While the Saudis and Emiratis have closely aligned their foreign policies on many regional issues over the past years, bilateral relations have become increasingly strained throughout 2021. The bust-up between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is due to a number of complicated factors that have pitted Saudi Arabia and the UAE against each other, from OPEC+ oil disputes and conflicting priorities in southern Yemen to the Abraham Accords and relations with Qatar post-al-Ula.
Several months after the al-Ula summit in January 2021, ostensibly resolving the 2017-2021 Gulf diplomatic crisis, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) remains a deeply divided institution. The concept of Arab Gulf unity remains elusive, with the Arabian Peninsula’s monarchies seeing the region differently and viewing some of their fellow GCC states as threats to their national interests.
Although the anti-Qatar Quartet, composed of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt, decided to end the siege of Doha, the root causes of the four-year split remain unresolved. The relations that Qatar has fostered with Iran and Turkey are also seen as deeply problematic in the eyes of Abu Dhabi and Manama, while Qatari state-owned media outlet Al Jazeera’s reporting continues to upset the UAE and Bahrain—particularly when it covers the issue of civil society in the Arab world and human rights in the Gulf states.
The latest scandal, revealed in the Washington Post, indicated that Abu Dhabi was working in Washington, DC to tarnish Qatar’s reputation during the presidency of Donald Trump. The newspaper reported that a former official on Trump’s inauguration committee, Tom Barrack, was arrested for lobbying for the UAE against Qatar and failing to register as a foreign agent. Barrack’s high position in the Trump administration gave him access to the president and allowed him to shape government policy.
Despite the extent to which the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement has progressed this year, tensions in Bahrain-Qatar relations have arguably worsened in 2021. Talks aimed at mending ties between Manama and Doha have so far failed to produce any meaningful reconciliation.
In his latest statements about the stalemate in negotiations between Manama and Doha, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdul Latif Al-Zayani said that “Bahrain sent two invitations to Qatar to hold bilateral meetings to discuss the causes of the crisis between the two countries after the Gulf reconciliation, but they did not respond.”
As a state that has come under increasing Emirati influence, it is safe to conclude that, with respect to the outcome of al-Ula, Bahrain is far more aligned with Abu Dhabi, which seeks to continue the intra-Gulf rivalry, than with Riyadh, which has signaled its willingness to bury the hatchet. At the summit, Emirati and Bahraini leaders joined Saudi Arabia and Egypt and grudgingly agreed to end the blockade of Qatar. However, if the question of how to deal with Doha were up to Abu Dhabi and Manama, these two capitals would likely have opted to maintain collective pressure on Qatar, aiming to fundamentally change its foreign policy.
Media commentators in the West have frequently described Bahrain, a tiny island chain located roughly fifteen miles off the Saudi coast, as a vassal state of Saudi Arabia and/or the UAE. However, Manama has its own grievances with Doha that are reflected in its continued refusal to re-embrace Qatar as an ally. These include the Bahraini government’s unease with Al Jazeera’s coverage of the archipelago kingdom’s crackdown on its “Arab Spring” movement and, separately, the decades-old territorial disputes between the two Gulf states.
Most recently, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) permitted Qatar the right to form its own Flight Information Region in its airspace, at least “in principle”. Within the context of the 2017-2021 blockade of Doha, which forced the Qataris to be dependent on airspace controlled by neighboring countries, this ICAO decision is significant. What remains to be seen, though, is how this development will impact the troubled Manama-Doha relationship.
A New Division?
The Qatar issue is not the GCC’s only potential rift. In fact, while the Saudis and Emiratis have closely aligned their foreign policies on many regional issues over the past years, bilateral relations have become increasingly strained throughout 2021. The bust-up between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is due to a number of complicated factors that have pitted Saudi Arabia and the UAE against each other, from OPEC+ oil disputes and conflicting priorities in southern Yemen to the Abraham Accords and relations with Qatar post-al-Ula. Below the surface, the primary driver of this tension stems from Abu Dhabi’s desire to exist outside of Saudi Arabia’s shadow and conduct an independent foreign policy aimed at shaping the Arab region in accordance with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ)’s vision and priorities.
Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to maintain shared interests, even as their disagreements flare up, it is difficult to deny that the leadership of both countries have grown more distant from each other. An important factor pertains to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and his position in Riyadh; whereas in 2016 MbS’s power was not yet consolidated, he now enjoys a secure position as the heir to the throne—and, by many accounts, is already the kingdom’s de facto leader. More recently, the election of President Joe Biden and the accompanying change in U.S. policy in the Middle East has pushed MbS to reconsider his policies in the Gulf region.
To be sure, the Saudi-Emirati clash is not all about politics or OPEC. There are major economic issues fueling friction between the Kingdom and the Emirates. At heart of this tension is the question of which city will serve as the commercial capital of the Gulf. Recently actions taken by the Saudis have confirmed Riyadh’s desire to challenge Dubai as the Gulf’s hub for trade and international business. Saudi Arabia has taken a bold step by amending the import rules from the GCC countries, which deprives Emirati exports from Dubai and Jebel Ali of their preferential benefits and exemption from fees.
The Emiratis have deep concerns about the Saudis successfully luring more business to their country at the UAE’s expense. In the near future, it would not be surprising if the UAE decides to follow Qatar’s lead and leave OPEC altogether. Amid ongoing actions in Europe and the Americas to curb emissions and decrease the usage of fossil fuels, all GCC countries have realized that the end of the oil age is quickly approaching and have begun to diversify their economies accordingly.
As Saudi Arabia moves ahead with its Vision 2030 economic plan, the Kingdom realizes it must create a strong private sector and lure more foreign investment. Amid a period of economic difficulty greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi pressure on multinationals to come to the Kingdom and for foreign companies to set up shop in Saudi Arabia (instead of the UAE) will continue fueling friction between these two Arabian states. In a zero-sum context, this will make it harder for the two GCC countries to find avenues for compromise.
It is important to realize that competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE did not begin this year. In 2009, Saudi-Emirati tensions flared after the UAE abandoned its support for plans to establish a single GCC currency. The leadership in Abu Dhabi had pushed to become the host of a Gulf Central Bank, but failed to do so given Riyadh’s desire to host it. Consequently, the currency did not launch in 2010 as GCC officials had planned.
Pulling in Different Directions
Riyadh has also rebooted its foreign policy. The kingdom is conducting greater outreach to its neighbors, as evidenced by the visits of senior Omani, Kuwaiti, Qatari, and other public officials to Saudi Arabia. At the same time, it is maintaining a “relative distance” from the UAE’s policies in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, the Palestinian territories, and, most importantly, Israel, which has established embassies in Abu Dhabi and Manama but conspicuously not in Riyadh.
The Saudi leadership is clearly uncomfortable with the UAE’s enthusiasm for celebrating its relations with Israel, as Abu Dhabi has done non-stop as the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords approaches. In March, the UAE announced a $10 billion fund for investments in Israel, a plan which remained even after the most recent outbreak of violence in Gaza began in May. Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to normalize with Israel became more apparent after the conflict began, as Saudi official media statements backed the Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah dispute in East Jerusalem, insisting that the solution to the dispute was through the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative rather than the Abraham Accords. From its actions, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is considering its religious obligations as the host of Islam’s two holiest sites; it cannot normalize its relations with Israel as long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh also have their differences with regard to Iran and Turkey. In the last few months, Saudi media and officials have generally refrained from directly attacking Ankara’s policies, while Abu Dhabi continues to do so—a sign that could show Riyadh’s interest in improving relations with the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Conversely, the UAE has been more accommodating to Iran in recent months, while Saudi Arabia still views Iran as its main rival in the region, despite the ongoing talks between the two sides in Baghdad.
Given these different interests and orientations, the differences in the policies of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have hardened, especially after the arrival of newly elected President Joe Biden to the White House. Biden and his administration have advocated for a significantly different agenda, interests and conflicts within the Middle East and North Africa, compared to the period of Trump and his team.
Although the members of the GCC have sometimes advocated for greater intra-Gulf alignment, transforming the bloc into the Gulf’s equivalent of the European Union, the members of the Council have been consistently unable to agree on a common currency and unified economic policies. Instead, they have entered into economic competition, and divisions between leaders and the struggle for regional and international influence have prevented further political or economic integration.
Over the last decade, the GCC rift has been the largest factor creating wedges within the GCC. At this juncture, however, it is possible in the future that the Saudi-Emirati differences will become the source of tension that does most to fuel division in the Gulf. The “Arab Spring” unrest caused the GCC monarchies to band together, opposing common threats and pushing for political unity. With the revolutions of 2011 firmly quieted, the GCC states will, in all likelihood, return to their normal state of advocating for their own individual interests. Current events—including the emerging political crisis in Tunisia, and the GCC’s differing media coverage of the issue—have so far reinforced this narrative. The future of democratic processes will probably remain a point of contention between the GCC states. Kuwait and Qatar will remain open to popular changes, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia will view any democratic change in the Arab world as a threat to their power and domestic stability.
Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.