UAE-Saudi dynamics: Thriving partnership or usurpation of status quo?

The alliance between the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East has become a mainstay of the regional dynamics in recent times. The two neighbours are cooperating on Egypt, Yemen, Donald Trump, and the Palestine-Israel conflict. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and UAE’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed have seen their own personal relationship blossom.

There is much cause for this sudden soaring in bilateral relations. The UAE has been instrumental in the rise of the Saudi Crown Prince, successfully lobbying the US to abandon former Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef in favour of the young and more unpredictable Mohamed Bin Salman. The two also see eye-to-eye in terms of the devastating impact the Arab Spring could have had on both their families’ grip on power in their respective countries.

However, this new-found warmth in relations has not been welcomed by all. Moreover, there is a notable, and rather unusual, imbalance in the power dynamics in the relationship. It is of increasing significance that Saudi voices are denouncing the UAE and counselling Bin Salman not to follow the Abu Dhabi line whether that be on investing heavily in Donald Trump, pressuring the Palestinian parties to accept the ‘Deal of the Century’, supporting Sisi in Egypt as he adopts increasingly oppressive measures against all opposition, or backing the Separatists in Yemen and setting up a possible scenario of a proxy Southern State to act as a counter-weight to a Houthi-occupied North (in the event a military campaign fails).

For these critics, the argument is that these policies are not in Saudi Arabia’s interests and threaten to do more harm than good. Moreover, they argue that Abu Dhabi’s ultimate aim is control and influence, not a thriving partnership of mutual benefit.

Within Saudi Arabia, it is particularly disconcerting for some members of the ruling family that UAE’s Bin Zayed managed to successfully fulfill his own personal grudge against former Saudi Crown Prince Bin Nayef. The two had reportedly been on difficult terms from the days of Bin Nayef’s father who himself had difficult relations with Bin Zayed. For members of the royal family, Bin Zayed’s successful outmaneuvering of former Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef and subsequent facilitating of US support for his replacement Bin Salman is unprecedented external interference in the most important of internal matters.

UAE’s influence on Saudi foreign policy is clear. The UAE essentially betrayed Saudi Arabia in Yemen by allowing Southern Separatists to move against Riyadh-backed Hadi in Aden. The UAE is also believed to have successfully dissuaded Bin Salman from restoring the Islah party (Muslim Brotherhood), and have insisted on the importance of the Qatar blockade.

This view is shared by regional powers, particularly Qatar which has increased criticism of the UAE while simultaneously rolling back criticism of Saudi; a clear indication that they believe Riyadh can be persuaded to reason, and that it is only the interference of Bin Zayed that prevents reconciliation.

More importantly, there is a growing suspicion that Abu Dhabi is seeking to establish a grand foreign policy similar to that of Qatar. The UAE is heavily involved in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, seeking to establish proxy influence similar to that which Qatar would have enjoyed had Brotherhood established themselves in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

However, the marked difference between Doha and Abu Dhabi’s approaches to the region are that Qatar, as a result of careful consideration, has chosen and consistently continued to back a group more likely to be supported by the people (the Muslim Brotherhood) while the UAE seeks a more US-approach of propping up or supporting unpopular despots who maintain stability through force and repression such as Sisi, Haftar and others.

There remains the question as to what has stirred the UAE to pursue a more ambitious foreign policy. The most likely reason is simply that such ambitions have been made possible by a Saudi Arabia waning in influence and increasingly undermined by regional rival Iran, as well as years of an Obama administration that was suspicious of Riyadh and believed that it was the root cause of much of the regional instability.