Personality and the amalgamation of national interests and personal ambition help to widen the gap between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was only a matter of time before the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) wants to go out alone and no longer regarded as the protégé of his former mentor and Emirati counterpart, Crown Prince Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ). Similarly, there was no doubt that the prince and future king of Saudi Arabia would stop any suggestion that the United Arab Emirates, rather than Saudi Arabia, have taken the lead in the Gulf and the Middle East .
There is no doubt that MBS will not have forgotten the revelations on the attitude of the Emirates towards Saudi Arabia and the strategic vision of the United Arab Emirates on the relations between the two countries. This was explained in emails from Yusuf al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to Washington and close associate of MBZ, which leaked in 2017. The emails made it clear that UAE leaders believed they could use Saudi Arabia – the Gulf giant – and Mohammed bin Salman as a means of promoting Emirati interests.
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“Our relationship with them is based on strategic depth, shared interests and, above all, the hope of being able to influence them. Not the other way around, ”Otaiba wrote. In a separate email, the ambassador told a former US official that “I think in the long run we could have a good influence on Saudi Arabia. [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], at least with some people there.
A participant in a more recent meeting with Otaiba cited the ambassador as referring to the Middle East as “the region of the United Arab Emirates,” suggesting an enhanced regional influence from the Emirates. In the same vein, former Dubai police chief Dhahi Khalfan, blowing his ultra-nationalist horn, tweeted in Arabic, “It is not the survival of humanity of the fittest, it is the survival of the smartest.”
Certainly, Mohammed bin Zayed has been preparing the positioning of the United Arab Emirates as a regional economic and geopolitical power for much longer than his Saudi counterpart. It is not for nothing that this has earned the United Arab Emirates the epitaph of “Little Sparta”, in the words of former US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Windows of opportunity
Without a doubt, intelligence matters a lot. But, in the final analysis, the two crown princes appear to be exploiting the windows of opportunity that exist as long as their most powerful rivals, Turkey and Iran, fail to pull themselves together. The Saudis and the Emiratis see the Turks and the Iranians as threats to their regional power. Turkey and Iran have much larger and highly educated populations, huge domestic markets, seasoned armies, significant natural resources, and industrial bases.
In the meantime, separating the wheat from the chaff in Gulf spat may be easier said than done. Bader al-Saif, a Gulf analyst, notes that differences between Arab states appeared after regime survival strategies driven by the need to prepare for a post-oil era. The emergence of a more competitive landscape does not need to be entirely negative. Saif warns, however, that “unchecked… the differences could snowball and have a negative impact on the neighborhood.
Several factors make it difficult to manage these differences. On the one hand, the Vision 2030 plan to lift Saudi Arabia out of its dependence on the export of fossil fuels differs little from the perspective put forward by the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, two countries which have a substantial head start. .
Saudi Arabia has sought to declare an early success in the wider rivalry by revealing last week that the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the air transport industry body, had opened its regional headquarters in Riyadh. . IATA denied that the Saudi office would have regional responsibility. The announcement follows the disclosure of Saudi plans to create a new airline to compete with Emirates and Qatar Airways.
The fact that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are likely to compete for market share as they seek to maximize their oil export earnings in the short to medium term further complicates the management of the differences. This is especially before oil demand peaks and then declines in the 2030s.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, economic diversification and social liberalization are linked to the competing geopolitical ambitions of the two princes in positioning their country as a regional leader. Otaiba signaled MBZ’s ambition in 2017 in an email exchange with Elliot Abram, a former US neoconservative official. “Damn it, the new hegemon! Emirati imperialism! Well, if the United States doesn’t, someone has to keep things together for a while, ”Abrams wrote to the ambassador, referring to the UAE’s growing regional role. “Yes, how dare we! In all fairness, there wasn’t much to choose from. We only intensified our efforts after your country chose to withdraw, ”Otaiba replied.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas
The differences of ideological and geopolitical thinking of the princes vis-à-vis political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood have reappeared recently. The different Saudi and Emirati approaches were initially evident in 2015 when King Salman and his son began their reign in Saudi Arabia. It was a time when Mohammed bin Zayed, who views political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat, had yet to forge close ties with the new Saudi leadership. At the time, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, barely a month after King Salman’s ascendancy, told an interviewer that “there is no problem between the kingdom” and the Muslim Brotherhood.
A month later, the Muslim World League, an organization created by Saudi Arabia in the 1960s to propagate religious ultra-conservatism and long dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, held a conference in a building in Mecca that didn’t had not been used since the banning of the brothers. The Qataris, who have a history of close ties to the Brotherhood, were invited.
After King Salman and his son came to power, Saudi Arabia took a tougher approach on groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood as Mohammed bin Zayed gained influence in Saudi affairs. The Muslim League has since become Mohammed bin Salman’s main vehicle for promoting his call for religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates present themselves as icons of a socially moderate form of Islam which, nonetheless, supports an autocratic regime.
Last week, the kingdom signaled a potential change in its attitude towards groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood with the broadcast of an interview with Khaled Meshaal, the Qatar-based leader of Hamas’s political wing. The interview was broadcast on Al Arabiya, the Saudi state-controlled news channel. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls Gaza, maintains relations with Iran and is seen as part of a Muslim Brotherhood network. Meshaal called for a resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian movement.
In 2014, Saudi Arabia designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. It was part of a dispute between Qatar, a supporter of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, all of which had withdrawn their ambassadors from Doha. The Saudis were particularly upset by the close ties Hamas had forged with Iran and Turkey, Riyadh’s main rivals for regional hegemony.
A litmus test of how much Saudi Arabia’s attitude has changed will be whether it releases dozens of Hamas operatives. These members were arrested in 2019 as part of Saudi efforts to gain Palestinian support for then-US President Donald Trump’s controversial peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Citing the Arabic service of the Turkish state news agency Anadolu, Al-Monitor reported that Al Arabiya had failed to broadcast a portion of the interview in which Meshaal called for the release of detainees.
Despite the differences
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and the ambitions of their leaders make it unlikely that Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed will look into structural ways of dealing with the differences. This includes areas such as greater regional economic integration through trade and investment arrangements and an enlarged customs union. The latter would make the region more attractive to foreign investors and improve the negotiating power of the Gulf States.
In the absence of institutional strengthening, the bet is on the heir princes recognizing that, despite their differences, “it makes no sense for one of them to let go of the other”.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.