Competition rather than cooperation is likely to define the ties between the two neighbors – Saudi Arabia-UAE – in political, economic, and logistical areas

By Talmiz Ahmad

In mid-July, The Wall Street Journal reported that in early December, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), told a group of Saudi journalists that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has “knocked us out.” Back” and threatened, “They’ll see what I can do.” He recalled a harsh four-year political and economic blockade of the kingdom’s neighbor since 2017, saying his retribution would be “worse than what I did to Qatar”.

The Crown Prince was possibly angered by the absence of UAE Ruler Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ) for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.


Clear differences in regional politics

This surprising outburst signals the end of the camaraderie between the Saudi Crown Prince and the UAE President. When MBS first came into public life in 2015 with his father’s accession to the throne, it was clear that he had a special bond with Mohamed bin Zayed; Many observers believed that the Saudi prince, who was in his late twenties at the time, looked to the more experienced MBZ as an advisor.

The two royal houses linked their countries as strategic partners. They were partners in the war in Yemen, worked together to consolidate al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt, saw Iran as a regional threat, disliked the Muslim Brotherhood, and then teamed up to enforce the blockade of Qatar. cooperated. In 2019, he also destroyed the nascent democratic process in Sudan by supporting the armed forces against the civilian prime minister.

But, over the years their differences have become apparent. In July 2017, the United Arab Emirates abruptly rejected an oil production cut proposal put forth by “OPEC+” on the grounds that it needed a significant increase in base production. Abu Dhabi was investing heavily in increasing its oil production in order to monetize its potential to the maximum extent.

The Saudi Arabia-UAE Divide Becomes Public
Left, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. Right, U.A.E. President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, known as MBZ. SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/UAE MINISTRY OF PRESIDENTIAL AFFAIRS

Differences then became apparent in many areas of regional politics. The UAE abruptly withdrew its troops from Yemen in 2019 but continued to pursue a separate agenda of supporting the separatist movement in the south and mobilizing local fighters who support the independence of the south. The UAE expanded its maritime footprint in the region by controlling Yemeni ports and the island of Socotra in the Gulf of Aden and Perim Island at the mouth of the Bab al-Mandab.

The UAE then established bases in Eritrea and Somaliland, thus establishing an impregnable strategic network that links the Gulf to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, was left to fight in Yemen, with little to show for its efforts in eight years.

The kingdom also suffered setbacks in Syria, where a Russian intervention in 2015 ensured that the Assad government was not toppled, and in Iran when the United States failed to respond to repeated missile and drone attacks in 2019. Stayed. This bizarre scenario encouraged Saudi Arabia to negotiate and reduce tensions in the region. It begins with the lifting of the blockade of Qatar in January 2021 and the start of talks with Iran in Baghdad in April 2021. The UAE was a reluctant participant in both initiatives: it maintains a studied coolness towards Qatar and is pursuing its own engagement with Iran. ,

The UAE also normalized relations with Israel in August 2020, thus publicly rejecting the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative, which required Israel to accommodate Palestinian interests before Arab states could normalize relations. Was. Later, the kingdom initiated Syria’s re-admission to the Arab League in May this year but failed to attend the MBZ summit.

In Sudan, both Gulf neighbors are now backing different generals – while the state supports army chief al-Burhan, the UAE is backing militia leader Dagalo, thus prolonging the devastating civil conflict. UAE is also said to be uncomfortable with the speed with which Saudi Arabia normalized relations with Iran in March this year.

Competition in similar fields

The Saudi-UAE competition has now extended to domestic sectors as well. Both countries are seeking regional hegemony in similar areas – global trade, tourism, finance, and technology. Saudi Arabia also wants to become a major center of regional trade, thus challenging the United Arab Emirates which is currently the dominant player. Both countries are working on ambitious plans to develop ports in the Gulf and Red Sea and emerge as a major presence in logistics connectivity projects under China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Despite being very small in size, the UAE has made it clear that it will not be the junior partner of the kingdom in the political, economic, and military spheres. It compensates for its small size by the vision, dynamism, and ambition of its leaders, its pioneering beginnings in global interactions in the areas of trade, connectivity, tourism, finance, and technology, and its attractive image as business-friendly and people-friendly. It has been successfully cultivated locally for several decades.

Therefore, competition rather than cooperation is likely to define relations between the two Gulf neighbors. However, the kingdom’s leadership position in the Arab and Islamic world and its central position in global energy, trade, and finance will ensure that its dominant position in regional and world politics and economics remains unquestioned.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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