The most meaningful alliance in the Middle East between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is currently being tested by economic ambitions, however, the two sides continue to share geopolitical agendas.
The relationship between the UAE and Saudi Arabia is not only based on the friendship of their respective rulers, but also on a long-term alliance that has gone through many years of various crises. But an unchanging theme is always everywhere.
Yasmina Abouzzohour, a visiting researcher at the Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera that traditionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have similar geopolitical and foreign policy interests.
“in 2011 [Arab Spring] Both of the uprisings disapprove of the revolutionary movement in the entire region. They also believe that Iran is a threat to the traditional monarchy and Sunni regime in the region, both of which have tensions with Turkey,” Abouzzohour said.
The two sides sometimes take slightly or moderately different positions on issues such as the Yemen War and the Syrian War. Normalize with Israel, she says.
However, in recent years, this partnership has gradually become a kind of competition.This Recent oil disputes Abbouzzohour said this is just the last symptom of a fracture.
“Riyadh decided in February this year to only award national contracts to companies located in the kingdom. This challenges Dubai’s role as the financial center of the region.”
‘Competing for investment’
Abbouzzohour said that differences in economic ambitions may continue to play a key role in their respective agendas.
“Given their similar economic goals, Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be in conflict because they try to diversify their economies by developing similar sectors and stay away from hydrocarbons. [such as tourism, financial services, and technology], So as to compete for expertise and investment. “
Considering that the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) of the UAE, are the new leadership duo in the Middle East, these developments mark a major change.
However, analysts say that the cause of the current rift is more profound than pure economics.
In the past two years, the connection between MBS and MBZ has been increasingly broken.Initially, the two sides fought the Houthi militia allied with Iran in Yemen in 2015 and lobbied the United States to oppose Iran Nuclear Agreement.
The two sides also imposed an economic blockade on Qatar. They believe that Qatar is too friendly to Iran, too friendly to the Hamas movement in Palestine, and too close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The UAE stopped fighting with the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen in the summer of 2019, focusing only on supporting Separatists in the SouthIn doing so, Abu Dhabi basically abandoned Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia’s greatest fear remains the Houthi country on its southern border.
“Although they work closely in many areas such as Yemen, Syria and Iraq, they are not always completely synchronized. They have a common main vision, but when it comes to putting these ideas into practice, they are different,” Brahman said. Afshin Shahi, senior lecturer in Middle East politics at Deford University, told Al Jazeera.
Shahi said that especially in Yemen, when the UAE carried out air strikes on government forces in southern Yemen to support their southern separatist allies, their partnership quickly turned into competition.
August 2020, UAE normalizes relations with Israel, Which essentially undermined Saudi Arabia’s peace proposal on the Middle East conflict-recognizing Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state.
James Waller, associate professor of international relations and Middle East studies, told Al Jazeera that the UAE’s embrace of Israelis is a long-term process that has been carefully considered and calibrated.
He said that such a wide range of public relations is far from a half-hearted “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan.
“This is a strategic partnership that has provided a lot of benefits for the two countries and has received a lot of investment. A lot of political capital has been gambled, so it is unlikely that the Saudis have not been widely consulted.”
Worrall said that the UAE’s recognition of Israel and its participation clearly brought multiple benefits to Riyadh.
Despite this, the differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE have intensified recently because Saudi Arabia has decided to exclude imports from “free zones” or related to Israel from the preferential tariff agreements with neighboring Gulf Arab countries.
Essentially, what the Saudis have done is to modify their laws-given that they do not recognize Israel and continue to boycott Israeli goods-to ensure that the goods produced by Israeli companies in the UAE will not benefit from the preferential tariff agreement between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. , Worrall said.
The reasoning behind it is obvious.
“The domestic legitimacy of Riyadh makes it difficult to see a large number of products produced by Israeli companies on the shelves,” he said.
‘Back to normal’
In light of these developments, the question now is how the relationship between the two Gulf powers will unfold in the geopolitics of the region.
“What we are seeing now—in fact, the different priorities and methods that have been seen in the quagmire of Yemen for several years—is more about returning to the norm, not only about the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but also how the Gulf countries interact more. It’s common,” Waller said.
He pointed out that all Gulf Cooperation Council countries seek to manage the complex relationship with Riyadh and deploy multiple tools to maintain a certain degree of operational independence.
“Saudi Arabia is a leading player, but none of the other five Gulf Cooperation Council member states can afford Riyadh to be too strong and domineering. This requires a strategy of hedging, following suit and balancing,” Waller said.
Although the incidents in recent weeks—especially the open disunity between the UAE and Saudi Arabia are more common than OPEC+ and Saudi Arabia’s specific measures to challenge the UAE’s dominance—it is not an insurmountable problem, due to economic diversification and reforms. The similarity of various strategies and vision documents has always been a challenge in the Gulf region.
Waller concluded that the core concerns of both sides—that is, containing Iran, fighting the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, responding to the threat of “terrorism” and cooperating to maintain dynastic rule in the region—“have remained the same.
A series of policy differences between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh stem from the international environment—especially the arrival of the Biden government—and the changing dynamics of the region. The leaders of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have different views on this. Qatar George Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations and Gulf Studies at City University, told Al Jazeera.
Nonniman pointed out that, first of all, Iran attaches different degrees to the two sides.
“Although the two sides still distrust the Iranian regime, Riyadh believes that it is necessary and feasible to reach an interim agreement with Tehran. For Abu Dhabi, the most important threat is always the Muslim Brotherhood and those allied with it or sympathetic to it.”
Within the UAE, based on the UAE’s important business interests in trade with Iran and Dubai’s large Iranian and Iranian communities, Dubai has been constantly pressured to oppose the comprehensive anti-Iran policy that has prevailed for a period of time, Nonniman said.
‘Forced to go’
Then there is the ongoing uncertainty in Qatar, a neighboring Gulf country.
“Regarding Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s judgment is that the resistance is a failure, and facing the opposition from the United States is not worth continuing. MBZ is more resistant to adjusting his position, but is actually forced to continue because the only insistence is meaningless, especially Under the opposition of the United States,” Nonneman said.
Last but not least, the Yemen war and the UAE’s strategic adjustments are also an important factor.
“The divergence in Yemen policy existed long before the current partial rift between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi-the latter had judged some time ago that military operations in the central and northern regions were failing and unable to win. And they decided they could be more effective. To shape the situation in the south without the need for a large presence on the ground,” Nonneman said.
Although the UAE has indeed increased its friction with Saudi Arabia, it has not fundamentally changed its attitude towards Iran, Yemen or Qatar.
“The policy shift towards Iran is the cause of the evolving differences between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, not the symptom. Saudi Arabia’s attempts to reach an interim agreement with Iran will continue, and Abu Dhabi will continue to seek pragmatic arrangements with Tehran. “Nonniman said.
As for the impact of the current friction on the Yemen war, Nonniman also believes that there will be no changes in the future.
“In that theater, the differences between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will remain the same.”
As for Qatar, the issue of reconciliation is no different from the differences between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi since the beginning of 2021.
“Abu Dhabi is likely to continue to delay and continue to needle Qatar, including through media and lobbying activities, but will not formally oppose it. Ulla Agreement,” Nonniman said.
“Now as before, the elements of trying and rebuilding society are still meaningless and may be counterproductive. [Qatar] Boycott yourself. “