In the midst of the Middle East's power struggles, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all striving to achieve regional dominance through proxy battles and games of political and diplomatic tug-of-war. Saudi Arabia is the most influential and active Arab power in the fray, but another Gulf state — the United Arab Emirates — is starting to muscle in on its preserve. Characterizing the small but increasingly ambitious country as a rookie upstart intruding on its much larger neighbor's domain fails to capture the essence of the Saudi-Emirati relationship. Abu Dhabi, in fact, is proving that it has much to teach Riyadh.
An Apt Pupil
Similar geopolitical circumstances have fostered common strategic thinking and foreign policy aims in the two countries. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are both predominantly Sunni Arab monarchies with a considerable dependence on expatriate labor. Both desert countries suffer from a lack of water and share a penchant for using oil wealth to buy high-end military equipment before spending the rest to secure the loyalty of their populations. And both are expanding their presence on the regional stage under the guidance of assertive leaders.
Abu Dhabi, like Riyadh, views itself as a voice of Sunni and Arab leadership across the Middle East. The Saudi and Emirati governments agree that Iran poses an imminent threat, that Turkey is trying to exert greater control in the area and that weaker Muslim states in the region need guidance. But beyond geopolitics, leadership also plays a role in the countries' similar outlooks. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has tried to implement many of the same policies and aims as Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Al Nahyan, 56, has been the United Arab Emirates' de facto national ruler since 2004, when he reached a power-sharing agreement with one of his half-brothers, who serves as UAE president. Like the 32-year-old Salman, Abu Dhabi's crown prince is not technically his country's head of state, though he controls most of the levers of power.
For the Saudi crown prince, his Emirati counterpart serves as a progressive example to follow. Salman has joined Al Nahyan, for instance, in pursuing strategies to diversify the Saudi and Emirati economies alongside complementary social reforms. The successes of UAE economic development have given Salman something to strive for. To that end, he has emulated his Emirati mentor by planning high-tech cities, pushing for privatization and new forms of taxes, and increasing the number of citizens in the workforce. And in perhaps his most ambitious quest, Salman is trying to transform Saudi Arabia's conservative social mores so that the austere kingdom comes closer to resembling the relatively liberal United Arab Emirates. Al Nahyan and other Emirati leaders have long understood the value of cultivating their country as a foreigner-friendly destination for investment and tourism — something that Saudi Arabia is now working toward, too.
As he attempts this transition, Salman will keep looking to his Emirati elder as a role model. The Saudi crown prince has followed Al Nahyan's strategy of trying to forge a monarchy that relies less on tribal and religious legitimacy than on the ruler's legitimacy as the embodiment of the nation. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is working to control messages from independent clerics and mosques, taking inspiration from a policy the United Arab Emirates implemented years ago. Al Nahyan's careful management of family rivals and domestic dissent also holds great value for Salman. The Saudi crown prince has addressed challenges to his authority by claiming more and more power for himself and cutting other members of the royal family out of the decision-making process. He even created his own version of a Praetorian Guard to deploy against potential rivals — as he did in November during his anti-corruption campaign. Al Nahyan took a similar approach to asserting his leadership, taking control of key Emirati security institutions such as the national guard.
Try as he might, though, Salman is unlikely to remake Saudi Arabia in the United Arab Emirates' image. Their many similarities notwithstanding, the two countries have several important differences. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is more diverse, and the influence of Wahhabism, a strict sect of Islam, is more pronounced in the kingdom than in its smaller neighbor. In addition, the United Arab Emirates has fewer demographic and security challenges than does Saudi Arabia and boasts a unique federalist model of government. The country is the only Gulf monarchy with a structure that allows poorer regions to benefit from richer ones and provides a system of accountability between each of its seven emirates. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also occupy different roles on the global stage.
Flying Under the Radar
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates often work in tandem, whether supporting like-minded Sunni groups in the region, shoring up resource-poor monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, trying to limit Iran's reach, or containing neighboring Qatar's ambitions. Riyadh leads the charge in these joint endeavors and attracts most of the media attention in the process, often to the benefit of the United Arab Emirates. By avoiding the limelight, Abu Dhabi manages also to avoid most of the flak when its shared initiatives with Saudi Arabia — such as the effort to coerce Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri into taking a stronger stance against Hezbollah — founder. The United Arab Emirates' reputation has remained largely unscathed as a result.
But Abu Dhabi's low profile belies its ambition. Outside Saudi Arabia's shadow, the United Arab Emirates is emerging as a power player in its own right. The country, for example, is quietly increasing its military and diplomatic presence in Africa as private Emirati companies boost investment and build shipping infrastructure across the continent. Many of these projects have less to do with shared Gulf interests than with the United Arab Emirates' desire to extend its own reach around the globe and expand its military influence in strategic corridors, such as the Red Sea.
Despite its global aspirations, however, the United Arab Emirates' federalist model restrains Abu Dhabi from conducting the country's foreign policy as it pleases. The monarchy has often espoused hawkish policies, while other emirates like Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah, which conduct a lot of trade with Iran, preached moderation. Whatever foreign policy initiatives Abu Dhabi may push for on its own and alongside Saudi Arabia, the rest of the country is intent on avoiding any exploits abroad that could damage the image the United Arab Emirates has crafted. Dubai — an oil-poor emirate that got a head start on economic diversification decades ago — kept largely friendly ties with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, permitting significant trade through its port to support the Islamic republic. Its ruler later resisted efforts to impose sanctions on Iran in the 2000s and early 2010s and was one of the first Gulf monarchs to publicly back a nuclear deal with Tehran. By following a more pragmatic foreign policy, Dubai tempers Abu Dhabi's desire to reshape the region's security environment in the United Arab Emirates' favor.
Nevertheless, the Emirati push for greater global prominence may, in time, be enough to test Abu Dhabi's relationship with Riyadh. Their long-term ambitions around the world appear destined to bring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into conflict. For now, Al Nahyan is content to let his Saudi protege steal the limelight, while quietly cultivating networks and power bases in Riyadh's shadow. But their respective plans for overseas expansion could prove too much for their friendship to handle.