Richard Clarke was in Abu Dhabi one morning in 2013 when his phone lit up. “You busy?” a familiar voice said. It was a rhetorical question. The caller was Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates and one of the most powerful men on Earth. “I’ll send a car,” he said, and hung up. Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism czar, was working as a consultant for M.B.Z. (as he’s mostly known outside his country) and had gotten used to impromptu calls like this. M.B.Z. rarely explained what he had in mind. Once, he took Clarke for an unexpected helicopter flight deep into the desert of the Empty Quarter and then landed by an artificial pond, scattering a herd of wild gazelles. Not far away, a group of German engineers was standing around, working on an experimental solar-powered water-desalination plant.
This time, Clarke got in the back of the car with no idea where he was heading. As they drove through a remote warehouse district, the thought crossed his mind that he was being kidnapped. Then the driver pulled up outside a building where Clarke heard popping sounds. He went inside and saw a group of young women in military uniforms, firing pistols at targets. Seated not far away was M.B.Z., in his white tunic and ear-protection muffs, alongside his wife and an empty third chair reserved for Clarke. During a lull in the shooting, M.B.Z. introduced the women, who were all his daughters and nieces. “I’m starting a draft,” M.B.Z. said. “I want everyone in the country to feel like they’re responsible. A lot of them are fat and lazy.” To stimulate the draft, he said, he would begin with all the young people in his own family.
M.B.Z.’s draft was part of a grand nation-building effort at home and abroad, one that would require more soldiers and have repercussions for the entire Middle East. Since its founding in 1971, the United Arab Emirates — a federation of oil-rich sheikhdoms on the north Arabian coast — has mostly stayed out of the Arab world’s many conflicts. It became the region’s economic marvel, a desert Xanadu of gleaming skyscrapers, endless malls and marble-floored airports. But by 2013, M.B.Z. was deeply worried about the future. The Arab Spring uprisings had toppled several autocrats, and political Islamists were rising to fill the vacuum. The Muslim Brotherhood — the region’s foremost Islamic party, founded in 1928 — and its affiliates had won elections in Egypt and Tunisia, and jihadist militias were running rampant in Libya. In Syria, the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad was also falling into the hands of Islamist militias. ISIS was on the rise, and in less than a year would sweep across the Iraqi border and seize a territory the size of Britain.