contributor perspectives

The Hidden Gulf Between the GCC's Biggest Powers

Hilal Khashan
Board of Contributors
7 MINS READJun 13, 2017 | 21:39 GMT
Member of the Gulf Cooperation Council align for a photo opportunity.
Despite being stalwarts of the Gulf alliance, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia remain deeply suspicious of each other.
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In Middle Eastern diplomacy, things are not always what they seem. Western observers often judge the relationships among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) through the lens of their own culture, taking at face value the bloc's statements of amicability, solidarity and unity of purpose within its ranks. GCC officials would have the rest of the world believe that its two leading members, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have a cozy working relationship. Indeed, Emirati President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan rarely misses the opportunity to commend Saudi King Salman "for ensuring the best interests of the GCC and for backing Arab and Islamic issues." But the bond between the Gulf's most powerful military states may not be as strong as it appears.

Brotherly Love, or Sibling Rivalry?

When the United Arab Emirates was founded in December 1971, Saudi Arabia wasted little time in moving to contain it. Riyadh blocked Abu Dhabi's attempts to include Qatar and Bahrain in the newly formed federal state. Three years later, Emirati officials were once again forced to bow to Saudi pressure and sign the Treaty of Jeddah, which ceded Abu Dhabi's claim to the Khor al-Udaid sea linking the United Arab Emirates to Qatar, in exchange for Riyadh's recognition of Emirati independence. (Because it signed the deal under duress, the United Arab Emirates has never ratified the treaty and has demanded its abrogation in the years since.)

The two states' fierce competition has continued to this day as Saudi Arabia has worked to prevent its neighbor from becoming its biggest rival in the GCC. When the United Arab Emirates mulled the idea in 2004 of building a causeway linking Abu Dhabi to Doha without transiting Saudi territory, a furious Riyadh vetoed the project. From its perspective, the specter of two Gulf states working together outside the bounds of the Saudi-controlled framework of the GCC posed a threat to the kingdom's influence in the region.

Keeping Friends Close, and Enemies Closer

Given their fraught history, it may come as a surprise that both adversaries belong to a bloc that stresses unity among its members above all else. When the GCC was established in May 1981, the official reason given for its existence was to encourage harmony among states with similar aspirations and political, cultural and religious identities.

Of course, there was also a more pragmatic motive behind the group's formation. Britain's withdrawal from the Gulf region in December 1971, the Arab World's isolation of Egypt after Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in November 1977, the subsequent signing of the Camp David Accords in September 1978, and the collapse of Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's government in January 1979 had opened a power vacuum in the Gulf. Sensing their vulnerability and inability to shape the events unfolding around them, the region's smaller states reluctantly agreed to join the Saudi-led bloc. But their decision was driven more by the need to hedge against uncertainty than by ambitions of accruing the gains a partnership with a larger regional power could bring.

Still, Iraq's stunning invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 shattered the myth of the bloc's self-reliance, forcing GCC states to appeal to foreign powers — chief among them, the United States — for protection. Rather than emphasizing solidarity in the Arab World, the bloc began to concentrate on trying to replicate America's military prowess. Saudi Arabia began to invest heavily in defense acquisitions; not to be outdone, the United Arab Emirates followed suit, accounting for the weakness of the GCC's untested Peninsula Shield by building up its own armed forces.

Going It Alone

But the United Arab Emirates remained deeply suspicious of Saudi Arabia, and was convinced that Riyadh intended to use the GCC to control its smaller neighbors. When Al Nahyan assumed the presidency in November 2004, he wasted no time in challenging Saudi Arabia's dominance in the bloc by amassing the instruments of national power: a strong military, a forward-looking economy and a dynamic foreign policy. Riyadh responded to Abu Dhabi's challenge with what punitive measures it could find; for instance, Saudi officials frequently cause traffic jams at the United Arab Emirates' Ghuwaifat border crossing to stall trucks bound for Saudi Arabia.

Fearing Saudi domination and the failure of collective security, Abu Dhabi abandoned its approach of cooperating militarily with its fellow GCC members.

 In the span of a few years, the United Arab Emirates became a rising military power in the Middle East — a status that enabled it to chart its own course in foreign policy, free of Saudi Arabia's influence. Its newfound independence has since spurred Abu Dhabi to seek to redraw its border with the Saudi kingdom, to include 80 percent of the massive Shaybah oil field.

Of course, the United Arab Emirates hasn't shut Saudi Arabia out completely. The surge of popular uprisings that swept the Middle East in the early 2010s forced the two countries to work together on a tactical level in order to insulate their nations from the unrest spreading around them. Even then, however, they had deep differences in opinion. For instance, both backed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's attempt to oust Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, pumping billions of dollars into his newly formed government in hopes of stabilizing it. But they fundamentally disagreed on how to resolve the protracted conflicts in Syria and Yemen: Abu Dhabi refused to extend support to the countries' Islamic movements, while Riyadh was open to it so long as the groups did not threaten the kingdom's stability.

The Battle for Yemen

Based on Saudi media reports, however, one might never know that these points of contention exist between the two neighbors. In an effort to lend legitimacy to Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's decision to go to war in Yemen, the country's news outlets have eagerly pointed to the United Arab Emirates' participation in the military campaign as evidence of the states' strategic alliance.

However, this couldn't be further from the truth; Abu Dhubi was greatly displeased by Riyadh's offensive, and according to the Middle East Monitor, relations deteriorated amid persistent divisions "over regional issues and particularly over the rapidly unfolding events in Yemen." The countries' repeated debates were so heated that, on the eve of Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015, Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was forced to wait 10 days to be granted permission to visit Riyadh to discuss the opening stages of the intervention in Yemen with royal officials.

The enduring gulf between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was again on full display in February when more than 150 officials from the two states met with the intent of strengthening their bilateral relationship. Much to Riyadh's chagrin, however, Abu Dhabi announced that its troops' involvement in the Yemeni war had ended. Saudi officials considered the move, which had not been coordinated with them in advance, a slap in the face meant to weaken the kingdom's position as the leader of the coalition.

To this day, Yemen continues to serve as a not-so-subtle battleground between the Gulf's two biggest rivals.

Whereas Saudi Arabia considers its clout in the country to be vital to its own stability, the United Arab Emirates sees its influence in Yemen as an opportunity to break Riyadh's relentless efforts to trap it between the Persian Gulf and the inhospitable desert of Saudi Arabia. Though Abu Dhabi is participating in Riyadh's Operation Decisive Storm, it is simultaneously supporting Houthi fighters in Yemen's southern region, hoping that the strategic port of Aden will someday become an extension of the port in Dubai instead of its competitor. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates' commitment to join an "Arab NATO" led by Saudi Arabia remains little more than a vaguely worded pledge.

Both countries' ruling families seem to think that preserving their kingdoms' social fabric is necessary to ensuring the continued legitimacy of their traditional leadership in an ever-changing world. Yet as each maneuvers to protect its toeholds in the Middle East, their legacy of fomenting conflict throughout the region will live on.

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