The UAE places 'authoritarian stability' in the region at the top of its list of priorities.

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), is not a supporter of establishing an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. Most likely the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s de facto ruler does not believe that there will ever be one. Nonetheless, the Emirati leader does seek to influence Palestinian affairs within the context of Abu Dhabi’s agenda aimed at eradicating the forces of political Islam from the wider Arab region and countering the influence of the UAE’s adversaries. 

Key to the UAE’s Palestine foreign policy is Mohammed Dahlan, who serves as MBZ’s adviser. Born in Khan Younis, Dahlan was previously Fatah’s security chief in Gaza. 

Since 2011, he has been in exile in Abu Dhabi. He maintains close ties to the royal Al Nayhan family and receives support from Egypt’s government. This former Fatah official reportedly has much influence over the Crown Prince’s decision-making on Palestine-related issues. Dahlan returning to the Palestinian territories to become President Mahmoud Abbas’ successor would be an ideal situation for Abu Dhabi.

A major reason why MBZ is so close to Dahlan has to do with the anti-Hamas record of the ex-security chief in Gaza. This dates back to Dahlan’s time at the Islamic University of Gaza in the 1980s. In the 2000s, he had hundreds of Palestinians in Hamas arrested, and Dahlan’s loyalists tortured a number of them according to certain sources.

The US has been supportive of this controversial figure too. The administration of George W Bush, who called Dahlan “our boy”, backed him in a plot to forcefully oust Hamas in Gaza in 2007—the year in which he was kicked out of Gaza and went to the West Bank. More recently, Washington’s ambassador to Israel David Friedman told Israel Hayom that the US considers Dahlan a possible contender for the Palestinian presidency.

While in the UAE, Dahlan has been connected to several international events that involved the UAE—either undeniably so or at least allegedly. Some sources maintain that Dahlan had a role in the Emirati and Saudi-backed coup which ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. 

The Turkish government, which accuses him of having had a hand in Turkey’s failed coup plot of July 15, 2016, has put him on the “Most Wanted Terrorist List” with a USD 700,000 bounty. Many observers saw Dahlan as central to Jared Kushner’s “Deal of the Century” summit in Bahrain in 2019.

Abraham Accords and geopolitical competition 

Dahlan has been back in the news in recent weeks thanks to the Abraham Accords. In both Gaza and the West Bank, speculation is rife that Dahlan played a facilitating role in the UAE-Israel diplomatic agreement. Dahlan denies having had anything to do with this accord. But his refusal to condemn the Abraham Accords stokes suspicions. He also responded to the diplomatic deal by saying, “the UAE will use its efforts to directly pressure the American administration and other parties to end the Israeli annexation plan completely and replace President Trump’s settlement plan with UN resolutions and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.”

Nabil Sha’ath, a high-ranking official within Fatah who advises Abbas, claims that the controversial Abu Dhabi-based former security chief was part of the Abraham Accords’ “engineering”. The spokesman of the Palestinian security services in Ramallah, Adnan al-Dumairi, told France24 that “we're sure [Dahlan] was an accomplice and the sponsor of this normalization.” Hamas has also agreed with this assessment. 

As one Emirati strategist put it, the UAE is “not just a country, but a regional project” and the Abraham Accords were about “sending a strong deterrence message to competing regional projects, Iran and Turkey.” 

In Gaza, the UAE also seeks to eject (or at least weaken) Qatar’s influence. Dahlan himself has issued staunchly anti-Qatari rhetoric, implying that Gaza would distance itself from Qatar and move toward the UAE in terms of accepting humanitarian aid and political loyalties if his faction replaced Hamas in the enclave. 

Looking ahead, strong anti-UAE sentiments will likely remain one common denominator among virtually all Palestinians irrespective of political identity. The Palestinian Ambassador to France, Salman Al Harfi, recently called MBZ “just a small dictator who is searching for fame and playing with fire”. 

Ismail Haniyeh, the political leader of Hamas, declared that history will show “no mercy” for Arab governments that abandon the Palestinian cause. Such bold remarks are illustrative of the anger felt by Gazans at a time in which most see the Abraham Accords as merely making Israel more comfortable while continuing its brutality toward Palestinians. 

The burning of the UAE’s flag and pictures of MBZ and Dahlan underscore the vitriol felt by many Palestinians toward Abu Dhabi and the former Palestinian politician who has been in the Emirates for the past nine years. 

A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in mid-2018 found that only six percent of Palestinians preferred Dahlan as a successor to Abbas, opposed to other figures such as Marwan Barghouti and Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh who were at 30 and 23 percent, respectively. 

Presumably, as a result of the Kushner “peace” summit in Bahrain and the Abraham Accords, Dahlan’s support among Palestinians has decreased since the taking of that poll. Assumptions about Dahlan being involved in the Abraham Accords will only make it harder to imagine Dahlan gaining significant popularity among the Palestinians any time soon.

“[Dahlan] does have a following among Palestinians, though he also has considerable baggage vis-à-vis both Hamas and the mainstream of Fatah,” said Khaled Elgindy, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs told me in an interview this month. “His association with the UAE is likely to further hurt his standing among Palestinians.” 

One wave

Nonetheless, given how Abbas’ dispute with Fatah has become very personalised, it is easy to image Dahlan emerging as a key political player within Fatah, even if he might be arrested and tried on corruption charges upon his return to the Palestinian Territories.

Regardless of Dahlan’s political future, it is useful to consider the UAE’s motivations for supporting him. Put simply, Dahlan represents the type of Palestinian leader whom Abu Dhabi wants calling the shots in Gaza in coordination with Israel. He is the Palestinian who is very central to the UAE’s vision for a Muslim Brotherhood-free Middle East. 

Other states such as Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia would likely be quick to welcome a scenario whereby Dahlan become Abbas’s successor. At the end of the day, these countries support “authoritarian stability” throughout the wider Arab world. 

Along with others in this counterrevolutionary camp, the UAE and Israel share the view that empowering anti-Islamist strongmen such as Dahlan, Egypt’s Abdel Fatah el Sisi, and Libya’s Khalifa Haftar is the path to stability in Arab countries. 

“Much more [about Emirati-Israeli relations] rests on ideational synergies around the securitisation of political Islam and a cynical stance towards the prospect of the Arab Spring bringing about stability in the Arab world,” wrote Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at the Defence Studies Department of King's College London. 

Now with the Abraham Accords signed and the UAE and Israel deepening bilateral relations, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv have much incentive to work together in parts of the Arab region where the Emirati and Israeli leaders share a fear of 'Islamist' power centres.

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