A trio of apparently unrelated issues has cast fresh light on policy divergences between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and provided a foretaste of the new competitive rivalries that might come to characterize the next phase of post-pandemic politics in the Gulf. Over the July 4 weekend, Saudi and Emirati officials locked horns at an OPEC+ meeting, as the UAE openly and vocally opposed Saudi-led plans to extend OPEC+ oil quotas into 2022. Separately, but concurrently with the OPEC+ standoff, Saudi officials suspended travel to and from the UAE; Riyadh also amended its rules on imports from other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in ways that seemingly target goods produced in UAE free zones.
While there is no clear link that connects the three incidents, each is an example of Saudi-Emirati disharmony, and together they call into question the depth and durability of the alignment between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that did so much to shape Gulf politics in the 2010s. They also suggest that the greater assertiveness in individual Gulf states’ policies over the past decade will take on economic rather than political overtones in the 2020s and play out against the backdrop of states’ attempts to compete in an increasingly crowded regional landscape. Furthermore, they offer a glimpse into the future of Gulf politics if and when Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) and Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), Crown Princes of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, assume the throne in their respective nations and apply their headstrong approach to leadership in ways that decisively prioritize their individual and national interests.
Fifty Years of Disharmony
The realignment in Gulf politics after 2011 around a Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis came as a surprise to many observers of regional developments. Saudi Arabia and the UAE had a record of tense relationships over territorial issues that predated and overshadowed the formation of the UAE in 1971 and extended well into the 2000s, and the two were not necessarily viewed as ‘natural’ bedfellows. In the 1960s, the perceived threat to Abu Dhabi posed by Saudi Arabia was one of the reasons why then-ruler Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan desired to build up his own defense force. Emirati leaders also smarted over a 1974 border agreement that allocated most of the enormous Shaybah oil field to Saudi Arabia as a price for its recognition of the fledgling federation.
Such historical differences continued to characterize Gulf politics into the 2000s until the cathartic shock of the regional political upheaval that began in December 2010 led to a significant alteration in the dynamic between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. During the 2000s, Saudi leaders successfully opposed a plan to link Qatar and the UAE by causeway, but they ultimately failed to block the construction of the Dolphin gas pipeline between the two countries. Tensions peaked late in the decade when the UAE withdrew in anger from the planned GCC single currency in 2009, following a contested decision to locate the GCC Central Bank in Riyadh rather than Abu Dhabi. Incensed, Saudi Arabia temporarily restricted Emirati citizens from entering the Kingdom using UAE identification cards featuring a map showing an Emirati contentious territory claimed by both sides. Several months later, in March 2010, a clash at sea reportedly occurred as a UAE naval boat opened fire on a Saudi patrol vessel after it strayed into disputed water.
Unity Against the Arab Spring
What changed in and after 2011 was the policy response in the Gulf monarchies to the regional uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Saudi and Emirati officials grew alarmed at the pace and direction of change in the states that had experienced political transition in 2011, and they responded to Qatar’s assertive approach toward the “Arab Spring” with more muscular policies of their own. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi provided immediate financial and political support to General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi after the July 2013 military coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s elected president, and joined with Bahrain in 2014 in withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar for eight months in an early indication of the buildup of post-Arab Spring political tensions in the Gulf.
The death of King Abdullah in January 2015 and the meteoric ascent of Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia added a potent personal dimension to the state-to-state relationship. Officials in Abu Dhabi, led by the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, quickly identified MbS as an ambitious and upcoming figure and played an important early role in impressing on Western officials, especially in Washington, DC, that the 29-year-old prince was not only a future leader-in-waiting but also the only figure with the strength and the vision to fundamentally transform Saudi Arabia for the better.
Between 2015 and 2018, MbZ and MbS often appeared to act in lockstep, both before and after the latter’s elevation to Crown Prince (and thus titular equivalence) in June 2017. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi together spearheaded the March 2015 military intervention in Yemen, despite suggestions that the Saudis only gave their coalition partners 24 hours’ notice of the campaign. The two nations jointly sought to isolate Qatar through blockade in June 2017, and launched a Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council, co-chaired by the two Crown Princes, which met for the first time in 2018.
National Interests Diverge
Even at the height of their coordination during the early period of the Trump administration, when it seemed to many observers that the Crown Princes were two peas in a pod, there were signs that older points of tension never fully disappeared. For all their pushback against Qatar and the perceived gains of the Arab uprisings, the Saudi leadership viewed Iran as the primary threat to regional stability, while the Emirati leadership in Abu Dhabi believed that political Islamist ideology was more dangerous. Divergent priorities were on display in Yemen, where the Saudis and Emiratis effectively fought two different campaigns with little coordination and backed local forces that sometimes battled each other. UAE officials quickly retracted a June 2016 statement that had appeared to indicate they felt their war in Yemen was over, but then withdrew from their positions around Hodeida in 2019 without fully informing their Saudi coalition partners in advance.
Emirati decisions on Yemen illustrate how Mohammed bin Zayed feels the UAE is a peer equal of Saudi Arabia and will make decisions based on his calculation of Emirati interests first and foremost. In Riyadh, Mohammed bin Salman has, by his actions since 2016, indicated that he will do the same based on his pursuit of Saudi national interests. The shift in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE from the ‘traditional’ position of a bigger and smaller sibling to peer competitors also explains the standoff at the OPEC+ meeting and the UAE’s willingness to stand alone in the face of Saudi pressure. Neither crown prince seems willing to back away and risk a loss of face.
Looking ahead, the contours of a more competitive Gulf in which regional economies chase progressively scarcer resources in a post-pandemic world may be coming into focus. This year alone has seen Mohammed bin Salman insist that companies seeking contracts with government agencies in Saudi Arabia must locate their regional headquarters within the Kingdom in a clear dig at the UAE, and recent speculation about a new Saudi airline and airport also appears designed to win business away from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha in the long run. Mohammed bin Salman has staked his credibility as a ruler-in-waiting on his ability to transform the Saudi economy, and he may intensify his search for new opportunities should Vision 2030 and associated initiatives falter or fail to deliver as intended. In the UAE, the recovery from an economic slump that, in some areas such as Dubai, began before the pandemic, means economic nationalism may become a more assertive feature of Emirati policymaking as well. These are the realities facing Gulf leaders over the next several years, especially those whose economic diversification programs involve a high degree of sectoral overlap and competitive rivalry.
Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.