Saudi-UAE: Despite turmoil geopolitical goals remain steadfast

The cause of the current rift between the Gulf heavyweights is more profound than mere economics, analysts say.

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, right, receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the UAE [File: WAM via Reuters]

The Middle East’s most meaningful alliance between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is currently being tested by economic aspirations, however, both sides continue to share geopolitical agendas.

The relationship between UAE and Saudi Arabia is based not merely on the friendship of their respective rulers, but also on a long-lasting alliance that has survived various crises over the years. But one constant theme has always remained omnipresent.

Traditionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE share similar geopolitical and foreign policy interests, Yasmina Abouzzohour, visiting fellow at Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera.

“During the 2011 [Arab Spring] uprisings, neither favoured revolutionary movements across the region. They also perceive Iran as a threat to traditional monarchism and Sunni regimes in the region, and both have had tense relations with Turkey,” said Abouzzohour.

Both sides sometimes adopted slightly or moderately different stances on various issues, such as the war in Yemen, the Syrian war, and normalisation with Israel, she said.

In recent years, however, the partnership has gradually turned into a competition. The recent oil dispute is just a final symptom of the fracture, said Abouzzohour.

“Riyadh had decided in February of this year to only award state contracts to companies based in the kingdom. This challenged Dubai’s role as the region’s financial hub.”

‘Competing for investment’

Disagreements over economic aspirations are likely to continue to play a pivotal role in their respective agendas, said Abouzzohour.

“Given their similar economic goals, Saudi Arabia and the UAE may clash as they attempt to diversify their economies away from hydrocarbons by developing similar sectors [such as tourism, financial services, and technology], thereby competing for expertise and investment.”

These developments mark a significant change, considering Saudi’s de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) acted as the Middle East’s new leadership duo.

The cause of the current rift, however, is more profound than mere economics, analysts say.

In the past two years, the liaison between MBS and MBZ has increasingly cracked. Initially, both went to war against the Iran-aligned Houthi militia in Yemen in 2015, and lobbied the United States against the Iran nuclear deal.

Both also imposed an economic blockade on Qatar, which they considered too friendly to Iran, too kind to the Palestinian Hamas movement, and too close to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The UAE ceased its fight against the Houthi rebels in the north of Yemen in the summer of 2019 and concentrated only on supporting the separatists in the south. In doing so, Abu Dhabi essentially abandoned Saudi Arabia, whose greatest fear remains a Houthi state on its southern border.

“Although they collaborated closely in many areas such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, they were not always fully synchronised. They shared major visions, but when it came to operationalising those ideas, they differed,” Afshin Shahi, senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Bradford, told Al Jazeera.

In Yemen, in particular, one witnessed how quickly their partnership turned into competition when UAE carried out air attacks against government forces in south Yemen to support their southern separatist allies, Shahi said.

‘Strongly invested’

In August 2020, the UAE normalised its relations with Israel, essentially undermining the Saudi peace offer for the Middle East conflict – recognition of Israel in return for a Palestinian state.

The UAE’s embrace of the Israelis resulted from a long process that was carefully thought through and calibrated, James Worrall, associate professor in international relations and Middle East studies, told Al Jazeera.

The relationship that has emerged so openly has been extensive and far from the half-hearted “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan, he said.

“This is a strategic partnership which offers both countries a great deal and has been strongly invested in. Much political capital has been gambled, and thus it is highly unlikely that the Saudis have not been consulted extensively.”

The UAE recognition of Israel and its engagement clearly brings multiple benefits for Riyadh, said Worrall.

Nonetheless, most recently the Saudi-UAE rift was further exacerbated when the kingdom decided it would exclude imports from “free zones”, or those linked to Israel, from a preferential tariff agreement with neighbouring Gulf Arab countries.

Essentially, what the Saudis have done is to alter their laws – given their lack of recognition of Israel and continuing boycott of Israeli goods – to ensure that goods produced by Israeli companies in the Emirates do not benefit from preferential tariff agreements that the kingdom has with the UAE, said Worrall.

The rationale behind it is apparent.

“It would be difficult for Riyadh’s legitimacy at home for it to see a flood of products made by Israeli-owned companies on its shelves,” he said.

‘Return to the norm’

In view of these developments, the question now is how the relationship between the two Gulf powers will unfold geopolitically in the region.

“What we see now – and indeed have been seeing for a few years in terms of differing priorities and approaches within the Yemen quagmire – is more of a return to the norm of not only Saudi-Emirati relations, but also of how Gulf states interact more generally,” said Worrall.

All GCC states seek to manage complex relationships with Riyadh and deploy multiple tools to maintain a degree of independence of action, he noted.

“Saudi Arabia is a dominant actor, but none of the five other GCC member states can afford to have Riyadh being too dominant and overbearing. This necessitates strategies of hedging, bandwagoning, and balancing,” Worrall said.

While the events of recent weeks – especially in terms of more public disunity between the UAE and Saudi Arabia than is typical in the context of OPEC+ and specific Saudi moves to challenge the dominance of the UAE, especially Dubai as a regional hub – are not insurmountable issues, it is always going to be a challenge in the Gulf because of the similarities of various strategies and vision documents for economic diversification and reform.

The core concerns of both sides – namely containing Iran, countering the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, dealing with “terrorist” threats, and cooperating to preserve dynastic rule in the region – “all remain exactly the same”, Worrall concluded.

The divergence in a range of policies between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh has its roots both in the international environment – especially the arrival of the Biden administration – and in the evolving dynamics within the region, which are seen differently by the leaderships in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations and Gulf studies at Georgetown University-Qatar, told Al Jazeera.

Firstly, Iran does not hold the same priority for both sides, Nonneman noted.

“While both remain distrustful of the Iranian regime, Riyadh has judged it both necessary and feasible to figure out a modus vivendi with Tehran, while for Abu Dhabi the most important threat was always the Muslim Brotherhood and those aligned with or sympathetic to it.”

Within the UAE, there has been constant pressure from Dubai against the all-out anti-Iranian policy that prevailed for some time, based on the Emirate’s significant commercial interests in trade with Iran, and the large Iranian and Iranian-origin community in Dubai, Nonneman said.

‘Forced to go along’

Then there is the ongoing uncertainty regarding Gulf neighbour Qatar.

“On Qatar, the Saudi judgement was that the boycott had been a failure and was not worth continuing in the face of US opposition. MBZ has been more resistant to adjusting his stance but was in effect forced to go along as remaining the sole holdout was pointless, especially also under US disapproval,” said Nonneman.

Last but not least, the Yemen war and the UAE’s strategic realignment also play a significant factor.

“The divergence in Yemen policy, too, long predates the current partial rift between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – with the latter having judged some time ago that the military operation in the middle and north was failing and was unwinnable. Whereas they decided they could more effectively shape the situation in the south, without a massive boots-on-the-ground presence,” Nonneman said.

While the UAE did add to the elements of friction with Saudi Arabia, it has not fundamentally changed attitudes towards the questions of Iran, Yemen or Qatar.

“Shifts in policy towards Iran have been a cause, not a symptom, of the evolving divergence between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Saudi attempts to achieve a modus vivendi with Iran will continue, and Abu Dhabi, too, will continue to look to achieve a pragmatic arrangement with Tehran,” Nonneman said.

As to the effect of the current friction on the war in Yemen, Nonneman sees little change moving forward, either.

“The divergence between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in that theatre will remain as it already was.”

As for Qatar, the question of reconciliation will be no different from that of the earlier divergence between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi since the beginning of 2021.

“Abu Dhabi will quite likely continue to drag its feet and continue to needle Qatar, including by media and lobbying campaigns, but will not formally go against the Al-Ula agreement,” said Nonneman.

“Now as before, it remains pointless and likely counterproductive to try and reestablish elements of the [Qatar] boycott on its own.”

Source: Al Jazeera