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Why is the UAE's Bin Zayed so close to Europe's Islamophobes?

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahya seen with President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, during the former's trip on Serbia on June 21, 2017 [Screengrab / indeksonline.rs]
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahya seen with President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, during the former's trip on Serbia on June 21, 2017 [Screengrab / indeksonline.rs]

As Islamophobia rises across Europe, one Muslim world leader seems to be totally indifferent to the phenomenon. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, is a personal friend of the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić.

Bosnian Muslims have never been impressed by Vučić; they remember when, in 1995, he told the National Assembly, just days after the Srebrenica massacre, that "for every Serb killed, we will kill a hundred Muslims." Vučić only abandoned his dream of "Greater Serbia" — a variation of the "Greater German Reich" which certain figures in Berlin once favoured — in 2008.

When Vučić turned up at the Srebrenica twentieth anniversary memorial ceremony in 2015, he fled when the crowd shouted "Die Chetnik" and "Allahu Akbar" before hurling bottles and stones at him. Even if the Bosnian government had extended the invitation for him to attend the event, those present could see through the Serbian leader's late and obviously faux regret. He had campaigned for many years against the prosecution of Serb commanders accused of war crimes against Muslims, offering them safe houses and political support. A few days earlier, Vučić had also successfully lobbied Russia to veto a UN resolution recognising the massacre as an act of genocide. Dignitaries driving to the ceremony passed hundreds of "Thank you Putin" posters distributed with the kind of speed and coverage that only a state can provide.

Today, Belgrade has just one mosque left for its 20,000 Muslim citizens; another was torn down overnight a year ago. Most of the others were destroyed and never rebuilt after the conflict in the nineties. Appeals from Muslim leaders to build more places of worship have been met with silence from the Serbian authorities and, shamefully, those in the European Union who are keen for Serbia to join the bloc and want to airbrush its troubled past.

None of this seems to matter to Bin Zayed. He is very close to Vučić, with whom he shares a love of hunting, amongst other manly pursuits. The Crown Prince has bought one of former Yugoslav President Tito's old hunting lodges as a personal retreat and Vučić is a frequent guest. The men bond, rather bizarrely, over drones, with both obsessing over them more as man-toys than for their military and security uses.

Bin Zayed and Vučić plotted together to give the former leader of Fatah in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, Serbian citizenship along with his family and five key supporters in 2013 and 2014. In return, billions of dollars have been invested in Serbia. Investments include the notorious Belgrade Waterfront project; a $1bn loan from the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority; a 49 per cent stake in Jat Airways, now called Air Serbia; shares in strategic arms companies; and the purchase of agricultural land designed to improve the UAE's fragile food security problems, to the detriment of Serbian farmers. The Abu Dhabi leader now admits openly that Serbia is his number one destination for outward investment from the UAE, as part of his plan to diversify the country's revenues away from oil.

There is an argument that says let bygones be bygones, and that to see a leader of a Muslim nation make friends with the leader of a nation with a long anti-Muslim history is a road to peace. At least, it is said, the UAE has recognised Kosovo's independence.

The reality, though, is far from being such an optimistic scenario. Both men are autocrats; Vučić, for example, is at least as bad as Hungary's Viktor Orbán and is perfecting the new European art of "managed democracy", which is likely to be a model that Bin Zayed may copy in the future. Like Orbán – who is also fiercely anti-Muslim – Vučić presents himself to Brussels as a liberal with the full intention of subverting democracy if and when Serbia joins the EU.

Meanwhile, Bin Zayed is believed to have paid the bills for PR firm Bell Pottinger, amongst other companies, to support Vučić's election successes from 2014 onwards. Such direct intervention in foreign affairs contravenes the terms of the Vienna Convention, but no matter; when you're that rich, the rules don't apply.

Both men have been advised by Tony Blair, a liberalised version of an Orbán-style autocrat who despised Parliament and anyone with delegated power apart from himself; he was convinced that the road to the top involved controlling the media, the evidence of which can be seen in his friendship with Rupert Murdoch and his militarisation of the Downing Street press office. Bin Zayed and Vučić are autocrats and consolidators of power, therefore, not peace-makers.

Furthermore, the UAE's investment in Serbia is ongoing. Last month, a memorandum was signed between Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister, Zorana Mihajlovic, and the President of Dubai Port World, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulai, to start developing a major new river port in the landlocked country. The UAE and Serbian military and intelligence sectors, both public and private, are co-operating on an increasingly intimate level.

The annual remembrance ceremonies for the Srebrenica genocide will go ahead next month. However, the memory of those killed is being besmirched by Mohammed Bin Zayed's friendship with Aleksandar Vučić, whose admiration of Orbán, Russia's Vladimir Putin and the various far-right networks in Europe is deeply troubling for anyone concerned about Islamophobia and racism across the continent. All of these autocrats share a deep-rooted anti-Muslim bigotry, so why is a leading Muslim leader from the Middle East standing so cosily alongside them?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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