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When the Saudis and Emiratis fall out

Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have endured decades of rivalry, and tension between the Zayeds and the Sauds is now exploding in Yemen
Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (L), Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman near the holy city of Mecca on 12 July (Handout/AFP)

Just over a fortnight after he issued a decree stripping Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive in Abu Dhabi on Friday to collect a prize - the Order of Zayed, the statelet’s highest civilian award.

This makes perfect business sense for the little Sparta of the Gulf, hell-bent on establishing its own seaborne empire, from the ports of Yemen to the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean and beyond. 

India is the third-largest energy consumer in the world and the Emiratis’ second-largest trading partner. So why should the Emiratis care for seven million Kashmiris in Indian-administered Kashmir, whose internationally recognised dispute is now to be treated as an “internal matter” for India.

Its ally, lord and master, Saudi Arabia, should. 

This is not such breezy matter for the House of Saud, which bases its legitimacy on presenting itself as the voice of Muslims, not least the four million living in the Kashmir Valley.

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Elephant traps

The Emirati path to the unlimited markets of India is strewn with elephant traps for their neighbour Saudi Arabia.

It starts in Riyadh’s backyard, Yemen.

Emirati and Saudi strategies for a country the two nations have wrecked in their intervention against the Houthis have clearly diverged. 

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Both train and pay local militias. But the Saudis want the effort directed at the north, from where all the attacks on Saudi air bases, airports and oil infrastructure are launched.

Having tried and failed to bring the defunct regime of the former Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh back to life through his son, the Emiratis have embarked on another strategy. 

Amid a widescale troop redeployment, the UAE is clearly backing southern separatists.

With the Emiratis behind it, the Southern Transitional Council’s forces have seized the port city of Aden, and are now massing around a number of military camps in neighbouring Abyan province that are loyal to the exiled Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Even amid the fog of war and the ever-shifting matrix of tribal loyalty and allegiance in Yemen, there is now little doubt as to what is going on in Aden.

Just before he was “deported,” as he termed it, from Aden, Hadi’s interior minister, Ahmed al-Maisari, posted a video congratulating his brothers in the UAE “for their victory over us”.

“We are leaving but only to come back. We are speaking to you from Aden, we are heading to the airport in an hour or two so that they can ‘deport’ us to Riyadh,” he said.

“Thanks to the [Southern Transitional Council] for robbing our houses, cars and personal belongings.”

Maisari said the separatist takeover of Aden had been powered by 400 armoured vehicles driven by mercenaries doing the UAE’s bidding.

Eyes on Hodeidah

Aden may not be only the only Yemeni port to fall to an Emirati-funded separatist southern state. 

Dr Mohammad al-Rumihi, a Kuwaiti political analyst writing in the Saudi-controlled Asharq al-Awsat, suggested the breakup of Yemen, a state he depicted as being in a permanent state of war, was a good thing.

“However, if we have a true republic in the south that would pave the way for the building of a modern state there, it will then be able to control the mainland in the south and safeguard the Red Sea - the Strait of Mandeb,” he wrote.

“These are the two important terminals for international maritime. It will also prevent terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS from filling the political vacuum.”

A man raises a poster showing Saudi Arabia's King Salman amid a gathering of supporters of a faction of Yemen's southern separatists, waving flags of the former South Yemen (AFP)

Warming to this theme of the breakup of Yemen, Rumihi eyed the northern port of Hodeidah as the next prize for southern separatists.

“If we annex the port of Hodeidah (to the south), the north would then be able to find its own mechanism that would guarantee a certain degree of stability,” he posited.

This amounts to a policy of letting the unconquerable north of Yemen rot. 

Is this in the interests of Riyadh, which already is hard put to protect its airports and military bases from Houthi drones and rockets deep inside the kingdom?

And who, by the way, has sent its troops “on a training and advise mission” to guard the Saudi royal family? Pakistan.

History of bad blood

The confidence that the Emiratis show in pursuing strategies which openly diverge with Riyadh’s is a relatively recent phenomenon in the relationship between the two Arabian Peninsula states.

As Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University in Beirut, writes, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have endured decades of hostility over land and sea disputes, and rivalry between the Zayeds and the Sauds.

“When the UAE came into existence in December 1971, Riyadh achieved its objective of excluding Qatar and Bahrain from the new federal state. Tremendous Saudi pressure forced the UAE to sign the 1974 Treaty of Jeddah that ceded claims to the Khor al-Udaid inland sea that linked it to Qatar,” Khashan wrote.

Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have endured decades of hostility over land and sea disputes, and rivalry between the Zayeds and the Sauds

“Riyadh refused to recognize the UAE’s independence until its president, Zayed bin Sultan, signed the treaty under duress although the UAE has not yet ratified the treaty. When UAE head Khalifa bin Zayed took office in 2004, he visited Riyadh and demanded the treaty’s abrogation, ushering in an explosive crisis between the two states that took six years to subside.”

When a young, power-hungry Saudi prince in Mohammad bin Salman happened along, the elder and wiser Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed was not slow to seize his opportunity.

It was he and his ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, not the Saudi establishment, who beat a path to the door of the Oval Office for Mohammad bin Salman, as I have recorded in past reports.

This is not to absolve the Saudi crown prince of agency and responsibility for the terror in which he has plunged his country, arresting, torturing and plundering political opponents and family rivals alike - all under the guise of “anti-corruption” and “modernisation”.

But the fact that Mohammed bin Salman is now surrounded by henchmen whose primary loyalty is to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the royal family.

Even with their pliant prince in total control of the family and kingdom, the Emiratis keep a close watch on affairs in Riyadh and monitor the slightest deviation from orthodoxy,

Saudi subservience

A limited circulation monthly report on Saudi Arabia, prepared by the Emirati Policy Centre, a think tank with close links to the UAE’s government and intelligence, notes how cravenly beholden the Saudis are to a vacillating US policy on Iran. 

It reads: “Despite the fact that [Saudi Arabia] was successful in hosting three summits during the month of May, there was a degree of ambiguity in their calculations regarding Iran. This was due to Riyadh’s reliance on the American position.

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince has coached his Saudi pupil to ignore Muslim feeling and Saudi heritage - but these are heavy files for the Saudi state to abandon

“The Saudi position became strong and robust when America used strong language against Iran. However, the Saudi tone decreased when the Americans emphasised diplomacy ... It was then that Saudi Arabia took a tough line in condemning and threatening Iran, as was obvious during the ... summits.”

The tone is clear. The Emirati leadership is alive to, and contemptuous of, Saudi weakness.

The Emiratis are, however, playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with Mohammad bin Salman.

It was under Mohammed bin Zayed’s tutelage that the Saudi crown prince established his own direct links with Israel and went out of his way to ignore the Palestinians.

His abandonment of the occupation of Kashmir goes hand in hand with his policy on Palestine. Palestinians, instead, should learn to become “good Israelis,” he once said.

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince has coached his Saudi pupil to ignore Muslim feeling and Saudi heritage - but these are heavy files for the Saudi state to abandon. And the price for this in the Arab and Muslim world is high. It’s not being paid by a small commercial enterprise like the UAE, but it is being paid by a state like Saudi Arabia, which weakens each year under this misrule

Once America wakes up to the fact that Mohammad bin Salman is a net liability to US military and strategic interests in the Gulf, he will be gone. Some Saudis close to the royal family think this could happen before he becomes king. And then all Emirati bets are off.

The return to business as usual between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could be sooner than Mohammed bin Zayed thinks.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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