Policymakers have closely watched the emergence of an apparent rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as an ostensible attempt at rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in recent weeks. The dynamics of the Gulf can have significant implications for European economic and political interests.
Since the Arab uprisings, the Middle East’s centre of gravity has moved firmly towards the Gulf. The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have gained a more prominent role in the region, often with significant implications for European economic and political interests. The activism of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar – along with fierce competition between a Saudi-Emirati alliance and Qatar – have been defining factors in upheaval in the region.
For this reason, policymakers have closely watched the emergence of an apparent rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as an ostensible attempt at rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in recent weeks. Two key events have created the impression that the Gulf may have reached a major turning point. The first occurred in late August, when Emirati warplanes attacked forces loyal to the Saudi-backed Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Aden. The second came a few weeks later, when media outlets in the Gulf reported that Riyadh and Doha had exchanged messages (via Kuwaiti go-betweens) for the first time in months.
If these trends continue, they could significantly reshape the regional political landscape. Any major dispute between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would reverberate through the long-running and devastating war in Yemen, the escalation with Iran, the Libyan conflict, the Middle East Peace Process, the intra-GCC crisis itself, and other things – all of which have had a substantial impact on European political and economic interests. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have mobilised behind a shared approach based on the confrontation of transnational, transformative political movements. Concerned about how this alliance has acted as a multiplier of the two powers’ assertiveness in the Middle East and North Africa, some regional and global actors have been eager to see some distance between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Any major dispute between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would reverberate through the long-running and devastating war in Yemen
But the two have not necessarily seen eye-to-eye on all regional matters. And the divergences between them have become more pronounced in a high-pressure, high-stakes environment. The UAE had strongly supported the White House’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran since 2016 but now appears to be readjusting its position. In July, an Emirati coastguard delegation visited Tehran to discuss maritime security with their Iranian counterparts. The UAE has also been less strict than Saudi Arabia in cutting all economic exchanges with Iran.
Meanwhile, the UAE has announced that it will withdraw its forces from Yemen, where since 2015 it has fought alongside Saudi Arabia against the Houthis – which they regard as an Iranian proxy. The Houthis subsequently announced that they would cease targeting the UAE with drone and missile attacks. After Emirati proxies in southern Yemen turned their weapons against Hadi’s forces in the pursuit of their long-standing ambitions for independence, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed flew to Riyadh to find a negotiated solution and yet sent air support into Aden. The move, which effectively aided southern Yemeni forces, looks set to accelerate the emergence of a civil war within a civil war in Yemen, exacerbating Saudi and Omani concerns about the UAE’s alleged agenda to establish exclusive influence in the area.
However, for the moment, the UAE’s moves do not seem to be a repositioning or a definitive pivot away from Saudi Arabia. Abu Dhabi’s recent actions appear to be designed to contain the potentially overwhelming consequences of miscalculations and overly ambitious posturing.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have long calculated that a maximum pressure campaign, coupled with a credible military deterrent, would weaken the regime in Tehran relatively quickly. In reality, the regime has demonstrated resilience by threatening the UAE’s most vital asset – the security of its maritime energy trade, which allows it to export its energy and underpins its long-term strategic agenda – with missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia launched from Yemen and Iraq. Iran even downed a US drone in June, evidently undeterred by the possibility of retaliation (which did not take place).
The potential for further escalation, together with growing uncertainty about the United States’ seriousness in providing security guarantees, placed the UAE in a precarious position. The recent dismissal of US National Security Advisor John Bolton, an Iran hawk, will reinforce Middle Eastern governments’ belief that the White House does not regard military deterrence as a cornerstone of its Iran policy.
Abu Dhabi is especially worried about its most vulnerable emirates, which seem to attract special attention from Tehran. These include Dubai, which is set to host EXPO 2020, and Fujairah – where the tanker attacks took place, and for which maritime trade and other economic ties with Iran are particularly vital. These concerns drive the UAE’s measures to contain escalation with Iran and, therefore, relate to its institutional framework as a federation. While Saudi Arabia has its own concerns about escalation, the UAE’s nature as a small state both facilitates and demands more adaptable policy behaviour.
Saudi Arabia is unlikely to compromise on the demands from a position of perceived weakness, especially under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership.
The UAE’s recent moves have drawn accusations of betrayal from some individuals in Saudi Arabia, especially those in the outer circle of decision-making – who blame the Saudi-Emirati alliance for their country’s assertive policies. From this perspective, Saudi Arabia’s push to reopen dialogue with Qatar could demonstrate that it has options beyond its alliance with Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE.
Riyadh’s message to Doha expressed a desire to reopen bilateral discussions on ending the GCC crisis. It was well received and led – with the encouragement of US officials – to further exchanges between the sides. Although US President Donald Trump initially approved the Saudi-Emirati attempt to diplomatically and economically isolate Qatar in June 2017, Americans officials believed that the intra-GCC rift would undermine American efforts to counter Iran. This is belief has become stronger in the last two years, as the US continued its effort to choke off Iranian energy exports: Qatar has shared sovereignty over Iran’s greatest source of wealth – the giant North Dome/South Pars offshore gas field –– and the maritime corridor between Qatar and Iran remains a safe passage for Iranian tankers.
Yet the resolution of the intra-GCC crisis remains a complex affair. Persuaded that it has weathered the threats generated by the crisis, Qatar is not prepared to accede to the 13 demands issued it received from Saudi Arabia and the UAE (along with Egypt and Bahrain) in return for reconciliation. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to compromise on the demands from a position of perceived weakness, especially under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the UAE retain the strategic interests that drove him to forge an alliance with Mohammed bin Zayed. Because it is still concerned about Iran and is active in many regional theatres (especially Libya), the UAE is still eager to maintain the support of a major regional power. And Saudi Arabia can still benefit from the UAE’s diplomatic capacity and strategic capabilities. For all these reasons, the dynamics that have shaped the Middle East in the past few years are under strain but far from broken.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.