Why the UAE-Saudi differences will continue to escalate

Saudi resentment against the UAE, its main ally, grows further from the Yemen war to OPEC differences. Abu Dhabi, however, continues to pursue a foreign policy that conflicts with Riyadh’s.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have long been considered as the leading states of the Middle East with Riyadh being the financial hub of the Arab world. But in the past few decades, the rise of the UAE as a commercial powerhouse began to change that equation.

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Under Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi is no longer a silent spectator of the Middle East’s conflicts. Zayed has increased the country’s involvement in various political conflicts from Egypt to Libya and Yemen, using its political and financial partners in the Western world to cement its influence across the Middle East. Lastly, the recent crisis in OPEC made it clear that the UAE will not operate under the shadow of Riyadh anymore, angering the Saudis.

While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has initially appeared to follow his UAE counterpart’s guidance to bring a new approach to Saudi politics, Abu Dhabi’s increasing regional clout across the Middle East frustrates the ruling class in Riyadh, according to different sources.

“The crisis [between UAE and Saudi Arabia] is much bigger than OPEC,” says a Kuwaiti political figure, who is in regular contact with high-level Saudi officials including the high profile figures from Saudi’s intelligence agency.

Referring to the recent clash between the two oil-rich Arab countries in OPEC over oil production levels and extending output cuts to the end of 2022, the source, who wished to remain anonymous, tells TRT World that the anti-Emirates anger in the Saudi capital is simmering. Based on his conversations with one of the top officials in the Saudi foreign ministry, he said: “Bigger things are coming”.

The source added that the further deterioration of Saudi-UAE ties is inevitable.

“We believe there will be more actions.”

The tensions first began with the Yemen war, he explained.

“The first clash happened with the Yemen war. While the other part (UAE) controls some border areas and actually occupies some lands such as Socotra and Bab el Mandeb, Riyadh no longer has control over Yemen, not even one percent,” says the Kuwaiti source.

Socotra and Bab el Mandeb are strategically located islands. Socotra is located in the Gulf of Aden and Bab el Mandeb is located in the Red Sea between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

The Saudis are still in Yemen “to protect their dignity because they can’t just leave,” the source views. On the other hand, the UAE controls every ship’s entrance to the Red Sea. “They do that because they have military bases in both Djibouti and Bab el Mandeb,” the source informs.

The UAE forces control every ship’s entrance to the Red Sea, using military bases in Djibouti and the island of Bab el Mandeb.
The UAE forces control every ship’s entrance to the Red Sea, using military bases in Djibouti and the island of Bab el Mandeb. (Zeyd Abdullah Alshagouri / TRTWorld)

Bulent Aras, professor of international relations at the Qatar University, also sees the Yemen war as a crucial factor behind the worsening ties. After the Biden administration decided to end its engagement in Yemen, the UAE-Saudi alliance lost a critical backer, incrementally widening a trust gap between the two countries, the professor views.

UAE’s global influence

The Kuwaiti source also draws attention to an important competition between the two Gulf countries over gaining more influence across the Western world. The UAE has “more control and more effects” over the Western world, developing better relations with China, than the Saudis, he says.

Riyadh’s recent reach to both Qatar and Turkey, the two regional allies, also became a deteriorating factor between the UAE and the Saudi kingdom, according to the source. “Riyadh is trying to get back relations with both Turkey and Qatar that made the other part [the UAE] very upset,” the source says.

Beyond all differences, the UAE has contacts with some countries in an effort “that may also affect the interior security of Riyadh”, says the source.

In return, Riyadh has launched its own political campaign across the Western world to stop some European countries like Germany and Italy arming the UAE, the source says.

According to previous media reports, in January, Italy blocked arms sales to both the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the Yemen war and its repercussions. But the source says the development was more related to the Saudi campaign against the UAE than other concerns. Angered by the Italian blockade over arms sales, Abu Dhabi told Rome to vacate its forces from one of its military bases in the UAE.

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (R) meeting with Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, in Abu Dhabi in an image provided by UAE News Agency (WAM) on November 9, 2020.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (R) meeting with Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, in Abu Dhabi in an image provided by UAE News Agency (WAM) on November 9, 2020. (AFP)

Even Abu Dhabi rejected Italians to use its airspace, the source says. Last week, remaining Italian soldiers left the UAE base, he adds. The Saudi-UAE clash over arms sales has made the situation “way worse” between the two countries, the source says.

OPEC schism

Brewing tensions between the Saudis and the Emirates were in full display with recent public disagreement over oil production levels.

“The UAE has always been in the same line within the OPEC+ like when they were saying to reduce the production of oil, the UAE has always agreed. But recently they disagreed,” the source says.

In retaliation for the UAE’s behaviour, Riyadh has banned its citizens from entering the Gulf country in the latest round of deterioration between the two countries, the source says.

“It’s interesting that their breaking point comes with the OPEC dispute, which tells us that the two countries began differentiating their respective interests,” Aras, the professor, tells TRT World. Oil revenues are crucial for both countries’ control of their own internal and external affairs, he says.

But for Abu Dhabi, which “follows an ambitious development plan inside the country” and pursues an aggressive regional policy, forcing its own political and economic capacity, it’s more important to receive oil revenues to fund its own activities than Riyadh does, the professor views.

As a result, with the OPEC split, the UAE indicates that it wants to go its own way, breaking up its “fateful relationship” with Riyadh, Aras says.

“After the OPEC crisis, I predict that the next crisis will be the Yemen conflict,” Aras says. Nothing is capable of bringing back the old relationship, he says. “Either the countries will be able to form a new type of relationship or will increasingly see each other as security threats,” he adds.

Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman pushes back on UAE opposition to OPEC+ deal during a recent media appearance.
Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman pushes back on UAE opposition to OPEC+ deal during a recent media appearance. (Reuters)

What happened to the MBS-MBZ friendship?

Two powerful crown princes have been close to each other for some time. But recent disagreements raised new doubts about the authenticity of their friendship.

“Muhammed Bin Salman could not have come to power probably without the help of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed I believe,” the source says. But now following the fierce criticism of the Khashoggi murder, MBS appears to receive more foreign support, particularly from Western countries, the source adds.

“The Biden administration has given him (MBS) a green light and support. But he [Biden] wants to limitise the UAE power over the region,” the source observes. However, he thinks it will be so difficult to diminish the UAE influence across the Middle East because Abu Dhabi “has already got mingled into many issues”, solidifying its penetration into the region by normalising relations with Israel.

During the crisis, despite UAE’s new public friendship with Tel Aviv, Riyadh has shown its increasing enmity toward Israel, not allowing the Jewish state’s aircraft to fly over Saudi airspace anymore, according to the Kuwaiti source.

MBS also wants to use other Gulf countries like Kuwait to increase Saudi influence across the region against the UAE, the source adds, referring to the Gulf country’s crown prince’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia.

War on social media

The Kuwaiti crown prince came to Riyadh at the active request of MBS, says the source, who has various contacts in the royal court of Kuwait. MBS asked him to prevent criticism of Riyadh in the Kuwaiti media, particularly social media, the source says.

“Most of the Kuwaitis were attacking Saudi Arabia indirectly on Twitter. But all of a sudden after the visit of the crown prince of Kuwait, they turned against the UAE not Saudi Arabia,” signalling MBS is also using Kuwait as well to put more pressure against the UAE, the source says.

Both the Emirates and Saudis control and fund an enormous number of fake accounts to wage a social media war against each other, according to the source. “Let’s say millions, not thousands,” he says. In 2019, an internal investigation of Twitter found that many fake accounts originated in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

“It’s all fake news they are doing. They are making people angry.” He gives an example of an alleged UAE-origin social media claim that Saudis are banning mosques from adhan (the Islamic call to prayer).

“They [UAE users] are using anything that makes Saudis angry over their leadership.”

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