International estimates suggest that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is heading towards open hostility with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia following repeated reports of conflicts and a rift in the relationship between the two countries leaderships.
The Telegraph highlighted continuous reports of bitter disputes between Saudi Arabia and the UAE leaders, “raising concerns that their competition may turn into open hostility.”
The newspaper published a report by Middle East correspondent James Rothwell titled “From Camping Trips to Cooled Relations: What Caused the Dispute between the Strongest Allies in the Middle East.”
According to the report, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has not spoken to UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for six months, despite their strong friendship over the past seven years, during which they had camping and falcon-hunting trips in the desert.
An American media report this week, according to The Wall Street Journal, revealed an escalating dispute between the leaders of the Kingdom and the UAE, raising concerns that their competition may turn into overt animosity.
The report mentioned that the Saudi Crown Prince threatened to impose a blockade, similar to the one imposed on Qatar, on the UAE during an informal briefing with Saudi reporters in December, warning, “You will see what I can do.”
Despite Saudi and Emirati officials’ attempts to downplay the sensational details in the report and insist that the relations between the two countries are strong, a source close to the Saudi leadership emphasized that competition between close allies is not a new phenomenon, pointing to the stormy partnership between the United States and the United Kingdom.
The report cited a statement from a senior American official to The Wall Street Journal, saying, “These two are very ambitious individuals who want to be major players in the region,” adding, “Their dispute is not beneficial to us.”
The report explains that international estimates indicate that both Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman are competing to fill the power vacuum in the Middle East created by the Biden administration.
The report quoted Sir John Jenkins, former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as saying, “It is not surprising that the dispute intensifies, but this does not necessarily lead to a major explosion between Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed.”
He added, “Mohammed bin Salman wants to turn the Kingdom into a superior version of the UAE in some aspects, and this integration now seems like a competition that can be managed, as long as both sides are willing to make concessions.”
Recently, the hashtag #الامارات_طعنتنا_بالظهر (which translates to “UAE stabbed us in the back”) trended in Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries, highlighting Abu Dhabi’s treachery towards Riyadh and the alleged termination of the longstanding alliance between the two countries that was promoted for years.
Discussions about escalating disputes between the UAE and Saudi Arabia dominated social media platforms, with many tweeters unanimously expressing that Abu Dhabi cannot be trusted and should not be considered an ally of any Arab or Islamic nation.
This came after The Wall Street Journal revealed hidden aspects of the growing animosity between UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid an unprecedented regional competition between the two nations.
According to the newspaper, Mohammed bin Salman invited all local journalists in Riyadh to attend a rare informal briefing last December, where he delivered a stunning message, stating that the UAE, their ally for decades, “stabbed us in the back.”
He also told the group, “You will see what I can do,” according to those who attended the meeting.
The dispute between the 37-year-old Mohammed bin Salman and his “former mentor” Mohammed bin Zayed reflects the competition for geopolitical and economic power in the Middle East and global oil markets. These two men, who have spent nearly a decade climbing to the top of the Arab world, are now competing over who holds the reins in the Middle East, with the United States playing a diminishing role.
US officials are concerned that the Gulf rivalry may make it difficult to form a unified security alliance against Iran, end the ongoing war in Yemen, and expand diplomatic relations between Israel and Islamic countries.
A senior official in the Biden administration stated, “These two are very ambitious individuals who want to be major players in the region, and they are the only major players.”
The official added, “They still cooperate to some extent, but currently, neither of them seems comfortable with the other having the same level of importance. Generally, it is not beneficial for us to have them in conflict with each other.”
At one point, they were close to each other, but now, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed, known as MBZ, have not spoken to each other for over six months, according to people close to them, and their private disputes have become public.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have conflicting interests in Yemen, undermining efforts to end the conflict in that country. Additionally, the UAE feels frustrated by Saudi pressure to raise global oil prices, leading to new divisions within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Economic competition between the two countries is also increasing.
As part of Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to end the Kingdom’s economic reliance on oil, he is pushing companies to relocate their regional headquarters from Dubai, a cosmopolitan city favoured by the West, to the Saudi capital, Riyadh. He is also unveiling plans to establish technology centres, attract more tourists, and develop logistical hubs that could rival the UAE’s position as a trade centre in the Middle East.
In March, Mohammed bin Salman announced the launch of a second national airline to compete with Emirates, known for its premium status.
In the realm of soft power, the Saudis purchased the English football club Newcastle in 2021 and invested in world-renowned football stars around the same time when Manchester City, owned by a prominent member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, won English and European football titles.
UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed is angered by the idea that Mohammed bin Salman could take his place, and officials believe that some serious Saudi blunders have occurred in this regard, according to Gulf officials.
In separate responses to The Wall Street Journal, an official speaking on behalf of the UAE government said that allegations about strained relations are “completely false and lack a basis.” A Saudi official described the idea as “simply inaccurate.”
The UAE official stated that the UAE is a close regional partner to the Kingdom, and their policies converge on a wide range of issues of common interest.
The official added that the two countries are working with other neighbouring Gulf states on political, security, and economic coordination.
In December, Mohammed bin Salman called for a meeting with journalists amid mounting disputes over Yemeni policies and OPEC restrictions.
He told the reporters, “I sent the UAE a list of demands,” according to sources who were present, and warned Mohammed bin Zayed that if the smaller Gulf state does not fall in line, the Kingdom is prepared to take punitive steps, just as it did against Qatar in 2017 when Riyadh cut off diplomatic ties for over three years and imposed an economic blockade with Abu Dhabi’s assistance.
Mohammed bin Salman told the journalists, “It will be worse than what we did to Qatar.”
Since the December meeting, Mohammed bin Salman has taken a series of diplomatic moves to end his political isolation resulting from a Saudi team’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. He sought China’s help to restore Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran.
He also facilitated Syria’s return to the Arab League, a process that the UAE had initiated several years earlier after Damascus was expelled from the League in 2011 following President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on Syrian civilians protesting for change.
Mohammed bin Salman is also in talks with the United States regarding formally recognising Israel, which the UAE made in 2020.
Furthermore, he is leading diplomatic efforts to suppress violence in Sudan, where the UAE supports a rival faction.
According to officials from both countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have exchanged data outlining their grievances and demands for change to ease tensions.
In an apparent response to Saudi complaints, Mohammed bin Zayed warned the Saudi Crown Prince late last year that his actions undermined relations between the two countries.
Gulf officials say that Mohammed bin Zayed accused the Saudi Crown Prince of getting too close to Russia with his oil policies and taking risky steps, such as the diplomatic deal with Iran, without consulting Abu Dhabi.
Mohammed bin Zayed was absent from an Arab summit in Riyadh, where Mohammed bin Salman invited Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and he also did not appear during a voting session at the Arab League in May to allow Syria’s return to the group.
When Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman took an impromptu camping trip in the vast Saudi desert, it became a turning point in their friendship, according to people familiar with the trip.
Mohammed bin Zayed and other senior UAE officials played a significant role in pressuring the Trump administration to support Mohammed bin Salman, who was then the deputy crown prince.
Mohammed bin Zayed assisted in organizing then-President Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia in 2017, which bolstered Mohammed bin Salman’s power as the Saudi prince staged a palace coup the following month and became the crown prince. He then started eliminating potential rivals and opponents.
While formulating a plan to transform and open up his conservative kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman looked to Mohammed bin Zayed for guidance. He benefited from some banks and consulting firms that the UAE used for a similar plan years ago.
Together, they formed a foreign policy alliance intervening in Yemen, supporting Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rise to power in a coup in Egypt, arming Libyan fighters in the divided country’s east, and boycotting Qatar due to its relations with Iran and Islamists.
Since then, both men have been attempting to extract their countries from those interventions.
Today, according to Gulf officials, Mohammed bin Salman feels that the UAE president has led him into disastrous conflicts that serve the UAE’s interests rather than Saudi Arabia’s.
Douglas London, a retired U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer who now works as a non-resident researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said Mohammed bin Salman “does not like” Mohammed bin Zayed and wants to embarrass him.
He added that with the receding threats from Iran and terrorist groups, tensions between them are likely to escalate.
However, London stated that the Saudi leader has developed a more pragmatic approach to governing his country, making it less likely for him to take reckless actions against the UAE.
OPEC Dispute The disagreement surfaced in October last year when OPEC, a group of 13 oil-producing nations allied with Russia, decided to cut production, which surprised the Biden administration.
The UAE initially opposed the production cut but secretly informed American officials and the media that Saudi Arabia had forced them to join the decision.
This dynamic reflects a longstanding dispute between Saudi Arabia and the UAE over OPEC policies. Riyadh has dominated OPEC as the world’s largest oil producer for a long time.
The UAE has increased its oil production capacity to over four million barrels daily and plans to exceed five million barrels. Still, under OPEC policy, they can pump no more than three million barrels, costing them hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenues.
The UAE’s increase in oil production capacity allows it to move oil production up and down, influencing global oil prices.
Until recently, Saudi Arabia was the only one exercising this market power.
The UAE’s frustrations reached a point where they told American officials they were ready to withdraw from OPEC. US officials considered this a sign of Emirati anger rather than a genuine threat.
In OPEC’s latest meeting in June, the UAE was allowed a modest increase in its baseline production, and its energy minister was seen holding hands with his Saudi counterpart.
The divisions between the two leaders threaten ongoing efforts to end the war in Yemen, where Saudis and Emiratis are pitted against Houthi rebels supported by Iran, who have control over significant parts of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.
The UAE supports a separatist movement in Yemen that seeks to restore the state that existed in the south. This could undermine efforts to maintain Yemen’s unity.
The Saudi and Emirati-backed fighters, working together to defeat the Houthi forces, have sometimes even fired their weapons at each other over the years.
In December, the UAE signed a security agreement with the Yemeni Presidential Council, backed by Saudi Arabia, granting Abu Dhabi the right to intervene in Yemen and control waters off its coast. Saudi officials viewed it as a challenge to their strategy in Yemen.
The Kingdom plans to build a pipeline from Saudi Arabia to the Arabian Sea through Yemen’s Hadramout province, with a seaport in its regional capital, Al Mukalla. UAE-backed forces in Hadramout threaten these plans.
Analysts at Chatham House, an independent think tank in London, warned that rival Yemeni forces are preparing for new clashes that could undermine ongoing peace talks.
The Saudi-Emirati competition has frustrated the Biden administration, which wants to help friendly Gulf capitals like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi form a united front against Iran and end the humanitarian disaster caused by the war in Yemen. This is also a key goal of the administration’s foreign policy, which seeks stability in the region and oil markets.
Neither Mohammed bin Salman nor Mohammed bin Zayed fully aligns with Washington on essential matters like Ukraine and China. U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about communication between Mohammed bin Zayed, Beijing, and Moscow, with whom he has developed more robust relationships.
Upon taking office, Biden vowed to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah state due to the Khashoggi killing. However, instead of ordering it, Mohammed bin Salman said he did not call it, and Biden visited the Kingdom in July 2022, helping end its isolation.
American companies, which were hesitant to deal with the Kingdom, are taking a second look.
This interest will likely accelerate as the end-of-year deadline approaches for companies with contracts from the Saudi government to establish a base in Riyadh instead of travelling from Dubai.
The Biden administration mediated a meeting on May 7 between Mohammed bin Salman and the younger brother of the Emirati president, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, who was once seen as close to the Saudi crown prince, according to people familiar with the matter.
They said that Sheikh Tahnoon had been frozen out, having made at least six trips to the Kingdom without securing a meeting with Mohammed bin Salman until he received assistance from the United States in arranging the meeting.
Mohammed bin Salman told Sheikh Tahnoon that the UAE should not disrupt talks on a Yemen ceasefire led by Saudis and pledged concessions to the UAE, the sources said.
However, the Saudi crown prince later told his advisers that they should not change any of Saudi Arabia’s policies towards the UAE, saying, “I no longer trust them.”