Mohammad Dahlan's shady regional agenda

Mohammad Dahlan's shady regional agenda

6 min read
02 Dec, 2019
Comment: In courting the UAE, Dahlan has built a mutually beneficial relationship with Abu Dhabi that advances both their interests, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
Dahlan was expelled from Fatah in 2011 following criminal and financial charges [Getty]
The $700,000 bounty Turkey put on the shady politician Mohammad Dahlan for his links to the failed 2016 coup has recently drawn more attention to this controversial figure, to whom many unscrupulous dealings in the region can be traced. 

An exiled representative of the Fatah party, the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas expelled Dahlan in 2011 following criminal and financial charges, and fearing he may mount a coup.

But since then, Dahlan has become further engrossed in corruption, meddling in various regional affairs. This has coincided with the rise of the United Arab Emirates' expansionist foreign policy, of which Dahlan has become a key facilitator.

Meanwhile Dahlan has empowered himself as a wealthy figure, with a reported net worth of $120 million, owning various businesses in London and region wide media outlets.

Last month, Turkey accused Dahlan of being a mercenary - an agent for the UAE, placing him on the country's "red list". This came just weeks after Dahlan attacked Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally, with Ankara weighing up the prospect of blacklisting him, indicating a brewing rivalry between the two.

There is no shortage of theories about Dahlan's regional ties. "There is a terrorist called Dahlan and he is spying for Israel. That is why he fled from the country," Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Al Jazeera in an interview in October.

The UAE is a regional rival of Turkey, and the pair have often been at odds in various countries

Meanwhile, a pro-Erdogan Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak report claims Dahlan played a role in trying to cover up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year. Though hard evidence is scarce, some have also speculated Dahlan was somehow behind Yasser Arafat's death. While clearly shrouded in controversy, this shadowy man still plays an increasingly significant role in various regional affairs.

Yet Dahlan has been careful to present himself as a charitable philanthropist and peacemaker, in order to boost his regional reputation.

He does indeed hold close ties to the UAE. He serves as a security advisor to Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, and is based in the UAE. He is also the central figure in communications between Abu Dhabi, and US and Israeli intelligence services.

The United Arab Emirates has been accused of supporting Turkey's attempted 2016 military coup, which Ankara successfully subdued. The UAE is a regional rival of Turkey, and the pair have often been at odds in various countries, particularly Libya, Egypt and Somalia. Dahlan was allegedly the go-to man, who transferred money to Gulenist coup-plotters, in order to overthrow their regional rival, Erdogan.

The UAE is increasingly known for supporting counter-revolutionary actors across the region, and achieving such results in Turkey and toppling Erdogan would have been crucial for this agenda's wider success. Dahlan has apparently become Abu Dhabi's key facilitator in this endeavour.

Such collaboration has occurred elsewhere in the region, including in one of the UAE's pressing concerns: establishing dominance over southern Yemen.

A Buzzfeed
investigation from 2018 reveals that Dahlan acted as the middle-man for the UAE's hiring of American mercenaries, collaborating with Hungarian Israeli security contractor, Abraham Golan.

These mercenaries were hired to assassinate members of Al-Islah, a soft-Islamist party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE staunchly opposes Islah, seeing it as a threat to its own regional ambitions. These reports highlight Mohammad Dahlan's tight relationship with Abu Dhabi. A former CIA official who knows Dahlan said of him, "The UAE took him in as their pitbull."

In Egypt - a key focus of Emirati post-Arab Spring foreign policy - Dahlan was linked to helping the UAE support Egypt's military coup in 2013 against Mohammad Morsi's democratically elected government, having reportedly communicated with generals during Morsi's presidency.

He now openly advocates for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with his media outlets discrediting the Muslim Brotherhood, helping to shore up a military dictatorship there.

Boosting the UAE's wider regional aims, from 2013 Dahlan has acted as a facilitator for the UAE's investment into Serbia's loosely regulated arms industry.

Such a move had allowed a greater arms flow across the Middle East to develop, which would benefit the UAE's wider geopolitical ambitions and influence.

Reports have also circulated that Dahlan plotted to overthrow the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, and stoke civil war in the country. This too aligns with the UAE's support for rogue warlord Khalifa Haftar and his aim to disrupt the country's democratic peace process.

Clearly, the UAE has benefited from Dahlan's presence to facilitate their ambitions. Yet rather than simply being a tool for Emirati foreign policy, Dahlan himself advocates Emirati policy narratives.

He has
slammed Qatar for supposedly playing a "harmful" role in the region. Though in Palestine, Qatar has mostly provided aid to impoverished Gazans, such as through paying salaries. Dahlan clearly peddles on the Emirati-backed narrative that Qatar supports "terrorism", where Doha merely pursues a foreign policy independent of Abu Dhabi.

Dahlan has also stated his staunch loathing of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom the UAE unequivocally oppose too.

Dahlan [R] seen with Arafat [L] in 2000 [Getty]

For Dahlan and the UAE, this is a mutually beneficial relationship. Dahlan after all, in pursuing his own interests, is trying to align himself with an increasingly influential regional actor in Abu Dhabi. Courting Abu Dhabi has helped gain him the necessary support. He has for example cultivated a stronger reputation in Egypt, after Abu Dhabi's support for the 2013 counter-revolution.

Ultimately, Dahlan has ambitions of returning to his initial goal: becoming the PA's president, and courting the UAE, Egypt and Jordan increases his chances. Cairo, Abu Dhabi and even Israel have shown favourability to empowering him in occupied Palestine, thanks to his willingness to cooperate with them, and opposition to Hamas.

Such a move could help the UAE foster closer ties with Israel, as both states have already secretly increased their cooperation in security, regional and military affairs.

He has also received USA support in the past. After all, in 2007 Washington backed him in order to stage a coup against the democratically-elected Hamas government in Gaza.

Despite past opposition to Hamas, Dahlan has called for a unification government between the PA and Hamas. Though he would prefer to see Hamas marginalised, thi is a way to present himself as a legitimate representative for Palestine and a peacemaker, which would boost his candidacy.

While Dahlan continues to contribute to increased regional polarisation, this fact may come to threaten him in the future

Polls suggest Dahlan now has more support in Gaza and the West Bank, suggesting his efforts to portray himself as a positive philanthrope have worked.

Yet antagonism towards Dahlan from various regional actors, especially Turkey, could obstruct Dahlan's vision.

With Ankara opposing him, his attempts to cultivate a powerful reputation are threatened, likely explaining his hostility to Ankara.

It also explains his aggressive reaction to various media outlets who have highlighted his actions, including threatening to sue Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye for such reports. Clearly, credibility is something he values.

While Dahlan continues to contribute to increased regional polarisation, this fact may come to threaten him in the future. By the same token, greater awareness of his actions could hinder his avaricious vision.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.