Given events in Yemen and the UAE’s clear undermining of Saudi Arabia’s fundamental ally (the internationally recognised government under Hadi), one would assume that Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman is having deep reconsiderations over his relationship with Abu Dhabi and Mohamed Bin Zayed. In August, the King himself Salman Bin AbdulAziz reportedly openly expressed irritation with the UAE in what many perceive to be a growing rift between the two.
However Saudi Arabian policy in Yemen does not seem to reflect this growing rift. Instead of asserting the role and backing for the internationally recognised government, Mohamed Bin Salman appears undecided as to how to approach this conundrum.
So why is Bin Salman hesitating?
The issue is not Yemen itself. It is the nature of the personal relationship between Bin Salman and Bin Zayed, as well as the geopolitical dynamics that have left Bin Salman floundering.
Bin Zayed was integral to the rise of Mohamed Bin Salman’s rise as Crown Prince. It is no secret that Washington fawned over Bin Salman’s cousin and former Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef for years. Credited with his hard anti-terror polices and the establishment of rehabilitation centres, Mohamed Bin Nayef was perhaps one of the only princes to ever receive effusive praise from the American press and was awarded a prize from the CIA, a warning from the American security services to MBS and the other Al-Saud princes about who their preferred candidate for King was.
Then came Trump.
With Trump at odds with the Pentagon and US foreign policy under Trump in comical disarray, US-backed Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef would not be able to muster his allies in the Pentagon to lobby Trump to prevent the move. If Mohamed Bin Salman was uncertain of this, then US Defence Secretary James Mattis’ opposition to Trump’s support for the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar would have confirmed suspicions of a deep rift between the Pentagon and the White House. Bin Zayed advised Bin Salman to act swiftly. The latter surrounded Bin Nayef’s house, forced him to cede his position as Crown Prince, and Bin Zayed subsequently began an extensive PR campaign promoting Bin Salman’s reforms.
Bin Salman is grateful to Bin Zayed for these efforts and sees him as a true friend.
However, if this friendship alone does not suffice in convincing Bin Salman of the need to remain close to Bin Zayed, then the current regional dynamics make a more compelling case for the Saudi Crown Prince to be even less inclined to abandon Abu Dhabi.
Aside from UAE, MBS has no regional allies. He is in an open Cold War with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Under former kings, Saudi Arabia maintained civil ties with Doha even during tense periods and turned a blind eye to issues that could escalate into a diplomatic crisis. When a recording of a conversation between Libya’s Gaddafi and then Qatari Emir Hamad Al-Thani was purportedly leaked, with suggestions that Hamad Al-Thani had claimed he was set on bringing down Al-Saud, King Abdullah reined in angry family members and prevented a diplomatic crisis. However, Bin Salman blew the relationship apart following encouragement from the UAE to engage in a blockade.
Even if Bin Salman decided to reopen discussions with Qatar, he would not be able to do so from a position of strength. Qatar has weathered the blockade and continued to exert its influence on global affairs. Bin Salman would be forced to abandon Saudi Arabia’s historic ‘big brother-little brother’ dynamic that it has adopted in the past with fellow Gulf states. He would also find himself the weaker of the two parties with Qatar boasting a powerful PR machine, a significant financial war chest, an economy that no longer relies so heavily on Saudi Arabia, and enjoying far more global sympathy and acceptance than Bin Salman.
Aside from Qatar, Bin Salman is hard pressed in finding other allies in the region. Although ostensibly enjoying a reasonable relationship with Kuwait and Oman, the realities point to a different picture. There have been clear differences between Kuwait and Riyadh over a number of issues including control of shared oil fields and Kuwait’s signing of a defence corporation agreement with Turkey, while Emir Sabah believes Saudi and UAE antagonising of Iran is more problematic than beneficial for Gulf interests. Kuwait, a well-known mediator, believes Saudi and UAE are much to blame for the current escalations with Iran.
Sultan Qaboos of Oman is furious with the UAE. In January 2018, the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum showcased a map of the region that placed Oman-controlled Musandam as part of the UAE. Moreover, Muscat has been less than impressed with UAE adventures in Yemen and Socotra. Sultan Qaboos has governed Oman with perhaps greater wisdom than his fellow Gulf rulers and is unlikely to scupper his hard-earned domestic stability by throwing Oman’s weight behind Saudi Arabia or Iran.
If Bin Salman cannot look to the Gulf, one might suggest that Sisi’s Egypt might be a likely option. Collectively, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have spent billions in support for Sisi following his coup on democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi. However, Sisi has not been the ally Bin Salman had hoped for. In Syria, Sisi stayed out of the conflict and instead maintained security cooperation agreements with Damascus while Riyadh supported the anti-Assad movement. In Yemen, Egypt has provided minimal support and more lip service than any real assistance. With Sisi continuing to wrangle with a struggling economy, and what appears to be growing disgruntlement following corruption revelations by former contractor Mohamed Ali, Bin Salman is unlikely to find any real support in Cairo in the near future.
Iraq to the North remains firmly in the Iranian orbit. Hadi al-Amiri and Moqtada al-Sadr, the two kingmakers in Baghdad, both have a long and extensive history with Tehran. Bahrain has always been seen as the ‘little brother’ and does not have the international clout or influence to match that of the UAE or Qatar. King Abdullah of Jordan remains disgruntled over what he perceives to be Bin Salman’s bullying in seeking support for the Deal of the Century.
While other Gulf states are warming to Erdogan’s Turkey, Saudi Arabia enjoys a relationship that can only be described as ‘frosty’ at best. Relations have deteriorated rapidly following the brutal Khashoggi murder, and Bin Salman’s irritation over the growing public perception in the Muslim world that Erdogan has eclipsed Bin Salman’s Islamic credentials following the success of Turkish dramas such as Dirilis Ertugrul, Ankara’s firm stance on the issue of Palestine, and Erdogan’s welcoming of millions of Syrian refugees. Bin Salman on the other hand has been widely perceived in recent times as Kushner’s enabler in the region in efforts to promote the Deal of the Century, and a facilitator of normalising relations with Israel.
Aside from the absence of any alternative alliances, Bin Salman would find that his remaining option to go it alone would place him in an awkward position. In Yemen, the only remaining party he would viably be able to back would be Islah (a loose branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). In other words, he would be engaged in fighting the Brotherhood in Libya and Egypt, while backing them in Yemen out of necessity. The STC are firmly in the UAE camp and unlikely to abandon Abu Dhabi’s consistent backing for a hesitant (and increasingly weakened) Riyadh. His fellow Gulf states are already of the opinion that there must be some dialogue with Iran. The UAE have already enjoyed stable relations with Iran in the past; Iran used UAE ports to circumvent sanctions during the 2000’s. Qatar shares a gas field with Tehran. Kuwait already enjoys relations. Oman often acts as a mediator. Iraq is firmly pro-Iran. Whichever way Bin Salman turns, he will find Iran closing in but will be unable to muster a coalition of Gulf states to present a united front to either the US or any other foreign power.
Moreover, Bin Salman would lose the powerful UAE PR lobbying machine that has tempered the diplomatic impact of the atrocities in Yemen, and the killing of Khashoggi, on Saudi’s foreign relations. This machine may even turn against Saudi Arabia which continues to be seen as the primary exporter of extremist ideology.
Although this article is focused on the alliance from the Saudi perspective, it is worth mentioning that the UAE under Mohamed Bin Zayed also has a vested interest in Mohamed Bin Salman. With Bin Salman in control of Saudi Arabia, and Bin Zayed wielding huge influence over the young prince, the UAE now for the first time in history holds significant sway over Riyadh’s foreign and domestic policy. Rather than Saudi Arabia leading the region, Abu Dhabi is seeking to become the main player by using Saudi Arabia as a proxy for a more ambitious foreign policy that has seen it become heavily involved in Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
Bin Salman’s alliance with the UAE is therefore not solely built on personal friendship with Bin Zayed. It is also built on geopolitical realities. Aside from Abu Dhabi, Bin Salman has very few immediate alternatives. Moreover, any serious or genuine alternative would require Bin Salman to walk back or implement policy U-turns on a number of issues which would damage Riyadh’s already weakened standing. Far from being a symbol of strength, the close relationship between Abu Dhabi and Bin Salman is more a reflection of an increasingly flailing kingdom pursuing a desperate foreign policy.