In early June, Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched a “Strategy of Resolve” that will create dozens of joint projects in priority sectors within five years between the two allies. The announcement was made in Jeddah in the presence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed.
The strategy is an outcome of the “resolve retreat” that lasted 12 months to study 44-60 projects out of 175 in three sectors: economic, human resources/ education and political/ security/ military.
The two sides signed 20 memoranda of understanding to begin projects starting with an initiative to improve government services, housing welfare, the banking sector and funding small and medium-sized projects in partnership with the private sector.
In May 2016, Saudi Arabia and the UAE created a council to coordinate between them more than one year after the start of the war supporting the government Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is recognised by the international community, against Iranian-backed Houthis.
The founding declaration poignantly asserted that new coordination between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi does not replace their commitment and cooperation in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
In February 2017, the two announced the launch of the “resolve retreat” with the participation of 150 officials from both sides and dozens of experts in various fields. The retreat was the first activity of the Saudi-UAE Coordination Council and aimed to activate the agreement signed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Retreat meetings were held in two rounds, first in the UAE and then in Saudi Arabia, which included 20 sessions to discuss current conditions, identifying opportunities and challenges, and arrive at qualified ideas and initiatives.
According to the statement issued after the Jeddah meeting where the “Strategy of Resolve” was launched, there will be parallel action on all three tracks.
On the economic track, the focus will be on service sectors, financial markets, logistics, infrastructure, production, industry, securing supplies, a tariff union, joint markets, environment, agriculture, water, renewable energy, tourism, national heritage, entrepreneurship, overseas partnerships, development, government services, housing, youth and sports, oil, gas and petrochemicals.
In the human resources/education domain the strategy supports cooperation between universities in both countries, developing a joint education policy for early childhood and all other stages. Also, establishing a joint committee for technical education to identify the needs of the two countries in trained technical and skilled cadres.
On the military, security and political track, the strategy will raise already high levels of coordination and cooperation covering joint manufacturing of traditional ammunition, light weapons, vehicles, systems, foreign military aid, maintenance, unifying specifications and standards in military production.
Economic integration among Gulf countries is the highest compared to other Arab blocs such as the suspended Maghreb Union (five countries in the Arab Maghreb), and cooperation between Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Yemen in the late 1980s which was destroyed when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
The economies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE combined amount to $1 trillion while non-oil trade is valued at $24 billion. Together, they export $700 billion and import goods worth $550 billion annually.
The GCC remained politically united at critical times such as the occupation of Kuwait, the Iranian revolution and the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s. Gulf countries remained united in facing most challenges facing the world oil market since 1973 and the drop in prices in the early 1980s.
Many in the Arab world thought there was no bickering among Gulf capitals, until one year ago when a quarrel erupted between Qatar, on one side, and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, on the other.
Since the Gulf boycott of Qatar, disputes between the two camps have been more defined whereby Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain stepped away from political Islam and adopted a Saudi reform approach on social and cultural issues. They also clamped down on Muslim Brotherhood elements in the UAE since the mother group in Egypt and its international organisation are linked to rival Qatar.
However, Oman and Kuwait have stayed away from the dispute and in fact Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Sabbah Al-Ahmed, attempted mediation because the quarrel “will impact coordination among GCC countries” and squander decades of cooperation since the GCC was created in 1980.
Since Muscat and Kuwait remained neutral while Riyadh and Abu Dhabi became embroiled in the Yemen War, the latter two drew closer and began enhancing economic and social coordination along with military, security and political cooperation.
Bahrain, which is less wealthy, could also join this cooperation since it is more integrated with Saudi Arabia, which makes this trio a force to be reckoned with in some areas.
Perhaps Oman and Kuwait will also join later in some aspects that are a priority for them, especially in the economic and human resources/education fields without involvement in political and security issues.
While other Gulf countries are involved in coordination between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, security and strategic coordination among Gulf countries remained high before and after the crisis with Qatar. Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman has also started forging economic relations with his neighbours, especially through the NEOM project with Jordan and Egypt.
Last week, the kingdom also called for a summit with Kuwait and the UAE to assist Jordan and it already has strategic economic relations with Egypt. This diversifies Riyadh’s economic outreach after years of focusing on Gulf countries only.
Meanwhile, the UAE is using its economic power to invest in Red Sea ports and partnering in Arab banking and financial sectors in Egypt and Jordan, which increases its regional presence.
The “Strategy of Resolve” focuses on joint action between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in parallel with regional cooperation, which will increase their joint power and make them difficult to defy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Strategy to empower Saudi Arabia and UAE