Sources in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi emphasised the good relations between the two neighbouring Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia and the UAE this week against a background of transformations in the Gulf region and in the Middle East as a whole.
Relations between the two oil-rich countries have been the subject of media speculation, especially by Muslim Brotherhood outlets and social media platforms, with Emirati analysts saying that these “Western-harboured outlets” often seek to “drive a wedge” between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, two countries which have been at the forefront of the fight against religious extremism.
The latest wave of speculation was fuelled by the absence of UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan from this month’s Arab Summit meeting in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, even though it is not uncommon for some Arab leaders to miss an Arab Summit meeting.
The Jeddah Summit saw the invitation of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to an Arab Summit meeting for the first time in more than a decade as well as of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
It was chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who has continued in his role after bin Zayed, formerly the crown prince of the UAE, became president of his country last year following his brother’s death.
Moves by Bin Salman to modernise Saudi Arabia were often attributed to the influence of his slightly older Emirati counterpart in the Western and other media, with some even claiming that Bin Zayed had acted as a mentor to the rising Saudi leader. Officials in both countries say off the record that the basic principles of the two countries’ policies have not changed even if their viewpoints on some regional and global issues might differ.
Some have speculated that there may be competition between the two ambitious leaders in playing a major role in the new regional order being shaped in the Middle East. The UAE withdrew its troops from Yemen after four years of fighting alongside Saudi troops and others within the Coalition to Support Legitimacy in the country, with some saying that the UAE was in favour of the secession of South Yemen as the best way to defeat the Houthi rebels in the north of the country, while Riyadh has maintained a consistent policy of preserving the unity of Yemen.
The Saudis also supported a faction of the Islamist Yemeni Islah Party as a member of the collective Yemeni leadership against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Some observers note that Sudan has recently coordinated more with Saudi Arabia than it has with the UAE, with Saudi Arabia pursuing a consistent path on matters of mutual agreement between the two countries, from OPEC decisions to the possible normalisation of relations with Israel and the normalisation of relations with Iran.
Both countries are on the same page when it comes to diversifying alliances away from the sole alliance with the US. Both have maintained good relations with Russia, China, and other emerging global powers. They have backtracked on rivalry with other regional powers like Qatar and Turkey, and the invitation of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad back into the Arab League has the support of both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
In their quest to diversify their economies away from energy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with other Gulf countries, are also following similar policies. From developing tourism to luring foreign direct investment, they are making similar choices.
A couple of years ago, Saudi Arabia issued a decree that foreign companies that do not have their regional offices in the Kingdom will not be allowed to bid for government contracts, part of the competition in the region to attract foreign companies and diversify the economy.
In a recent article in the US Wall Street Journal about the Emirati president, he was described as a leader who “has positioned the UAE as a friend to all sides.”
Even so, he has also stood up to Washington in many instances. If Abu Dhabi can follow its own policies based solely on its national interest, even if that irritates a powerful ally like the US, it is sure that it knows where its interests lie.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly