Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz said this month in his palace in Mecca that he is “deeply disturbed” from the UAE, the closest Arab partners to the Kingdom, according to informed sources, although all indications were pointing that the relationship between the two countries is inseparable on the world stage.
The two countries have worked together to emerge as influential in the Middle East and beyond, as they wooed US President Donald Trump to counter Iran’s “common enemy”.
The disruption of relations between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh has implications far beyond their bilateral relationship. The dispute could weaken Trump’s “extreme pressure” campaign against Tehran, damage Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and even resonate on other theaters of conflict.
The immediate source of tension is Yemen’s brutal war, and months of friction has been mounting over the conflict, which was initially expected to last a few weeks but has dragged on for years with tens of thousands of casualties, with no end in sight.
The broader reason is a decision that the UAE seems to have taken to shift to serve narrower national interests and to present itself as a more mature partner who can stabilize the region even if the point is to reduce losses and move forward without Riyadh.
Abu Dhabi also seems keen to salvage its image in Washington, where the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has deepened fears that the kingdom’s foreign policy may be rushing to intervene.
A source familiar with the Saudi government said: “The UAE wants to appear as a small state that facilitates peace and stability, not a Saudi that appears victorious and tends to expand.”
The source added that “the matter in any way is to present their interests, because they believe that if Saudi Arabia tends to expand it will swallow them.”
Practically on the ground, the UAE in June curtailed its military presence in Yemen, and restricted Riyadh to a hated war it began to neutralize the Houthis and prevent Iran from strengthening its border influence.
A senior UAE official said the move was a natural development because of a UN-sponsored peace deal in the western port city of Hodeidah.
But some diplomats say the UAE has accepted the idea that there is no military solution to the conflict and is sensitive to criticism of the humanitarian catastrophe and air strikes that have killed civilians, and Iran’s growing tensions have precipitated the decision.
“It was not received in a positive way. The Saudis felt they had been abandoned,” a Western diplomat said.
Abu Dhabi says the move was coordinated with Riyadh in advance and reflected facts on the ground as the United Nations moved to pave the way for peace talks.
The two Arab countries, two major powers in the Sunni Muslim world, also seem to have different views in Iran, their Shiite rival.
The two countries have sought to get the United States to take a stronger position on Tehran’s activities in the region and its missile capabilities, but the UAE has adopted a softer tone after the bombings in tankers in the Gulf waters and Washington and Riyadh blamed Iran.
Iran denies its involvement in the bombings, but some in the Gulf fear a direct confrontation that could endanger the UAE and its economy.
The UAE, which has established itself as a business hub, is more vulnerable than Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, and sees itself as a stabilizing factor in the region.
A source said Abu Dhabi’s recent overtures to Iran – including talks on maritime security – might indicate that “the time of good relations with Saudi Arabia is over.”
Another source said that the UAE’s argument is that Dubai (its commercial center) has strong trade relations with Iran, in addition to Abu Dhabi’s main concern is to protect the strategic Bab al-Mandab corridor and keep the Islamists under control.
On the other hand, a Gulf source says that the coalition is “good to go” in terms of addressing regional threats such as Iran and Islamists, but acknowledged the occurrence of a rebalancing process with the development of the situation, and perhaps one of these situations Iran’s role in Yemen.
While Washington is working to form a naval alliance to secure the waters of the Gulf, Iran could stoke tensions through the Houthis to pressure Saudi Arabia and avoid the risk of a tanker war like the 1980s.
“Yemen now looks like the zero point of the Iranian escalation,” said Matt Reid, vice president of Foreign Reports for energy consultancy. “The tanker war risks becoming an international conflict, but Yemen is different.”