The UAE, not an old state and not even a state in every sense of the word, was founded in the 1970s with the British support for small sheikhdoms and immigration of people from other parts of the Arab Peninsula. The 47-year-old state lies on the southern coasts of the Persian Gulf and is a neighbor to the older Saudi Arabia whose “big brother” feeling does not allow it to stand any defiance or even simple opposition from the tiny neighbors, and reacts to any challenging of its position very severely. The recent Qatar diplomatic crisis and blockade is a clear example of where things could go if Riyadh feels defied by any of the fellow Arab states.
The Saudi-Emirati relations make it clear that an array of factors like historical differences, regional issues, and ideological discords along with the US influence on these two states effectively decide the path of future ties of them.
The first divisive point between the two Arab monarchies is their historical, territorial, and border disputes. The neighboring states border disputes that led to occupation of an oil-rich part of the UAE territories, which produces 650,000 barrels per day, has pushed the Emirati rulers to view Saudi regime with a feeling of threat. Hacked and published emails of the Emirati ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba perfectly substantiate the Emirati ruler’s vision of the Saudis. In one of his emails to his country’s intelligence services, al-Otaiba names Saudi Arabia “second threat to the UAE” and calls on the intelligence community to gather information on this country in a comprehensive range.
Second polarizing factor between the UAE and Saudi Arabia is the regional issues. When Riyadh launched its aggression on Yemen in 2015, it was happy to have Abu Dhabi on board the Arab military coalition. But when the war developed and some parts of southern Yemen were occupied, serious disputes sparked between the two countries on how to profit from the interests and govern the seized Yemeni territories. The division is widening day by day as the fellows so far failed to reach a problem-solving formula. Late in April, Saudi Arabia pressed the resigned Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to remove Aden governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi for his pro-UAE tendencies. The measure drew Emirati and the allied circles’ reactions. Protests against the new appointment made the pro-Saudi governor flee the southern province short after replacement.
There is a third segmenting point: the ideological differences that cause problems to the Saudi-Emirati relationship. Saudi Arab exports Wahhabism ideology, an extremist reading of Islam and a legitimizing factor for the Saudi rulers and their political system, to other Arab states in a bid to build long-term pressure tools against other governments. This pathway conflicts with the UAE that is for a secular and Sufi Islam obviously reflecting itself in the small sheikhdom’s cultural and social structure.
The moderate Islamic roots of the regional countries— UAE not an exception— make the Emirati leaders feel endangered and guard against spread of Wahhabi ideology by the self-proclaimed big brother. This could be understood from the remarks of the UAE Minster of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Qarqash about the Saudi policies. He noted that there are circles inside Saudi Arabia that promote radical and pro-terror thoughts and this is something that needs to be halted.
Another point is the US relationship with the two Arab states. Washington’s interests are against tense Persian Gulf Arab states’ relations. This pushes the American leaders to mediate to ease the crisis in the region, where a large part of the West’s energy is produced. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia wants other Arab states to define their relations with the US under a Riyadh-Washington relationship. But the UAE seeks reducing reliance on the Saudis through huge weapons purchases from the Americans that pave the way for direct and strong relations with Washington. This, the Emirati leaders hope, keeps Washington from siding with Saudis once a serious UAE dispute erupts with Riyadh.
The relations record along with the current developments signal that the UAE-Saudi Arabian coming to blows in the future is likely. But, at the same time, drastic changes in their bilateral relations are unlikely as long as Saudi Arab fails to successfully solve the regional crises it is grappling with like in Yemen and Qatar or persuade the US to punish the neighboring states whose interests conflict with those of Riyadh. Besides, the two Mohammeds, Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, who have friendly relationship, will soon take over power in their countries.