United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s absence from the Arab League summit held in Jeddah, which was overshadowed by the return of Bashar al-Assad and the surprise presence of Volodymyr Zelensky, is nonetheless significant.
On May 19, Mohammed bin Zayed did not travel to Jeddah, despite the high geopolitical stakes of the meeting which aimed to reintegrateSyria into the pan-Arab organization, almost twelve years after its membership was suspended.
The UAE had nonetheless spearheaded the Syrian regime’s rehabilitation. The country reopened their embassy in Damascus in 2018 and twice hosted Assad, for whom they rolled out a red carpet for during a state visit to Abu Dhabi in March.
But it was Saudi Prime Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who completed the normalization efforts in the wake of the détente agreement signed with Iran on March 10.
It’s not the first time the Emirati president has shunned a Saudi diplomatic initiative, even when it’s in line with his foreign policy.
In December 2022, MBZ did not go to Riyadh for the historic China- Arab states summit which hosted the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Saudi Arabia intended to demonstrate its ability to diversify its economic and strategic partnerships (including with the United States’ rivals) through the event.
“MBZ doesn’t have a problem with these initiatives, but rather with the way MBS uses them to score diplomatic points,” said Sami Hamdi, a political commentator focusing on the Gulf.
“If MBZ had joined in, it would have made him a secondary player. Yet at no point does he consider himself inferior to MBS,” Hamdi added.
For many years, the United Arab Emirates has been taking the lead in diversifying its economy by cultivating diplomatic and strategic relations with numerous countries. In comparison, Saudi Arabia has been pursuing these objectives only recently.
Apart from this personal competition, differences between the two Gulf powers have been building up over a number of regional issues for years. They first openly boiled over when the OPEC+, led by Riyadh, imposed quotas in July 2021. This angered Abu Dhabi, which saw the decision as an obstacle to its oil production and income.
Prior to this, Saudi Arabia had pushed to end the blockade on Qatar, which had been initiated by the UAE, by organizing the signing of the Al-Ula agreements in January 2021.
In the Yemen war, launched by Saudi Arabia, the UAE had partially withdrawn its troops from Yemen to redeploy them in the south, in support of separatist groups opposed to the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
In Sudan, the UAE is providing indirect military support to the Rapid Support Forces, while Saudi Arabia has evacuated thousands of people fleeing the conflict and hosted peace talks between the two parties in Jeddah — from which the UAE was excluded.
On normalization with Israel, the two Gulf heavyweights are also bifurcating. The United Arab Emirates dragged Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan along with them in signing the Abraham Accords, under the aegis of Washington in 2020, establishing diplomatic and trade relations with the Jewish state.
Riyadh, for its part, has laid down several conditions for an Israel-Saudi normalization, which would in any case take place outside the framework of the Abraham agreements, according to Emirati researcher Mira al-Hussein.
“Arabia wants to appear as a sovereign power that takes initiatives, not as a power that follows the initiatives of others,” said Hussein, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.
“If it were to join the Abraham Accords, it would hand the United Arab Emirates a victory by recognizing its influence and lead in the region. I don’t see how that would suit Saudi Arabia,” she added.
More recently, the two oil monarchies ramped up competition on the economic front. Part of Saudi Vision 2030 is clearly to make Riyadh a regional hub instead of Dubai, the preferred city for foreign investors and workers in the Gulf.
“But Riyadh is not as well positioned geographically as Abu Dhabi or Dubai,” said Hamdi, who also runs a consultancy firm for companies wishing to establish themselves in the Gulf.
“MBS’s push for regional headquarters to be set up in Saudi Arabia is in itself an admission that companies are not ready to take the plunge,” Hamdi said.
Saudi Arabia announced it will stop signing contracts with foreign companies whose regional headquarters are not based in the kingdom as of Jan. 1, 2024. To make itself more attractive, Saudi Arabia, like the UAE, opened four special economic zones offering companies competitive tax rates and exemption from customs duties on imports, production equipment and raw materials.
But the kingdom still seems to be struggling to attract expatriates. According to HSBC’s Expat Explorer 2021, the UAE is the world’s fourth best destination for foreign nationals to move to, while Saudi Arabia came in 45th place out of 46.
“But it’s not just socially permissive environments that attract expats, financial opportunities, cost of living and adjusted remuneration are important factors,” said Hussein.
“People came to Dubai in the conservative era for money, and others left after it opened up to the world,” she recalled.
Despite differences and rivalries, the ties between the two countries continue to be cemented by a number of shared strategic interests in the region, most notably the establishment of post-Arab spring authoritarian stability.
The rejection of Iran’s nuclear program is also something that unifies the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as is the limitation of Iran’s regional activities, notably in Yemen, from where the Houthi rebels launched numerous attacks on their territory.
Finally, a new rail project could strengthen cooperation between the two oil-rich monarchies, with the construction of a rail and sea network linking them with India.
Sponsored by the US, the project clearly aims to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.