13.07.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Saudia-UAE Rivalry Upends ‘Gulf Unity’


With Saudia’s strategic partnership with the UAE largely unravelling in the face of a directly growing competition and rivalry between them — which in turn is an outcome of the UAE’s own bid to position itself as the new leader of the ‘Sunni Muslim world’, and Saudia’s bid to ensure its survival as the traditional hegemon – ‘Gulf unity’ is facing an unprecedented crisis, an internal upheaval that significantly surpasses the jolts that the three boycott of Qatar by the Gulf countries gave to the Gulf Cooperation Council. Much to the pleasure of Turkey and Iran, both of which not only espouse a different version of Islam but also follow different regional and global geo-political policies, rivalry within the Gulf’s two major countries gives them a hitherto unavailable opening to position themselves as alternatively leading players within the Muslim world. Therefore, with the GCC — which was established 40 years ago after the Iranian revolution to present a common/united ‘Sunni Gulf front’ to the ‘Shia crescent’— no longer as united vis-à-vis its traditional rival as it is divided along competing and diverging national interests of the UAE and Saudia, its ability to project power within the Muslim world is wanning.

This growing internal rivalry’s major manifestation recently came in the OPEC where the UAE defeated Saudi Arabia’s bid to extend existing output curbs for another eight months. At the OPEC, the UAE opposes production quotas negotiated between Russia and Saudi Arabia and wants to be able to produce 3.8 million barrels a day rather than 3.2 million as apportioned by the oil cartel.

While both the UAE and Saudia, until a few years ago, flaunted their plans to create an EU style unity in the GCC, these plans never left the drawing board. On the contrary, with GCC power-houses now aiming to undo each other, integrity increasingly looks like a utopia.

Unlike Saudia, the UAE has been investing billions in its oil production to boots its production, supply and sales. In this behalf, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, known as ADNOC, has put together plans to spend US$120 billion over the next five years to increase its production of crude oil. Abu Dhabi has brought in companies like Occidental Petroleum and Italy’s Eni to explore and develop more oil and sell as much as possible at today’s higher prices. In this context, Saudi bid to impose cuts on oil production do not fit Abu Dhabi’s overall plans to modernise its economy, and use its financial power-base to project political and economic power in the service of external geo-political interests.

These growing differences are, however, not limited to the production of oil only. Saudia-UAE are facing each other off in a broad range of geo-political and geo-economic matters. Quite recently, when Saudi Arabia made an announcement to end contracts with foreign companies whose regional headquarters were not located in the Kingdom, effective January 2024, it not only sent a shockwave across the Middle East – the UAE in particular – but also illustrated a strong Saudi resolve to re-claim the geo-political and geo-economic centrality it has been losing to the UAE. By re-claiming its own historical centrality, the Kingdom aims to defeat the UAE’s plans to become Washington’s new favourite in the Middle East.

As such, while it could be that the Saudi ruling elite facilitated the UAE’s peace accord with Israel, there is equally no denying that the UAE sees its upgraded relations with Israel as the gateway to winning Washington to its side, and even use its ties with both Israel and Washington to suppress Saudia’s hegemonic ambitions. Saudia’s MBS, even though he is still not the King, takes for granted Saudia Arabia’s position of ‘big brother’ in the region. The UAE, however, not only rejects this assertion, but also sees itself as a more suitable candidate for the said position. The Joe Biden administration’s decision to complete the sale of F-35 jest to the UAE will only add to Abu Dhabi’s growing regional and international clout.

In other words, even though the UAE has traditionally followed a policy whereby it either toes the Saudi line or convinces the Saudis take an alternative course, the UAE’s growing ties with regional and global powers houses – Tel Aviv and Washington – has allowed it to pursue a third option: resist and reject Riyadh’s policy. This is being followed by an active projection of Emirates as the ‘new’ regional power-house.

The Saudis became particularly apprehensive of Emirati ambitions when emails of Emirati ambassador in Washington were revealed in 2017 in which the ambassador expressed a growing desire of Abu Dhabi to not only project the UAE as the leading regional player, but also acquire the ability to influence Saudi policies as well. The emails unambiguously showed how the Emirati elite was inching towards pulling itself out of the Saudi clout. In one of these email, the ambassador had even told a former US official that “I think in the long term we might be a good influence on KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), at least with certain people there.”

These emails effectively established that the UAE does not see itself as a ‘junior partner’ of the Kingdom in the region. In many ways, the UAE’s policies and actions largely mirror the attitude that Qatar, too, had adopted, which led the Saudis to impose a diplomatic and economic blockade in 2017.

In the present context, Emirati ambitions have strengthened in the wake of the Joe Biden administration’s seeming resolve to ‘punish’ the Saudis – MBS in particular – for their direct involvements in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. For the UAE, the growing wedge between the US and Saudi leaders presents a unique opening which they can use to their advantage. The Saudis, as the Emiratis see it, are weak; hence, resistible. A successful resistance of Saudi policies at this stage will set the stage for the UAE’s future course of action as the regional power-house with an extra-regional and anti-Saudia outlook.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.