Emirati and Saudi disagreements over oil production have revealed that the close relations between the once allied de facto rulers of these countries have finally tanked.
Due to Emirati demands for greater output than proposed in a deal reached by Saudi Arabia and Russia, the 23-member Organisation of Petroleum Exporting States (Opec) has failed to finalise a production agreement. The blow stunned Opec, briefly drove up oil prices to a six-year high and threatened the unity of the 40-year-old Gulf Co-operation Council.
This debacle stems from growing divisions between Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and his Abu Dhabi counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed over Yemen, Qatar, Syria, Libya, Israel and trade.
During a decade of hunting expeditions and foreign holidays, bin Zayed, now 60, cultivated bin Salman (35), became the younger man’s mentor and expected them to work together.
When bin Salman became Saudi defence minister and presumed heir to the throne in January 2015, the princes launched an ambitious campaign to project their joint power in the region through military and political means. In some areas they have failed in this objective and in others they have become rivals.
In March 2015, the princes intervened in Yemen’s civil war, expecting an early victory against Houthi rebels and restoration of the country’s exiled government. The war has dragged on, destroying Yemen, beggaring its people and undermining bin Zayed’s commitment to a conflict unpopular with Emiratis.
In 2019 he withdrew Emirati ground troops, leaving the Saudi air force and Saudi-backed militiamen to fight the Houthis to a standstill as Emirati-supported Yemeni secessionists who have challenged the Saudi-dependent government.
In 2017 the Saudis and Emiratis blockaded Qatar over its links with the Muslim Brotherhood and links with Iran but, early this year, under pressure from the US and Kuwait, they were compelled to lift the blockade and, grudgingly, reconcile with Qatar.
While the Saudis supported jihadi factions fighting the Syrian army, the Emirates praised Russia’s military involvement with the government. The Emirates restored diplomatic ties with Syria in December 2018; Saudi Arabia has not done so.
The Emiratis broke with the Saudis by establishing relations with Israel, while Riyadh argued Israel has to permit the emergence of a Palestinian state before normalisation could proceed. The Saudis have re-established relations with Turkey, which has defended Libya's government from Emirati-supported rebels.
The Saudis have challenged the Emirates as a commercial hub by decreeing that from 2024 firms seeking to work in the kingdom must have regional headquarters there rather than in the Emirates, and undermined common Gulf tariffs by treating goods originating in Emirati “free zones” or linked to Israel as foreign.
The princes could never have attained regional leadership as they and their countries do not have the history to assume this role as do Egypt, Iraq and Syria, which have lost influence due to economic collapse and conflict.