Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Maktoum Receives Khalifa

Today’s banner headline in the Gulf News reads “Maktoum receives Khalifa.”

This is indeed big news.

Let me explain. The United Arab Emirates are one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, albeit tempered by federation. All is decided by the seven families who control the seven constituent Emirates.

Rumour, never publicly acknowledged, is that Sheikh Zayed, the current ruler of Abu Dhabi and founder and president of the UAE, is ailing. Therefore the question of succession comes up.

Officially, the presidency of the UAE is supposed to go on Zayed’s death to Sheikh Maktoum, the hereditary ruler of Dubai. He is also the vice president and prime minister, and so nominally next in line. Many have thought this would not happen, however, because the Nahyans, the rulers of Abu Dhabi, have most of the country’s oil, and so reputedly pay most of the bills. It was thought that, when the time came, they would not be ready to give up the presidency.

That would presumably mean it would pass to Sheikh Khalifa Al Nahyan, the designated Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

There were other possibilities. Many believed another son of Sheikh Zayed might take it—while succession within ruling families is by heredity, the tradition does not require primogeniture. That is, the oldest son does not get it automatically. Instead, the most capable candidate is chosen, as determined by the previous ruler or by family consensus. A few speculated that it might even go to the ruler of another of the seven Emirates.

Up until now, a close reading of the Gulf News suggested Khalifa was indeed going to take over: gatherings of the clans seemed all to be at his palace, and his name was given first.

Hence the headline: it seems Khalifa has now dramatically thrown his support behind Maktoum. Maktoum is receiving him: that is the sheikh's role.

Interesting: nobody says what is really happening, but everyone more or less knows. The headline would make no sense as a headline if everyone did not know. It is a question of tact and decorum, I suspect, not to talk openly about such things, more than anything else. I hope I am not violating that decorum by posting these speculations here. I presume that, because I have no inside information and am only speculating, I am not.

I certainly mean no disrespect. It would be sad to see Sheikh Zayed go: he has been an exemplary ruler, and remains high in the affections of his people. He had oil money to help; but many other rulers and many other nations have done far less well and wisely with their oil wealth.

On the other hand, no one can fault Maktoum for his management of Dubai, which he has made into a world-class city. He would presumably do a good job with the UAE as a whole.


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