Over the past decade to date, Saudi Arabia- United Arab Emirates’ relations have seen a rise at various levels to take the shape of a strategic partnership driven by the establishment of personal relations between the two aspiring crown princes. However, the emergence of some differences and, more importantly, conflicts of interest fed by regional ups and downs, has pushed both countries along lines of divergence.
In this regard, in a report examining the relations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Financial Times has reported deteriorating relations between the two countries. It was a dispute over oil production at last week's OPEC Plus meeting that barred the meeting from deciding to gradually hike the production and forced the two sides to a repeat meeting. The meeting proved inconclusive and was postponed to an unknown date.
This has prompted analysts to associate the disagreement with the UAE's determination to a boosting oil production capacity to support diversified economic initiatives. Disagreements concerning the Yemeni bloody conflict, normalization of ties with the Zionist regime, de-escalation of tensions with Qatar and the two countries' ambitious plans for economic development in the region have further highlighted the emergence of lines of disagreement between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh in the political sphere.
Emerging Divergence Dimensions
Abu Dhabi is dissatisfied with the current base production figure, based on which the reduction in production is calculated, and is pushing for its raise. The UAE, which has invested billions of dollars in increasing its production capacity, believes that its production base has been fixed at a much lower rate than the actual rate when the initial agreement was concluded. Abu Dhabi has also said that it is not alone in this request, and since the agreement was concluded last year, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Kuwait, Kazakhstan and Nigeria have received a new base level following a similar request.
The UAE government on Sunday (July 4th) issued a statement issued by the country's official news agency, labeling the agreement reached on Friday (July 2nd) by the OPEC Plus oil ministers as unfair. The statement also stated that the UAE's intention to significantly increase the level of production has been held up from 2018. With the finalization of the deal on Friday, this delay will be in place from April 2022 to December 2022 instead of April 2022. UAE Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazrouei has also announced that his country wants to increase its base production quota from the current 3.17 million bpd to 3.8 million barrels per day.
Thus, the traditional disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Russia over increased oil production has been replaced by a confrontation between the United Arab Emirates and other members of OPEC Plus. In this context, some sources reported that serious discussions are currently underway at the highest levels of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company regarding the country's withdrawal from OPEC.
In 2021 and driven by the drop in oil prices, The 23 member countries of OPEC Plus agreed to slash their production by a maximum of 9.7 million barrels per day, and this production cut will be gradually reversed as oil prices improve. The decision has pushed oil prices, which had fallen below $ 20 a barrel, to above $ 70.
With the glaring failure of the Saudi military strategy in Yemen conflict which has descended into an attrition warfare, widening fault lines in the coalition, especially in the wake of the withdrawal of Egypt and Pakistan from the Saudi-led coalition, and most importantly, Ansar Allah’s growing sway in areas under its control and its expansion to other areas, as well as its moving from a defense strategy to launching attacks on Saudi southern borders and targeting Riyadh airport and refinery facilities have revealed changes in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh strategies in Yemen. In fact, by scaling back its involvement in the Yemeni conflict, the UAE practically expressed its strategy of non-alignment with Saudi Arabia.
The inception of the Southern Transitional Council in 2017, dominating Yemen's southern ports coupled with the establishment of military bases on the strategic islands of Socotra and Mayyun in the Gulf of Aden and the mouth of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait illustrate that Abu Dhabi sees Yemen as part of its maritime development strategy which could extend the country's port chain from the port of Jabal Ali in the Persian Gulf to southern Yemen and the Horn of Africa, paving the way for an active UAE presence on the Black Continent. Upon the outbreak of more serious disagreements between the Transitional Council and the government of Mansour Hadi over the implementation of the Riyadh 2 agreement, the political life of Mansour Hadi, an ally of Saudi Arabia, is expected to come to an end with the fall of Marib.
3. Hubs competition
The third axis with the potential to diverge and create competition in Saudi-UAE relations is the rise of Saudi Arabia to rival the Dubai Hub in the region with the 2030 Vision Document, kick-starting the Neom super-project and extensive construction on the Red Sea coast. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are looking for ways to diversify their economies, move away from hydrocarbons, expand tourism, financial and logistics services, the petrochemical industry and technology.
The scope and diversity of economic and investment projects defined by the two countries is so ambitious that it needs to attract foreign investments and, more importantly, become a regional hub. This followed a two-prong goal; financing projects while secures government revenue generation, job creation and branding consolidation. This competition is crucial, particularly during Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the reduction of oil prices, and has led Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to covert and overt showdowns.
In the latest major development in this area, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia unveiled the national strategy for transportation and logistics services last Tuesday. The strategy aims to consolidate Saudi Arabia's position as a global procurement hub. This strategy seeks to strengthen integration of the logistics system and modern modes of transport to support the comprehensive development process in Saudi Arabia. One of the highlights of the announced strategy is that Saudi Arabia ranks fifth in world aviation traffic with an increase in travel destinations to more than 250 international destinations and an increase in aviation sectors to more than 4.5 million tons.
This, if finally implemented, could be a very robust competitor to the UAE aviation and tourism hub in the region, especially given the fact that Saudi Arabia's proximity to the borders of Africa, West Asia and the southern Mediterranean can lead tourists to newer and closer destinations which could compromise the prosperity of the UAE.
4. Persian Gulf De-escalation
Another variable was the de-escalation of the Qatari belligerent bloc, which in early January 2021 in Al-Ala, Saudi Arabia and Qatar compromised without the presence of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. And in recent months, the visit of officials and the exchange of ambassadors have led to the separation of Saudi Arabia from the UAE in this direction. In fact, the UAE is concerned and dissatisfied with the pace with which Saudi Arabia reconciles with Qatar and Riyadh's efforts to end the trade and travel embargo with Doha, and this has led the UAE to continue to insist on some conditions for lifting the blockade of Doha. Its association with Saudi Arabia was conceivable, at least in the short term.
Arab-Zionist normalization is another variable with possible implications for Saudi-UAE relations. That the UAE has moved towards normalization, regardless of the Arab peace plan, and has considered its own interests through bringing the Zionists into the Persian Gulf region, something that could trigger threats by Iran and the resistance groups. From Saudi Arabia's point of view, this could have consequences for the security and interests of this country. Naturally, given Riyadh's constraints in entering the normalization of relations, it should be expected that with the emergence of cooperation between the UAE and the Zionist regime in the field of defense and the emergence of sensitivities in Iran, grounds for disagreement between the two countries will be provided. In particular, it should be noted that reaching an agreed outcome to the Iran-Saudi talks could naturally mount pressure on the UAE to define areas of cooperation with Israel in the Persian Gulf.
6. Confronting the Muslim Brotherhood
The sixth element of divergence in these relations is the nature of Saudi confrontation with an incarnation of political Islam, which pursues a more multilevel and complex policy than the UAE. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia, like the UAE, has listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, the former's experience in dealing with the Brotherhood in Egypt, inside Saudi Arabia, in the Arab world and now with the Brotherhood shows that in contrast with the UAE’s explicit and open policy, Riyadh's policy is primarily based on the game of balance of interests and identity. And, naturally, Riyadh's negligence in the face of this current could, at the right moment, reveal the grounds for a more serious dispute with Abu Dhabi.
The UAE-Saudi dichotomy is often portrayed by the media and analysts as a single regional power group. Although this alliance is not at stake, its nature is much more complex than is usually represented. The two kingdoms of the Persian Gulf show and keep showing different positions and preferences on various regional issues. As a result, the structure of the relationship is unstable. Although it is possible for the parties to manage such disputes given the benefits of cooperation are decisive and act as the driving force of this relationship, if the conflict of interests becomes rampant, especially in the case of Yemen as also the issue of economic competition between the two countries, it can create ripe conditions for real disputes that provide a very good atmosphere for the Islamic Republic of Iran to play a role in the midst of such disputes. Such disputes could put the moribund (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council in a more distressed situation. However, we must consider the rift between the UAE and Saudi Arabia as an indicator of the rift within the union and not expect a rupture in relations, at least in the short term.