Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates often have seemed like two sides of the same coin, to western eyes at least: two powerful, oil-rich monarchies, both allies of the United States and avid consumers of American weapons, united in their determination to maintain regional security and stability on their terms and in cooperation with Washington. If there were differences in politics or outlook, they appeared cosmetic at best. The two countries were on the same side in Yemen since 2014, they opposed Iran and its nuclear deal with the West, and they united to isolate and blockade Qatar in 2017.
But behind the scenes, real and serious differences were taking shape. The two countries are now waging a quiet struggle to determine who will emerge as the Arabian Gulf’s—and maybe the Arab world’s—preeminent power, leveraging their economies and foreign policy to not only wield influence within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) but to project it on the world stage. What once seemed like a conventional fraternal rivalry has, in the past few years, taken on the appearance of a rift.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two most populous countries and largest economies in the GCC, have always been natural rivals. Some of this rivalry has its origins in territorial disputes and dynastic politics that long predate the independence of the UAE in 1971. In recent years, however, stresses in the global oil market, a shifting geopolitical landscape, and differing conceptions of national missions have added to the tensions. An incipient rift between the two countries could have profound effects on the politics of the Gulf and on American security strategy in the region.
Economic Flashpoints: OPEC, Oil, and Diversification
The growing differences go back many years and are firmly rooted in economic competition. In a foretaste of things to come, Emirati objections in 2009 to locating the headquarters of a proposed GCC central bank in Riyadh helped kill plans for the bank itself. More recently, oil politics drove a wedge between the two countries. In July 2021, Saudi Arabia spearheaded a plan within OPEC+ to extend production cuts, which had been set to expire in April 2022, until the end of that year in order to compensate for the near-collapse of oil prices during the COVID crisis. The UAE objected, calling the proposal “unfair” because it would have required it to absorb a disproportionate production cut, a potential loss of income in the tens of billions of dollars. The immediate dispute was resolved later that month when the cartel agreed to raise the production limits of five of its members, including the UAE; but strains have lingered to the point that UAE sources had to deny reports in March that the country was considering leaving OPEC. All sides played down the disagreement, but it laid bare how the UAE, for one, chafed at the Saudi presumption of supremacy in OPEC+—and, by extension, other issues. The affair set the pattern for tensions yet to come between the two Gulf heavyweights, within OPEC and beyond.
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