A tale of two Gulf crown princes

The fallout of Khashoggi’s murder is also threatening the interests of UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed.

Crown princes Reuters
Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan poses for a photo with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 6, 2018 [Handout/Reuters]

While experts and observers speculate on the impact of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the career of 33-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), another crown prince, 25 years his senior, has been watching from a distance and must surely be feeling a tad uncomfortable.

Mohammed bin Zayed (known as MBZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi has entered into several foreign adventures with MBS, the two most notable being the Yemen war and the air, land and sea blockade of fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Qatar.

Both causes have not fared well: the war in Yemen, now dragging on for a fourth year, is stalemated with horrible consequences for the Yemeni people; and Qatar has ridden out a blockade which was supposed to bring the tiny state to its knees within days. If anything, the Qataris have emerged stronger than when the blockade was launched.

Still, for MBZ, either can be seen as moderately successful efforts. In Yemen, the Emiratis have allied themselves with secessionist forces in the south and have secured the key trading port of Aden for what could become the capital of a South Yemen nation independent of the north, but effectively a client state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

As for the Qatar crisis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have managed to resist pressure from the US State Department to end the blockade. 

In addition, MBZ has pushed for an increasing political and economic rapprochement with Saudi Arabia through an initiative launched in December of last year, which has garnered little attention. The “Strategy of Resolve” is a bilateral trade and defence agreement with the Saudis that the Abu Dhabi crown prince called “an historic opportunity”, adding “we are the two largest Arab economies, forming the two most modern armed forces.” 

It was a bold move, all the bolder as it was announced at a GCC summit in Kuwait City. The emir of Kuwait is the last living founder of the GCC (it was set up in 1981) and repairing the rupture with Qatar is a legacy issue for him. The Strategy of Resolve was a stake driven straight through any thought that the GCC would be revived.

Rather than having to deal with the often contrary and bumptious views of five other members, MBZ is now in the position of having to influence only one and the biggest of them all. 

He was quick to capitalise with an announcement in June of 44 strategic projects with the Saudis. The first meeting of what was called the Joint Coordination Council took place, not in the Saudi capital Riyadh, but in Abu Dhabi. It was co-chaired by MBZ and his young Saudi protege, MBS. 

Intriguingly, the senior Emiratis present were all from MBZ’s ruling family, the Al Nahyan.

Conspicuous by his absence was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the vice president and prime minister of the UAE. (MBZ’s elder brother, the UAE president, was incapacitated by a stroke in 2014 and MBZ has been the de facto president ever since.) 

The inaugural meeting laid out a grand agenda that, in addition to military integration and cooperation, envisions a unified strategy for food security, a joint plan for medical stocks, a common security system and joint investment in oil, gas and petrochemicals – all to be achieved within five years.

In the business world, this is what is referred to as a reverse takeover. Abu Dhabi and its clever and hugely ambitious crown prince have, to steal a line from the president of the United States, done the deal of the century. Consider these figures (as of December, 2017): Saudi Arabia has a gross domestic product (GDP) of $678.5bn, the UAE barely more than half that; the Saudis have reserves of foreign exchange and gold of more than $500bn, the Emiratis less than $90bn; Saudi Arabia’s revenues stand at $171.6bn, the UAE’s is $83.4bn. 

While running his reverse takeover, MBZ has escaped much of the opprobrium that has fallen on the shoulders of MBS. Take the Yemen war. Though the Emiratis and their mercenary army stand accused of multiple human rights abuses in their theatre of operations in the south, it is the Saudis who take the global flak for the relentless bombing of civilian targets and non-military infrastructure.

It is the Saudis who are blamed for the blockade that is preventing food and medical supplies from getting to a population on the brink of the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. And it is the Saudis who are primarily stuck with trying to subdue the Houthis, a task which they have signally failed to achieve.

Now, in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, the Americans are putting maximum pressure on the Saudis to halt the bombing campaign. On October 31, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on all participants in the Yemen civil war to agree to a ceasefire “in the next 30 days.” That’s a little more than a month after Pompeo had signalled continued support for the Saudis. 

For months, senators and congressmen from both parties have been pushing to halt America’s support for the war and, with the killing of Khashoggi in the run-up to the mid-terms, the White House has started to listen.

And when Donald Trump wanted to try and mend the Humpty Dumpty that the GCC has become, he put the pressure on MBS. In fact, when he thinks of the Gulf at all, he doesn’t really think of MBZ. That suits the Abu Dhabi crown prince just fine. He is happy to have the arrogant and attention-seeking MBS stride the world stage and do the big interviews. Mohammed bin Zayed does his best work in the shadows.

Now, however, with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, his protege is in a dangerous place. The brutality of the murder, the ineptness of the cover-up attempt, the fact that virtually everyone on the international scene that counts believes that the killing was at the direction of MBS, all of that has enormously weakened the position of the Saudi crown prince.

His uncle Ahmad Bin Abdulaziz, the younger brother of the king has arrived in Riyadh. There is some suggestion that he might replace MBS as crown prince. That is an unlikely scenario. Ahmad Bin Abdulaziz is in his mid-seventies and has spent most of the time since Mohammed Bin Salman came to prominence living in London. His role is likely to be that of an elder voice, there to contain the brash impulses of his nephew.

It is still much-debated whether Mohammed bin Salman will survive. My bet is that he will, but with a seriously diminished international reputation and a weakened domestic power base. For MBZ, that is worrying. He has invested a lot in Mohammed bin Salman who has, unwittingly, played the frontman for his ambitions in Yemen and in the Gulf. 

Now the frontman is linked to a vicious act that has caused global revulsion. It will be interesting to watch how MBZ plays his cards in the short term. Were he to cut MBS loose, it would be a signal that the Saudi crown prince is in serious trouble indeed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.