Troubled waters: Al-Yasat dispute reignites Saudi–Emirati contest

Mawadda Iskandar, The Cradle, April 26, 2024 ─

Despite their public portrayal as close allies, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are, at best, ‘frenemies,’ engaging in ferocious competition for regional and economic dominance. Now, their territorial dispute over Al-Yasat has entered the international realm, with a formal UN complaint filed by the Saudis.

A significant strain in relations may be brewing between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. 

An official document released on the UN website dated 28 March 2024 reveals a complaint filed by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs against the UAE concerning a longstanding territorial dispute over the Yasat area.

Specifically, the complaint addresses the UAE Emiri Decree No. 4 of 2019, which designates Al-Yasat as a protected maritime area. According to the UN memorandum, Saudi Arabia contests the decree, declaring it “contrary to international law.” 

Saudi Arabia also reiterated its position, refusing to acknowledge any actions or measures undertaken by the UAE in the maritime zone adjacent to Saudi territorial waters, including the shared sovereign area and the islands of Makasib and Al-Qafai.

Although disputes between Saudi Arabia and the UAE regularly crop up in the region’s media, they tend not to impact formal diplomatic relations between the two Persian Gulf states. But this one, contested territory, looks to be different.

The roots of the dispute 

The disagreement’s origins trace back to the UAE’s formative years in the twentieth century. Amid territorial disputes over control and expansion among the area’s ruling tribes, the late founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, sought recognition from neighboring states following the country’s independence from Britain in 1971.

A pivotal moment in these boundary negotiations was the 1974 Treaty of Jeddah. The deal marked a compromise in which Riyadh relinquished claims to the Al-Rimi area – rich in oil and located between Oman and the UAE – in exchange for other territories, including the oil-rich Shaybah field. 

This field has since become a focal point of contention between the two states.

Al-Yasat is a marine reserve of great ecological and historical significance, located near Abu Dhabi’s southernmost point. The area hosts a diverse ecosystem, including over 200 species of fish, 40 species of coral, and 13 species of marine mammals.

The area also bears historical importance for its archaeological sites and has acquired a cultural status linked to the pearling sites scattered within its waters.

During the existing border disputes of that period, the nascent Persian Gulf emirate sought recognition from its surroundings and turned to Saudi Arabia for help. The UAE’s founders were subsequently forced to abandon a 50-kilometer strip of coastline separating the UAE and Qatar. 

But the 2004 accession of Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan (KbZ) to leadership marked a notable shift in the country’s stance on these longstanding issues. The new emir viewed the Jeddah Agreement as inequitable, forged under duress, and prioritized renegotiating it during his first visit to Riyadh in 2005. Since then, matters have not been resolved; they’ve only worsened. 

Evolution of disagreement 

With his efforts at an impasse, KbZ declared Al-Yasat an Emirati-protected area by Emiri Decree No. 33 in January 2005. The area comprises the sub-island, the Greater and Lesser Yasat Islands, Karsha, Essam, and the surrounding waters, to be administered by the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi.

In 2006, the dispute intensified, with the UAE releasing new maps showing Saudi territory as part of the UAE. In an attempt to impose a fait accompli, the maps included Khor al-Udeid as part of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, extending the boundaries in the Empty Quarter to 80 percent of the Shaybah field owned by the UAE.

The Saudi response came in several steps: preventing Emiratis from entering the kingdom using only an ID card instead of a passport, obstructing land traffic between the two countries, and obstructing the UAE–Qatar bridge project that passes through Saudi territory.

The situation worsened in 2010 when two Emirati boats engaged a Saudi border patrol boat in the Khor al-Udeid area, capturing two Saudi personnel. 

However, the Arab Spring in late 2010 brought a temporary reprieve, as regional geopolitical dynamics shifted, leading to a temporary detente between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. 

But, by 2019, the old disputes resurfaced with renewed intensity when the UAE unilaterally expanded the Al-Yasat Marine Protected Area more than fivefold, revoking previous agreements. 

This move coincided with the August 2019 attacks by Yemeni forces on the Shaybah oil field, which the UAE insisted wouldn’t have occurred if it held control of the area – an implicit criticism of Saudi security measures.

Outstanding controversies 

Now, five years after the UAE expanded the Al-Yasat Marine Protected Area, Saudi Arabia has escalated the issue by lodging a formal complaint with the UN. Riyadh’s decision to approach the highest international body and bypass regional forums such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) or the Arab League exposes the depth of the conflict and the extent of deterioration in direct bilateral relations.

The Wall Street Journal has characterized the two countries as “enemy friends,” highlighting a relationship that, while outwardly cordial, seethes with underlying tensions. 

In December 2022, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) expressed his frustrations openly, accusing UAE officials of betrayal and threatening punitive measures “worse than what it did to Qatar.” 

Foreign Policy provides further context, describing a “quiet conflict” between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as they vie for regional dominance and engage in geoeconomic competition. This rivalry is particularly pronounced as both states anticipate a future less dependent on oil revenues and more focused on diversified economic growth.

Divergence over Yemen 

One indicator of the end of the ‘bromance‘ between Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) and Mohammed bin Salman is the passage of more than a year since the last direct meeting. Bin Zayed was notably absent from the Arab–Chinese summit held in Saudi Arabia in December 2022, while Bin Salman was a no-show at Bin Zayed’s meetings with Arab leaders in January 2023. 

Among the major differences between the two states is the Yemeni file. The Emiratis withdrew from the Saudi-led coalition’s devastating war on Yemen after sensing the danger following retaliatory strikes that targeted the Shaybah oil field, Abu Dhabi airport, and the Expo 2020 center in Dubai by the Ansarallah-aligned armed forces.

Yemen’s proactive military operations against adversary states forced an Emirati about-turn, leaving Saudi Arabia mired in the Yemeni quagmire while the UAE pursued its own geopolitical and geoeconomic interests in the country’s south, working with local groups and militias to control strategic Yemeni islands and ports on the southwestern coast. 

Abu Dhabi also sought to reap the rewards from these new strategies by occupying Mayun Island on the Bab al-Mandab and providing services to Israel and the US in Socotra and Abdul Kori. 

Scenarios for the resolution of UAE–Saudi relations

The main contentions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE span a range of geopolitical and economic arenas. 

They include historical disputes over land and sea boundaries and control of oil resources like the Shaybah field, differing approaches to the conflict in Yemen, and a proxy war in Sudan that reflects their broader contest for regional influence and leadership.

The two neighbors also butt heads within OPEC over oil production policies and engage in fierce economic competitions that include, notably, the UAE’s rejection of Saudi proposals for regional banking integration. 

Both states also engage in a covert competition for global status. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have each launched independent, headline-grabbing initiatives toward resolving regional conflicts and normalizing relations with key international players – all while touting their respective economic diversification successes through competitive investments in hot sectors like aviation and tourism.

As their contest for regional leadership heats up, the future of UAE–Saudi relations appears uncertain, trending towards two potential outcomes: 

They can temporarily ease tensions by kicking the proverbial can down the road to avoid direct conflict – as indicated by recent communications between MbS and MbZ and, ironically, mediation efforts by Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad. 

Or, the two ‘frenemies‘ can escalate in increasingly public confrontations via political, media, and diplomatic channels – though likely stopping short of complete alienation or military conflict.

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