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Tensions Rise: UAE-Saudi Gulf Widens as Regional Conflict Intensifies

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 The ongoing regional conflict is exacerbating the differences in stances between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as diplomatic statements confirm a widening rift between the leaderships of both nations, accompanied by a diminishing emphasis on their purported partnership.

Observers and political insiders have speculated in recent weeks that the differences between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have reached a point where there is no longer talk between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

In this context, a recent image emerged on social media depicting the two Gulf leaders meeting in the eastern region of the Kingdom. Despite this, the picture did little to quell discussions regarding the growing divide between the two parties, as noted by (amwaj. media).

On May 17, a photograph was shared on Twitter/X by Badr Al-Asaker, the director of the private office of the Saudi Crown Prince, capturing Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed exchanging smiles at Al-Aziziyah Palace within the kingdom.

Details of the meeting were not revealed. However, amid speculation about an alleged row over a series of disagreements – including competition over business and territorial issues – some insiders have pointed to the photograph as evidence to the contrary.

While some differences between the two Gulf Arab states are acknowledged, the differences are not generally seen as likely to lead to disagreement or open conflict.

In a YouTube program hosted by Kuwaiti journalist Mohammed Al-Mulla on May 15, Emirati academic Abdul Khaleq Abdullah said: “Disagreement between allies and partners…is normal.”

Nevertheless, Abdullah pointed out that the existing collaboration on regional matters is within the expected parameters. He emphasized that this coordination has been ongoing for less than a year. Despite acknowledging discrepancies in priorities, he firmly dismissed the notion of a “conflict.”

In contrast, Yemeni politician Yasser Al-Yamani claimed on April 24 that while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have an “intersection of interests” in some regional arenas, Abu Dhabi has allegedly “crossed” boundaries that Riyadh “will not accept.”

On March 18, Saudi Arabia filed a complaint with the United Nations against the UAE’s decision issued in 2019 to classify Al Yasat as a “marine reserve.”

The two sides have long disputed the area off the Saudi coast, which consists of four islands. The Kingdom’s move raised questions about the state of bilateral relations.

The competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE for regional influence and power projection is evident, as well as in the context of their respective efforts to diversify their economies.

The progress outlined in Saudi Vision 2030 and the UAE’s initiatives under the 50 Initiative have intensified the economic rivalry between the two Arab Gulf nations.

Saudi Arabia aims to position itself as a leading center for business and foreign investment, posing a challenge to the UAE in this role. The competition also extends to energy policies.

Starting from January 1 this year, Saudi Arabia initiated a policy mandating multinational corporations engaged in or aspiring to engage in business within the nation to relocate their regional headquarters to Riyadh.

In recent years, increasing Emirati apprehension regarding Saudi-led strategies within the OPEC+ framework has heightened tensions and triggered speculation—despite denials from senior Emirati officials—regarding the potential departure of Abu Dhabi from the organization.

As Abu Dhabi and Riyadh maneuver through the regional terrain to safeguard their national and economic concerns, they are progressively drifting apart on certain regional matters, notably in Sudan and Yemen.

In Sudan, the UAE extends financial, political, and military backing to the Rapid Support Forces led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti. Conversely, Riyadh, seeking to bolster its reputation as a neutral mediator, perceives Abu Dhabi’s backing of the RSF as a hindrance to stabilization endeavors. Given its geographical proximity to Sudan, the civil conflict in the African nation could pose a security threat to the kingdom.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears to be moving to weaken the factions supported by the UAE, especially the Southern Transitional Council.

In parallel, efforts are reportedly being made to expand the power of the head of the pro-Riyadh Presidential Command Council, Rashad Al-Alimi.

Riyadh reportedly supported the formation of the Hadhramaut National Council and helped Al-Alimi establish the Nation Shield Force to confront the Southern Transitional Council, amid a recent escalation of tensions between Saudi- and UAE-backed forces in the eastern and southern regions of Yemen.

Saudi Arabia gives priority to achieving stability in the northern regions of Yemen, bordering the south of the Kingdom. Riyadh is also focused on securing its western coast on the Red Sea, where major development projects are concentrated.

Simultaneously, it’s been reported that the UAE is bolstering its military footprint in southeastern Yemen and along the southwestern coast, aiming to safeguard its economic and maritime concerns.

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are expected to uphold visible coordination in public, yet internal disputes seem to be growing behind closed doors, posing challenges for their leaders to conceal their differences.

The geopolitical competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE may expand beyond Sudan and Yemen to reach sensitive regional theaters such as Somalia.

Competition to become the region’s main business and investment hub is also likely to intensify as the Kingdom accelerates the implementation of Vision 2030.