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Does Gargash's removal signal a UAE foreign policy change?
Over the years Gargash played an extremely pivotal role in Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy
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.