Fractured fraternity: The troubled relationship between MbS and MbZ

Batoul Suleiman, The Cradle, July 19, 2023 —

Recent revelations have shattered the illusion of strong ties between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with the latter emerging as a clear rival to Riyadh’s outsized regional and international ambitions.

Over the past two years, the once formidable relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE has experienced a significant downturn. While signs of the estrangement became evident over Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed’s (MbZ) decision not to attend the historic China-Arab summit in Riyadh in December 2022, the friction has been growing for years.

Another notable absence was at the May 2023 Arab Summit held in Jeddah, chaired by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Despite the summit’s geopolitical significance, which saw the restoration of Syria’s membership to the Arab League, MbZ did not attend.

These conspicuous absences serve as indications of the growing divergence between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh on regional issues and of a rift in the mentor-mentee dynamic between MbZ and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), in particular.

Following the Jeddah summit, Israeli newspaper Haaretz attributed these tensions to MbZ’s support for an OPEC oil production increase, a move that Riyadh vehemently opposes. The Emirati president views Saudi Arabia’s resistance as an attack on the interests of his country and even threatened to withdraw from the organization.

Recalibrating regional relations

In a study published in February by the Middle East Institute, author John Calabrese points out that “In recalibrating their regional relationships, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have displayed similar pragmatism. However, their recent moves do not appear to have been closely coordinated and, in some instances, have been out of sync.”

Ali Murad, a Lebanese specialist in Gulf affairs, tells The Cradle that the history of Saudi-Emirati relations shows that the two countries “were not in harmony, despite the formalities and pretense of friendliness.”

According to Murad, the release of WikiLeaks documents exposed the deep-rooted animosity that the UAE rulers harbor toward the Saudi ruling family, stemming from historical border disputes following the discovery of oil. These grievances have lingered and influenced the dynamics of their relationship over decades.

Despite outward appearances, the UAE has always perceived its larger and wealthier neighbor as a security threat, leading to latent tension in their relationship. The ongoing border dispute between the two countries, nearly 50 years after the signing of the Treaty of Jeddah in 1974, serves as a prime example of this underlying friction.

Anna Jacobs, a specialist in Persian Gulf affairs at the International Crisis Group, tells The Cradle: “The small Gulf states have historically sought to achieve a delicate balance in their regional relations and maintain relations with large countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkiye.”

These smaller states, Jacobs emphasizes, have long sought ways to assert their political and economic independence from Saudi Arabia, concurrent with their efforts to foster amicable relations with the Arabian Peninsula’s largest country.

Blockade, interventions, and rivalry

Calabrese notes that with the wave of protests that swept the Arab world in 2011, and the fear that this phenomenon would spread into their borders, Saudi Arabia and the UAE worked closely together to minimize the impact of the protests on the Persian Gulf states and their allies, and tried to “control and shape the direction of the changes coursing through the Arab world.”

Based on the close personal relationship between MbS and MbZ, he notes, “Saudi Arabia and the UAE coordinated their use of financial and military power in the Gulf, the wider MENA region, and the Horn of Africa.”

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have actively supported monarchies in Jordan and Bahrain, both financially and militarily. Additionally, they played a significant role in supporting the 2013 coup led by Major General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi against the then democratically-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia also jointly imposed a blockade on Qatar, aimed at isolating the country over its ties with Iran and its independent foreign policy agenda. Together, they exerted pressure to prevent a nuclear agreement between Iran and the US, and initiated a devastating military intervention in Yemen to overthrow the de-facto Ansarallah-led government there.

To foster closer collaboration, the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council was established in 2016 as a platform for intensifying economic and military cooperation between the two neighbors. This initiative laid the groundwork for the formulation of the “Strategy of Resolve,” a shared vision that aimed to enhance their partnership.

However, the rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE began to surface in the years following the so-called Arab Spring, during which their regional views had been far more aligned. As the dust settled on various Arab civil conflicts, according to Jacobs, the competition between the Saudis and Emiratis began to intensify in the foreign investment and tourism sectors, as both seek to diversify their economies beyond oil.

Geopolitics at the heart of the rift 

Their political rivalry has also intensified over influence in strategic areas along the Red Sea, such as Yemen, control over key waterways like the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the UAE’s illegal occupation of the Socotra Islands. The UAE has also established strong political and economic ties in the Horn of Africa, investing heavily in the region’s ports.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia has shown increasing interest in ensuring political stability and regional security, particularly in the Red Sea coastal areas, as part of its Vision 2030 plans, including MbZ’s ambitious NEOM project.

Jacobs tells The Cradle that differences between the two sides emerged in 2018, starting with the state-sanctioned murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during his visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

In the years that followed, the UAE’s 2019 decision to withdraw from the Yemeni mainland, Emirati pressure to normalize relations with Israel in 2020, Saudi pressure to end the blockade on Qatar in 2021 (while Emirati-Qatari reconciliation was ongoing), and the announcement of the Regional Headquarters Program by Saudi Arabia, led to disagreements over oil policy in 2021 and 2022.

Murad points out that Yemen was the first arena of competition between the two countries. In 2019, the Yemeni forces affiliated with the UAE, led by the Southern Transitional Council (STC), defeated the forces of the Saudi-backed puppet government of Yemen and their mercenary forces from the Islah Party.

“The competition between the two countries included the Yemeni islands in the Gulf of Aden and near the Bab al-Mandab Strait, where Emirati forces were stationed, and Saudi Arabia later tried to seize control of them,” Murad tells The Cradle, adding that:

“With the emergence of signs of a political solution in Yemen, Saudi Arabia sought to form the Dir’ al-Watan forces in the south (specifically in Aden) to weaken the Southern Transitional Council, in anticipation of any agreement with Ansarallah.”

UAE as the ‘next Qatar’

The Wall Street Journal revealed this week that, with the growing divisions over Yemen and OPEC production levels, MbS called for a meeting with journalists in December 2023, in which he revealed he had sent the UAE “a list of demands.” According to the report, if Abu Dhabi did not comply with these demands, MbS would “take punitive measures,” warning that “it will be worse than what I did with Qatar,” when Riyadh severed diplomatic relations for more than three years and imposed an economic blockade on the tiny Persian Gulf state – albeit with the help of Abu Dhabi.

Sudan is yet another arena for growing Saudi-Emirati competition. Abu Dhabi supports Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), commander of the Rapid Support Forces, while Riyadh has thrown its weight behind the army forces led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. According to Murad, “the truce agreement concluded by the two parties to the conflict in Jeddah faces difficulties due to Saudi Arabia’s desire for the Sudanese armed forces to remain dominant.”

The rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh also extends to attracting media, artistic, cultural, and even political elites, in an attempt by each to consolidate its superiority over the other through the exercise of soft power.

Murad attributes this to “the emergence of a ruler in Saudi Arabia who seeks to rob the UAE of the achievements it took years to achieve in tourism, free trade, and its political role as a proxy for major powers.”

Despite attempts by MbZ to contain MbS between 2015 and 2018, their relationship faltered when the Saudi Crown Prince’s ambitions exceeded the expectations of Emirati rulers. According to Murad, there appears to be no possible solution to the dispute as long as MbS insists on undermining the UAE’s role and standing, both regionally and internationally.

The rivalry appears to have become personal: The two sides view the other’s survival as contingent on canceling each other out and stealing its thunder. In the current geopolitical climate in which West Asia’s winners and losers are trying to reestablish their clout, tensions between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are expected to intensify, especially given Saudi Arabia’s capacity to impose sanctions and besiege the UAE, as witnessed during the blockade of Qatar.

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