.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly backed the positions of the Emirati prince: by endorsing his Saudi protégé after the Khashoggi killing, by applauding the isolation of Qatar even as the secretary of state and secretary of defense publicly opposed it, by canceling the nuclear deal with Iran, by seeking to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, and by vetoing legislationto cut off American military support for Saudi and Emirati forces in Yemen.
Last month, Mr. Trump publicly endorsed the Emiratis’ favored militia leader in Libya one day after a phone call with Prince Mohammed — even through Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had previously urged the same leader to retreat.
Mr. Mattis, the former secretary of defense, last month delivered a lecture in Abu Dhabi sponsored by Prince Mohammed. When he joined the Trump administration, Mr. Mattis disclosed that he had received $242,000 in annual fees as well as valuable stock options as a board member at the defense contractor General Dynamics, which does extensive business with Abu Dhabi. He had also worked as an unpaid adviser to Prince Mohammed.
“It’s the Year of Tolerance. How many countries in the world right now are having a year of tolerance?” Mr. Mattis asked. “I don’t know of any,” he said. “You are an example.”