Common security concerns keep Saudi-UAE rift from widening

In spite of the areas of genuine friction between them, the foreign policy agendas of Saudi Arabia and the UAE would be severely hampered by a breakdown of their bilateral relationship

Samuel Ramani   | 02.09.2019
Common security concerns keep Saudi-UAE rift from widening

By Samuel Ramani

The writer is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to The Washington Post and The Diplomat.


On August 10, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed south Yemeni separatist group, seized control of Aden. While Saudi Arabia did not take military action to thwart the STC’s advance, Riyadh subsequently condemned the STC’s actions and launched airstrikes on STC positions in Aden. These actions resulted in a cascade of violence between the STC and forces loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and caused Hadi’s government to call for the UAE’s expulsion from the Saudi-led coalition.

Although Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed traveled to Riyadh on August 12 to discuss the crisis in Aden, and Saudi Arabia formed a joint committee with the UAE to stabilize Yemen, many Gulf observers have expressed concern about a widening Saudi-UAE rift. While the scope of the dissension between Saudi Arabia and the UAE is unprecedentedly intense, the chasm in strategic interests between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is not an entirely new development. Since both countries formalized a bilateral strategic alliance to supplant the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Dec. 2017, latent tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE have steadily risen to the surface.

The first cracks in the Saudi-UAE alliance surfaced in Jan. 2018, as STC forces engaged in intense clashes with their Yemeni government counterparts in Aden. These clashes helped consolidate the STC’s dominance as a military and political force in southern Yemen and reinforced the UAE’s commitment to south Yemeni autonomy. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE over Yemen reached new heights in May 2018, when the UAE occupied the island of Socotra. This military action forced Saudi Arabia to initiate an emergency diplomatic intervention in Socotra and highlighted strains between the UAE and Riyadh’s closest allies, President Hadi and Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch, al-Islah.

In Dec. 2018, Syria emerged as the next major theatre of discord between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as Abu Dhabi restored full diplomatic relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, while Riyadh continued to emphasize Assad’s illegitimacy. The UAE’s policy shift on Syria reflected its long-standing reservations about Saudi Arabia’s policy of arming Syrian rebel groups, and the arrival of Emirati business delegations to Damascus revealed Abu Dhabi’s willingness to invest in an Assad-led reconstruction process.

In spite of these points of divergence, the Saudi-UAE alliance appeared to strengthen in the first months of 2019, as both countries supported the intensification of U.S. President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy against Iran and were alarmed by the outbreak of popular unrest in Algeria and Sudan. These convergences proved ephemeral, however, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE supported different strategies to contain the threat posed by Iran. While Saudi Arabia continued to ratchet up tensions with Iran, the UAE pursued a more cautious approach, by refusing to condemn Iran for its alleged involvement in the Fujairah oil tanker attack and unilaterally striking a deal with Tehran on maritime security. The UAE also framed its announcement of a partial withdrawal from Yemen in July as a confidence-building measure for future diplomacy with Iran-aligned Houthi forces. This outreach attempt differed markedly from Riyadh’s continued use of military force in northern Yemen.

To compound these areas of friction, the UAE has sharpened tensions with Saudi Arabia by publicly attempting to distance itself from Riyadh’s conduct. Since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Oct. 2018, the UAE has viewed its close alliance with Saudi Arabia as a liability for its international reputation and has been frustrated by growing scrutiny of its policies in the U.S. Congress. In early July, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez argued for a suspension of U.S. arms sales to the UAE, if Abu Dhabi’s support for Libya National Army chieftain Khalifa Haftar was verified. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of President Trump, has expressed similar frustrations about Abu Dhabi’s conduct, by describing the UAE’s involvement in Yemen as “problematic”.

As the UAE’s image has also deteriorated in the United Kingdom, due to the detention of British graduate student Matthew Hedges, and in Europe, as public outcry mounts over the humanitarian costs of the war in Yemen, Abu Dhabi is keen to stem this reputational damage. By framing itself as more amenable to diplomatic solutions than Riyadh, the UAE hopes to distance itself from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s penchant for destabilizing conduct and reverse the deterioration of its international image.

In spite of these areas of genuine friction and the UAE’s image preservation concerns, the foreign policy agendas of Saudi Arabia and the UAE would be severely hampered by a breakdown of their bilateral relationship. To avoid this undesirable outcome, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to reboot their alliance by devoting military resources and diplomatic capital towards issues of common interest. While a reset strategy has yet to be completely articulated, the UAE is gradually re-emphasizing the Houthi threat to the collective security of the Arabian Peninsula and Saudi Arabia is subtly dialing down its most bellicose anti-Iran posturing.

Although the Houthis have confined their drone strikes to Saudi oil facilities and strategic infrastructure, the UAE has continued to raise alarm bells about the Houthi threat to the security of the Arabian Peninsula. In response to Houthi drone strikes on Saudi Arabia’s Shaybah oil field on Aug. 18, the UAE accused the Houthis of carrying out a “terrorist attack,” and claimed that Houthi actions “posed a grave threat to the world’s energy supply.” To demonstrate Abu Dhabi’s solidarity with Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis, the UAE armed forces carried out joint air raids with their Saudi counterparts in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, after the Houthis launched drone strikes on Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid air base.

While Saudi Arabia has not overhauled its confrontational attitude towards Iran, recent developments suggest that the kingdom could eventually become more open to diplomacy with Tehran. On Aug. 3, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash insisted that Saudi Arabia preferred diplomacy to confrontation with Iran. The Saudi government did not challenge this assertion or dismiss Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif’s request for dialogue. Influential Saudi commentators, like Salman al-Dosary and Abdulrahman al-Rashed, have argued that the continuation of non-military deterrence and discussions on a more expansive diplomatic agreement with Iran will be more effective than war. As Trump openly mulls crafting a new Iran deal, Saudi Arabia could pivot more closely to the UAE’s position on Iran, ameliorating an important source of bilateral tension.

Although the current level of tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE are unprecedented by recent standards, relations between both Gulf allies have been on an intermittent downward trajectory for almost two years. As Mohammed bin Salman does not wish to make unilateral compromises to suit the UAE’s preferences and Mohammed bin Zayed wants to distance the UAE from Saudi Arabia’s reputational woes, a swift resolution to the Saudi-UAE divergence could prove elusive. Ultimately, the plethora of common security concerns binding the UAE to Saudi Arabia, and the state of mutual dependency amplified by intra-GCC tensions, could prevent the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi alliance from devolving into a strategic rivalry.

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