The removal of Anwar Gargash, who has long been the face of Emirati foreign policy, is part of a larger push to consolidate power within a tighter circle.
On February 10, a “small cabinet reshuffle” inside the United Arab Emirates (UAE) created many headlines because of Anwar Gargash’s removal. Gargash had served as the country’s minister of state for foreign affairs since 2008.
Over the years Gargash played an extremely pivotal role in Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy. Without being demoted, he will now serve as an advisor at the UAE Presidential Office. This cabinet reshuffle was largely tied to internal dynamics within the Emirates. But the change also comes at a time in which the UAE might be pursuing new approaches to foreign policy and security challenges against the backdrop of Joe Biden’s presidency beginning last month.
While technically not replacing Gargash, Sheikh Shakhbout bin Nahyan, who in 2017 began serving as the Emirati ambassador to Riyadh and who is the nephew of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), has become a minister of state. So has Khalifa Al Marar.
The decision to put Sheikh Shakhbout bin Nahyan in this position is indicative of important developments unfolding within the Emirates. Gargash’s removal is “part of a centralisation of power push within Abu Dhabi and the Emirates,” according to King’s College London assistant professor Dr. Andreas Krieg.
“Gargash is someone who is not in the inner circle despite the fact that MBZ trusts him. What we’ve seen over the last couple of months, and especially since Biden got elected, is more centralisation of power in Abu Dhabi within the hands of a tribal network within the [Al Nahyan] family,” explains Dr. Krieg.
Appointing Sheikh Shakhbout bin Nahyan to minister of state “is a clear signal that MBZ is putting someone in place in a key portfolio that is directly tied to ties of kin…[Sheikh Shakhbout bin Nahyan] is someone who is very much within the nexus of Khaled bin Mohammed bin Zayed, who is the most important son of MBZ and is likely to succeed MBZ eventually.”
Foreign policy implications
This cabinet reshuffle in the UAE could bode positively for Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Given that Sheikh Shakhbout bin Nahyan served as ambassador to Riyadh, he will likely be in a strong position to play a useful role in terms of easing some of the friction between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, which in recent years has been quite visible in relation to southern Yemen. Possibly differences vis-a-vis Qatar and the al-Ula summit’s outcome will constitute points of tension too.
It is important to realise the extent to which Gargash often served as the face of major foreign policy decisions which the UAE has made over the years. As an extremely important figure in the UAE, Gargash became largely associated with Abu Dhabi’s decisions to lead a group of Arab/African countries in blockading Qatar in 2017 and to formalise full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020.
Gargash articulated particular positions on Iran and Turkey — maintaining that both Tehran and Ankara are guilty of “using foreign interference as a tool to advance their expansionist agendas,” which helped the world understand Abu Dhabi’s stances against these two countries’ foreign policies.
As Dr. Krieg put it, “having [Gargash] out allows for a fresh start for the UAE and their engagement in terms of foreign and security policy, as well as their engagement with Washington.”
There are open questions about how the UAE might approach numerous issues in the Middle East and North Africa as a result of the Biden presidency’s beginning and the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement at al-Ula. How the UAE will choose to approach Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and the wars in Libya and Yemen will be important to watch in the near future.
There are possible signs of changes already taking place. Shortly after the Biden administration called on the UAE, Russia, and Turkey to bring their military forces and/or mercenaries out of Libya, the UAE’s ambassador to the United Nations wrote a letter calling for greater dialogue in Libya. This move came after the Egyptian government diplomatically engaged the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which could all suggest that Abu Dhabi, which heavily influences Cairo’s Libya foreign policy, might be taking new approaches to dealing with the Libyan crisis.
Although a new face at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can help the UAE push forward with shifts in its foreign policy strategy, some analysts such as the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Dr Cinzia Bianco do not expect this cabinet reshuffle to serve as the catalyst for any sudden changes in the UAE’s regional and international policies.
Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University, agrees. “The fundamentals of UAE foreign policy will persist, even if the rhetoric changes on the margins with Gargash's move upstairs.” In Ramani’s words, the Emirati leadership simply wants “a new messenger now that the Qatar blockade is over, and the Biden administration is in power.”
Looking ahead, despite the fact that the UAE is far better positioned than Saudi Arabia to navigate the Biden administration’s Middle East policies, it is fair to assume that the upcoming four years of UAE-US relations may face some problems. During some periods in which Abu Dhabi might have a difficult time seeing eye to eye with the Biden administration on a host of issues—from the Iranian nuclear deal to Libya to human rights to Syria to Yemen—Sheikh Shakhbout bin Nahyan could help the UAE start afresh in terms of how it deals with the new leadership in Washington.
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