Since his expel from Palestine in 2011, Mohammed Dahlan sought refuge in Abu Dhabi. His relationship with the UAE seems to be mutually beneficial. First, the UAE helps Dahlan stay in the game in Palestine by supporting his bid for Palestinian presidency against his ex-comrades in the Fatah as well as against Hamas and other Islamist groups. Second, Dahlan, who has been expanding his wealth since his appointment as head of security in Gaza in 1994, is able to maintain his business ties as a UAE agent in several regions, especially in the Balkans. On the other side, Dahlan is a useful figure for the UAE’s economic and political ambitions not only in the Middle East but also in its adjacent territories. First, Dahlan has many faces, including hitman, businessman, politician, NGO-funder, mediator, and broker. Therefore, the UAE can carry out its business operations in countries like Serbia, Montenegro and Ethiopia through employing Dahlan as an unofficial UAE envoy. Second, Dahlan and the UAE detest Islamists and aim to prevent their expansion and ascendancy to power whether it be in Egypt or in Tunisia or in Libya. Their motivations are different. While Dahlan seeks to prevent his privileged status in the Palestinian political scene, which always has a welcoming room for groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad, the UAE mainly desires to keep its monarchy alliance safe from any popular mass movement. The so-called Arab Spring that provided an opportunity with Islamists and other long repressed political, ethnic, and sectarian groups to have a word on the regional politics, unsurprisingly, suffered from the rage of a Dahlan-UAE alliance in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. Moreover, Turkey along with Qatar has been another target for this alliance for its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Obviously, Turkey and Qatar, especially the latter, had nothing to do with the democratization of the region but had found a change to have a leverage against the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Yet, as Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE’s envoy to the US
said in one of his leaked email, Dahlan had “his hand in just about everything.” Dahlan was an unequalled figure for the UAE for organizing almost everything about weapons, from their manufacture to shipment, for mitigating the tension among UAE-backed governments as is the case with the Egyptian-Ethiopian case, and for eliminating dissidents as revealed in his alliance with hit teams in Yemen and involvement in the Kashoggi murder in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate. In sum, the reciprocally fruitful relationship between Dahlan and the UAE manifested itself in carrying out an ostensibly legal political agenda, decorated with several aspects but in fact realized by employing illegal means from assassinations to coup plotting and to breaching arms embargos. Like Dahlan himself, this relationship also has many faces. 

“The UAE took him in as their pit bull.”

A former CIA official
 

Mohammed bin Zayed
A group of Palestinians thank UAE for vaccines.

Dahlan’s relationship with the UAE has been shaped with his personal proximity to Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto rule of this tiny, oil-rich country. Mohammed bin Zayed, mostly referred as MBZ, was born in 1961, the same year with Dahlan and received his education in the UK, becoming a helicopter pilot. It is noteworthy for being contradictory to his later policies that his spiritual and religious education was consigned to a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Egyptian scholar, Ezzeddine Ibrahim. Following his father’s death, he was appointed as Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in November 2004 and as Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces in January 2005. Unlike his father and ill health brother Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, MBZ has been pursuing a more aggressive and expansionist policy. He also has built a stricter authoritarian rule within the Emirates, chasing, and destroying dissidents even if they are abroad. This aggression also keeps him safe from any controversy that would be raised by other family members over his role in the politics. 

Simply speaking, MBZ as a strong man liked strongmen. He has never had any sympathy with popular movements or ideologies as such a sympathy would bring an end to his strongman position. Therefore, MBZ has been employing several external skilled men. A Chatham House report in 2017 highlighted the delegation of certain jobs to men from different fields by MBZ:

“The UAE also relies on external talent to fill capacity gaps of the kind that are common in young and fast-developing countries. The higher reaches of the UAE military include Mike Hindmarsh, the commander of the UAE Presidential Guard (which includes the country’s Special Forces, which have played a key role in military operations abroad). In the economic field, Maurizio La Noce, the former CEO of the oil and gas division of Mubadala, is said to be an important confidant of the crown prince. Furthermore, the Bani Fatima have come to rely on a number of ‘fixers’, as described by one former consultant: individuals with ties to influential figures and groups abroad. Perhaps most prominent among these is Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief of Gaza, who is now an ‘adviser’ to MbZ. As one Western official put it, Dahlan is ‘seemingly everywhere right now’, from Gaza, Egypt and Libya to Serbia and Somalia.” 

Mohammed Dahlan, Gaza’s exiled strongman appeared as unprecedentedly useful to MBZ, who had to figure out how to deal with the Arab Spring at the beginning of the last decade. Following a raid to his home in 2011 by Palestinian security forces, Dahlan fled to Jordan, then to Abu Dhabi with a warm welcome from MBZ. That year a wave of mass protests was sweeping across the Arab world that began in Tunisia and swiftly spread to other countries, including Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The deposition of Arab dictators consecutively in these countries caused a panic in the Gulf, which also had to suppress an Iranian-backed Shiite insurgency in their own lands. 

His first job was to help Egypt’s incumbent president, then defense minister Abdelfettah el-Sissi to oust the country’s first democratically elected, albeit Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi. According to the SissiLeaks, which is not available on the internet anymore, the UAE tasked Dahlan with transferring money to Sissi before the coup so that the protests and anti-Morsi propaganda would be financed. Dahlan has not clearly denied his involvement in Morsi’s ouster. Instead, he expressed his appreciation with the coup, saying that Abbas was working for Morsi. In a 2015-dated interview, in response to the question of whether he helped Sissi end the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Dahlan said “I played an active role as a Palestinian in backing the Egyptian people.” There were further allegations in 2017 that he was training as many as 8.000 fighters in the Sinai region. Middle East Eye reported the claims that Dahlan positioned militia men in Sinai in support of Sissi. Dahlan denied all these allegations, saying that he had nothing to do with the Sinai region. However, he was successful at helping Sissi on behalf of the UAE to put an end to Muslim Brotherhood rule and even presence in the country. In this way, the UAE managed to impose a great influence on the Arab world’s most important country with the highest military capacity and influential on an array of issues from Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

In a similar vein, Dahlan had to deal with Libya’s groups that gained power following former dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s deposition. The UAE was willing to install Gaddafi’s cousin Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam as the country’s new dictator while seeking a way to pave the way for the return of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Gaddafi’s son, to the political scene. Obviously, the third figure was Khalifa Haftar, who shared a common agenda with the UAE. Dahlan, who was already in contact with junior Gaddafi even before 2011, used his ties and skills to support al-Dam. SissiLeaks showed that the UAE had tasked Dahlan with this secret role in the country, and Dahlan visited Libya to meet certain figures, including al-Dam. The UAE-backed Egyptian officials, including both Sissi and his chief-of-staff, Major General Abbas Kamel were responsible for facilitating Dahlan’s duty. Dahlan’s efforts to instate al-Dam or the junior Gaddafi failed. Then, the warlord Khalifa Haftar appeared in the scene, becoming the UAE’s most favored figure in the country. Libyan sources claimed that the UAE mobilized Libya’s frozen assets, as many as 50 billion USD, through Dahlan for supporting Haftar’s cause against the internationally recognized and Turkey-backed government. A Libyan official said over 30 billion dollars of Libyan frozen assets were sent to Haftar in funding venues and military support via accounts opened in countries and banks the UAE has shares in. He also added “most of the money was sent through the Palestinian politician Mohammed Dahlan.” Indeed, as outlined in the Serbia chapter, Dahlan was also responsible for supplying weapons to UAE-backed forces in Libya. Dahlan’s Libya operation was so unsuccessful that Turkey’s involvement in favor of the internationally recognized government rebuffed Haftar forces. Also, Dahlan’s name appeared in an International Criminal Court investigation in 2017 for his links to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who was accused with committing war crimes. 

In 2015, Dahlan received another mission from the UAE. This time, it was to form a hit team to eliminate major Sunni opponents in Yemen, obviously the Muslim Brotherhood-linked group, al-Islah. Aram Roston, in his report for Buzfeed News, wrote that UAE hired American mercenaries to carry out operations in Yemen against Islah cadres together with Dahlan. Sparking outrage across the world, including the demand of probe into the allegations in the US, this operation was realized through Dahlan’s mediation. Described as UAE’s pit bull by a former CIA official in Roston’s report, Dahlan made the deal with US-based Spear Operations Group, founded by Abraham Golan, a Hungarian-Israeli security contractor. 

In 2016, Dahlan allegedly appeared again in the scene for waging the UAE’s ambitions in the region. This time, the target was Turkey, which was staunchly supporting the Arab Spring, strictly at odds with Sissi administration, fighting its proxies against Haftar and advocating the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Nahda’s presence in the Tunisian politics. Moreover, Ankara had established close ties with Qatar to the degree that during the UAE- and Saudi Arabia-imposed embargo, Turkey was the first country to pledge support to Doha. Turkish officials accused Dahlan with aiding a coup, allegedly orchestrated by the Gulen movement. Turkish aggression against Dahlan was so strong that he was put in the most wanted list of the country with a bounty of 700.000 USD. 

Dahlan allegedly played a role in Tunisia’s switch to one man rule after a decade-long stalemate over power between Islamists and seculars. The UAE, as is the case in Egypt and other post-Arab Spring countries, opposed the presence of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups in politics, luring harsh criticism from this group. Allegedly, Dahlan was tasked with financing several media outlets and social media accounts to make a black propaganda against Nahda. Dahlan refused these allegations, saying that he has never visited Tunisia since Arafat era. However, Islamists were beaten in Tunisia through undemocratic means after the incumbent President Kais Saied sacked prime minister, abolished the parliament and declared the he would rule the country by presidential decrees in 2021. Following Saied’s switch to one man rule, Instalingo case shed light on Dahlan’s power in the country. Instalingo, a media company that produces content and makes translations for companies, was raided by the police. During the interrogation of employees, police have asked about the content that was harshly criticizing Dahlan and presenting him as the architecture of normalization deals between Arab countries and Israel.

Dahlan was also involved in the talks between Ethiopia and Egypt that are at odds due to a dam project in the Nile River at UAE’s request of mitigating the tensions. Similarly, he was present in the MBZ’s meeting with Erik Prince in the Seychelles. Also, allegedly he played a role in the ouster of Sudan’s Omar al Bashir and supporting the current coup leader Abdelfattah al-Burhan. 

Last but not least, Dahlan is believed to be one of the architects of the Deal of Century and the Abraham Accords. A Foreign Policy article described him as “confidant of Persian Gulf leaders and regional strategic mastermind, Dahlan is helping to shape the Arab peace deals with Israel.” Nabil Sha’ath, a high-ranking official within Fatah and one of Abbas’ closest aides, claimed that Dahlan was part of the Abraham Accords’ “engineering.” Another allegation was that Dahlan used his links to Israeli security intelligence, arranging meetings with the UAE officials. Adnan al-Dumairi, spokesman of the security services in Ramallah was also confident that Dahlan was definitely involved in the normalization process between the UAE and Israel. 

Realizing that the rumors about his involvement in this process harmed his reputation among Palestinians, Dahlan did not hesitate to deny allegations and even claim that the Deal of Century was a disaster for Palestinians. Moreover, he also arranged the shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to Gaza enclave with no Israeli objection. The payment came from the UAE. 

Dahlan would not leave a room for any political move that would damage his bid in the Palestinian politics. As a matter of fact, while serving the UAE’s interests in the region, he has also been enjoying his position in Abu Dhabi for his bid in the Palestinian politics. As seen in previous scenarios, the UAE and its allies like Egypt have pledged support to Dahlan against Abbas. Although he has not been successful so far or managed to seem unsuccessful, Abbas and his administration as well as Hamas have always been feeling Dahlan’s breathe in their neck.  

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