If you’re interested in the geopolitics of the Middle East, chances are you know Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan as the national security advisor of the United Arab Emirates. In this role, he’s been pivotal to the country’s military operations in Yemen and Libya, and in its recent efforts to mend fences with regional rivals like Turkey, Qatar and Iran.
If you’re interested in the business of the Middle East, you may have heard of Sheikh Tahnoon as the chairman of International Holding Co. In this role, he heads the UAE’s second most valuable listed company, with interests ranging from healthcare and real estate to IT and utilities — and a market capitalization north of $72 billion.
But the key to understanding Sheikh Tahnoon’s place in Middle Eastern affairs lies in his pedigree: His brother is the UAE’s de facto leader, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, widely known as MBZ, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the most powerful of the seven emirates in the federation. They may be separated in age by 10 years, but the two men are joined at the hip as they steer their country through a period of economic, security and foreign-policy uncertainty.
The U.S., historically the protector of the UAE and other Gulf monarchies as well as a major trade partner, is disengaging from the region; Iran, their historical antagonist, is widening its influence. Economic competition within the Arabian Peninsula is growing sharper as countries pursue similar diversification goals to prepare for a future when hydrocarbons alone can no longer sustain their populations. Under MBZ, the UAE has punched above its weight in its neighborhood — both politically and economically — earning the nickname “Little Sparta” in American national-security circles. But the crown prince will need help to keep it that way.
For this, he has turned to Sheikh Tahnoon. MBZ has four other brothers, two sisters and several half-siblings, but it is to Sheikh Tahnoon that he has entrusted the country’s most sensitive foreign-policy files and stewardship of an extensive business portfolio that includes IHC, the Royal Group conglomerate, investment firm Abu Dhabi Development Holding and the UAE’s biggest lender, First Abu Dhabi Bank.
As national security advisor, Sheikh Tahnoon also has a hand in the seamier aspects of statecraft. U.S. prosecutors say he and MBZ were involved in a secret effort to influence the incoming Trump administration in 2016, using the billionaire Tom Barrack as an intermediary. Barrack is under indictment for acting as an unregistered foreign agent of the UAE. He has pleaded not guilty. No Emirati officials have been charged with any wrongdoing in the case.
The emergence of Sheikh Tahnoon, 51, from relative obscurity just five years ago has set off speculation about his place in the princely pecking order: Might he, rather than one of MBZ’s sons, be next in line to become crown prince? In the UAE, any discussion about succession must be carried out sotto voce, but practically everybody I met during a recent trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi agreed that MBZ is grooming Sheikh Tahnoon for bigger things. “He’s been given oversight into every aspect of the state that matters, so you have to think that this is a springboard for something,” a senior Emirati official said.
That was also the consensus in Doha, my next stop, where top officials remarked on the closeness of the two brothers. This gave Sheikh Tahnoon unquestioned credibility in his overtures to the Qataris. That MBZ sent him to meet Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, in August “sent a signal that the UAE was serious about improving relations with us,” a senior official told me. “If he’d sent anyone else, even one of his other brothers, the gesture would not have carried the same weight.”
At the same time, sending Sheikh Tahnoon to Doha spared the Emirati leader the embarrassment of a public backdown. MBZ had been the prime mover behind the three-year embargo of Qatar by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unilaterally decided to end the rift late last year, MBZ had no choice but to follow suit. This was awkward enough without the additional mortification of having to appear in a cheery group photograph with the Qatari emir and the Saudi crown prince. Sheikh Tahnoon stood in for his brother, gamely grinning for the camera.
Having taken up hardline positions against Turkey and Iran, MBZ is counting on his brother to do more than spare his blushes. In a rapidly changing security landscape, made even more perilous by Iranian adventurism, Turkish assertiveness and the Biden administration’s determination to reduce U.S. involvement, Sheikh Tahnoon’s diplomatic mandate is vital to securing the UAE’s long-term strategic position. His business interests might help, too: Several of the companies in his portfolio are weighing billions of dollars in investments in Turkey, which would no doubt put him in good standing with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Despite the bonhomie on display in that photograph of the three princes, the UAE and Qatar remain wary of each other, and the ties between and Emiratis and Saudis are being tested by a growing economic rivalry. The companies Sheikh Tahnoon heads, given their scale and the breadth of their interests, will undoubtedly be in the vanguard of that competition.
There will be plenty more photo-ops — and not all of them so jolly — for Sheikh Tahnoon in the months and years ahead.—Bloomberg