The roots of the very public — and personal — clash between the two Arabian powers in OPEC are complicated and rooted in myriad geopolitical factors.
Historically, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been a reliable ally of Saudi Arabia within OPEC. Yet there is growing reason to doubt Abu Dhabi’s commitment to the cartel amid an ongoing Saudi Arabia-UAE clash that calls OPEC’s future into question. Now, oil markets find themselves in a state of uncertainty against the backdrop of growing global demand for fuel as the world emerges from Covid-19 lockdowns.
Below the surface, these latest developments are leading many analysts to conclude that the Saudi-Emirati alliance is in serious trouble. As many commentators have noted, Saudi efforts to take some business away from Dubai via economic incentives, major investments and other means do not sit well with the Emirati leadership.
On July 5, the Saudi government amended its rules governing imports from the Kingdom’s fellow Gulf Arab states. This was part of “a bid to challenge the [UAE]’s status as the region's trade and business hub.”
On July 3, Riyadh announced its ban on entry into Saudi Arabia from the UAE over Covid-19 concerns. Two days later, Khaled Meshaal of Hamas, a Palestinian organisation that Abu Dhabi loathes, appeared on Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya TV. Some analysts understood this to be a snub against the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ).
The Saudi Arabia-UAE clash is about much more than OPEC, oil policies and economic competition; major geopolitical frictions have been building up between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for years. Much of it stems from the UAE’s determination to chart an independent course in regional and international issues, exposing gaps between the leaders of these two Arabian powerhouses.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) “takes for granted that Saudi Arabia is the automatic leader or 'big brother' in the region,” explained the International Interest's Sami Hamdi. “But [MBZ] quietly rejects this status quo, and is increasingly assertive in his vision for greater disproportionate representation and primacy of UAE interests in the region.”
After all, ever since the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, the UAE — like the other smaller four members of the Council — have had concerns about Saudi Arabia’s hegemonic aims throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The view that Riyadh does not always respect the sovereignty of its GCC neighbours has been shared for many years by officialdom in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City, Doha and Muscat.
Nonetheless, there was a considerable strengthening of the Saudi-UAE alliance over the past ten years. Saudi Arabia and the UAE aligned closely on many regional issues after the Arab Spring revolts erupted in 2011, working together in pursuit of shared interests such as countering Iran, containing Turkey, blockading Qatar until January of this year, pushing the Muslim Brotherhood out of the mainstream and trying to defeat the Houthis militarily.
Broadly speaking, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have shared a counter-revolutionary vision for the post-2011 regional order. In practice, this has entailed both Gulf states strongly supporting the Egyptian coup of 2013 and the rise of General Khalifa Haftar during Libya’s civil war.
Dynamics in Washington were important too, with MBZ essentially serving as MBS’s point man, both during the Barack Obama and Donald Trump presidencies. MBZ took advantage of MBS’s ascendancy to try to shift Saudi policies in ways that were more conducive to Abu Dhabi’s interests.
But the foreign policies of these two Gulf countries have somewhat diverged with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi making it clear that they will go their own ways, at least on a number of issues. There are at least four major points of disagreement when it comes to regional affairs.
First, the UAE and Israel signed the Abraham Accords last year, marking a major triumph for Israeli efforts to become integrated into the Arab world without making any real concessions to the Palestinians. Abu Dhabi has a host of interests pushing it closer to the Jewish state, from geopolitics to technology and tourism to energy. But Saudi Arabia has, at least so far, refused to abandon the Arab Peace Initiative.
Friction between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi over the Abraham Accords was on display in December 2020 when Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal addressed the Palestinian question at the IISS Manama Dialogue with fiery remarks that raised some eyebrows.
Second, Abu Dhabi’s support for the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in southern Yemen has been another major source of contention. Although the Saudis and Emiratis have sought to mend this rift through the Riyadh Agreement, the uncertain future of southern Yemen continues to fuel tension.
While Abu Dhabi has lent its strong support to this group, which seeks to carve out an independent state in Aden and other areas of southern Yemen, Riyadh continues backing President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s very weak government and the concept of a unified Yemen.
Third, the UAE has joined Russia in believing that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad must be fully reintegrated in the Arab world’s diplomatic fold. The Abu Dhabi-Damascus rapprochement of December 2018 was a major turning point for Syria, adding to Assad’s hopes that his country could return to the Arab League relatively soon.
But the Saudi leadership is not on board — at least not yet. Although Riyadh has not supported the anti-Assad forces for years, it has not yet taken the step of reembracing Assad as a legitimate head of state.
Much like the question of Israel, when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s Syria foreign policy, one has to consider public opinion in the Kingdom, which is opposed to any rapprochement with the Iran-backed Syrian Baathist government.
Fourth, it is no secret that the Emirati leadership is not thrilled about the outcome of the January 2021 al Ula summit, which ended the pressure on Qatar that began in mid-2017. Although the UAE joined the other Arab states in terms of lifting the blockade, it is safe to assume that had MBS not driven this Gulf reconciliation, MBZ would have been most pleased with a continuation of the siege imposed on Qatar. Currently, the UAE is unsettled by how quickly the Saudis and Qataris have reconciled over the past six months.
Now, with this clash between Saudi Arabia and the UAE in OPEC, the potential for further escalation is real. The extent to which this rift is public and personal is notable.
What will take some time to better understand is how the Emirati-Saudi alliance would be impacted by the UAE possibly exiting OPEC. Regardless of the UAE’s future in OPEC, it seems safe to assume that the Saudis are wise to improve their relations with Oman and Qatar at a time in which Riyadh’s relationship with Abu Dhabi is coming under significant strain.
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