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Geopolitical Rivalry of Saudi Arabia and the UAE
Material posted: Publication date: 10-12-2019

Rising tensions between the two active players in the Gulf - Saudi Arabia and the UAE - promise to become a significant factor that would alter the geopolitical landscape of the region. Both states, while officially praising their brotherhood ties and relations of mutual respect, have de-facto transformed into «frenemies», who divide the bordering countries into influence zones.

It would be no exaggeration to call the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) two of the most ambitious geopolitical actors in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia traditionally enjoys solid reputation among the Arab countries as an unquestioned authority and hegemon, not least due to its status of the centre of the Islamic world. As for the UAE, over the past few years this state has earned a reputation for being a popular touristic hub and an attractive destination for foreign expats (who, by the way, make up the majority of the UAE’s population, surpassing the number of locals) in terms of high living standards and salaries. Put it otherwise, European specialists often do not see the UAE as a serious geopolitical player, in comparison with powerful Saudi Arabia. It was predetermined by history and geography that because of its conservative and authoritative neighbour, the UAE has, to a certain extent, to comply with the Saudi policy and theatrically demonstrate the relationship of friendship with KSA. The following statement of the UAE Prime Minister fully supports this fact: «…our countries [KSA and UAE] are united by one fate, by loyalty to Islam and the desire to protect the Arab nation»[1]. In addition, in 2016 the two countries established the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council[2].

But the question arises: are Saudi-Emirati relations truly friendly? If we look deeper, we would found out that these ties serve as a perfect example of a double bottom of bilateral political relations. Certainly, at first glance the UAE seems to be too weak and deprived of real opportunities to compete with Saudi Arabia. Not only the Kingdom has larger territory and population than the UAE, but it also possesses significant military powers and has historical advantages in comparison with the Emirates. The thing is that Saudi Arabia we know nowadays is a result of a unification of territories (though this unification was forcible) under the reign of a ruler, making up the third Saudi kingdom. Before 1932 (a year modern KSA was founded), Saudi Arabia had experienced two transformations: the first kingdom in 1744-1817 and the second kingdom in 1824-1891. In comparison, the UAE was founded following a willing unification of the emirates in a single state in 1971, just 49 years ago. Consequently, in the eyes of the international community Saudi Arabia enjoys a strategic advantage in contrast to the young Emirati state - considerable political experience.

Surely, the UAE and KSA cannot but share the same features due to geographic neighbourhood. These features are, firstly, the same pattern of development (culture, language, religion, the Arab nation’s mindset). Secondly, the fact that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are two of the most developed and prosperous countries in the Middle East. Thirdly, despite of the presidential form of government officially declared in the UAE’s national constitution, de-facto in the UAE, as well as in KSA, so-called tribalism (when powerful clans govern the state) is flourishing, along with traditional monarchic mechanisms and autocratic elements. Fourth, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are bonded with membership in regional international organizations, such as the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). And last but not least, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia officially oppose the same enemy - Iran. The above mentioned facts had allowed both states to call themselves friends by blood and in spirit - until recently.

Nevertheless, we should remember that the concept of friendship doesn’t apply to the Arabic mindset. Instead, the Arabic thinking patterns - especially political ones - are guided by the desire to catch up and overtake a «friend». Consequently, there exist a slight hitch in the Saudi-Emirati relationships that seem perfect. The UAE, which are wrongly associated with «Dubai-beach-entertainment-business» pattern, in 2010s has suddenly began voicing its leadership ambitions. Obviously, it did not happened for no reason. The UAE has managed to acquire diplomatic and political experience, in addition to financial and military resources in order to promote its national agenda and influence other players to accomplish its goals.

Such a misbehaviour has taken Saudi Arabia aback. No wonder, because the Kingdom is used to act as a higher authority for other Gulf states. It is a well-known fact that the Gulf «community» constantly presses this or other country - be it Oman, Kuwait, Qatar or Iran - following the implicit instructions of Saudi Arabia. Naturally, it happens to be this way, since the Kingdom is not only the biggest and «oldest» state in the Gulf, but it represents the centre of the Muslim world. Moreover, historically Saudi Arabia stood at the origins of all unions in the Gulf region and was a pioneer in the process of implementation of joint projects. For that reason, the Saudi authorities got used to obedience of the neighbours, who, according to KSA’s stance, have to support the Kingdom in its foreign policy. And here we have a surprise in the form of the UAE.

Naturally, it was not the first case of such disobedience. Saudi Arabia has already stumbled upon Qatar - a small Gulf country that, despite being a microstate, also claims regional leadership. However, many specialists believe that Qatar has limited influence because of its current isolation due to the Qatar diplomatic crisis that began in 2017, and much less «hyped» image in compassion with the UAE. That is why Saudi Arabia was ready for betrayal from anybody - except from its Emirati brothers. What is more, the Kingdom’s rulers would surely stay calm if they did not see the UAE as a serious rival.

This can be easily explained. While Saudi Arabia was busy pressing Iran, dealing with some inner instabilities (here we mean the moment when Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) became a crown prince, what was a shock for many, followed by several oppressive campaigns), as well as with external political adventures (Saudi Arabia got involved in a risky venture of the war in Yemen), the UAE was pursuing its own path. The Emirati authorities gradually implemented marketing and branding mechanisms in foreign policy; were deeply engaged in cultural and humanitarian diplomacy; independently from KSA developed a connection network with other countries. In this regard we should underline the the Emirati relationships with Iran - surprisingly, but they do develop. In a nutshell, the UAE officially shares the aggressive rhetoric of Saudi Arabia targeting Iran, while developing beneficial economic ties with Saudi’s rival.

The African states, that have become an arena of silent confrontation between KSA and the UAE, can be considered to be another sticking point of the Saudi-Emirati relations. The main reason of bilateral tensions there lies in the Saudi[3] and Emirati[4]  investments in agriculture of Sudan and Ethiopia. Saudi’s financial resources allow Sudan to maintain it economy. «Agrofinancing» has become KSA’s tool in order to turn Sudan into its dependent territory and prevent the UAE, that actively sponsors  Sudanese government, from making Sudan an influence zone. What is more important, Sudan has strained relations with Egypt - an Emirati protege. In this context Saudi financing clearly demonstrates implicit confrontation with the UAE in Northern Africa. As for Saudi investments in agriculture of Ethiopia, they can be seen as a reaction to developing Emirati military presence in neighbouring Somaliland and Eritrea, where the UAE has established its military base[5].

To summarize the above said, Saudi Arabia, despite of its regional power and authority, now faces an active geopolitical rival - the UAE. Not only the UAE acts as a future leader of the Gulf region, but it pursues modern agenda and promotes innovative development against a backdrop of conservative Saudi Arabia which, despite reforms carried out by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, remains a deeply traditional and strict country in the eyes of the Western partners. Certainly, the UAE officially complies with Saudi policy, while at the same time seeking regional leadership. Nevertheless, it is still unclear what point the tensions in the Saudi- Emirati relations can reach in the future.

Anastasia Ilyukhina


  1. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) (reference) – the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – 26.02.2017. The current archive of DBSA the Ministry of foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
  2. Melkumyan, E. S. “the GCC in global and regional processes” / E. S. Melkumyan. – M.: AIIIBV and Institute of Oriental studies RAS, 2000. – 183 S.
  3. محمد بن راشد آل مكتوم. ومضات من فكر [Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Insight]. Dubai: Kuttab Publishing, 2013. - 144 p.
  4. واحب محمد شاكر. السياسة الخارجية لدولة الامارات العربية المتحدة [Foreign policy of the United Arab Emirates] / Shakir Mohammed Wahib. – Amman: Al Manhal, 2011. – 210 c.
  5. On the political disagreements in the ranks of the GCC. URL:

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