On Dec. 5, 2017, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Ministry announced the formation of a new political and military alliance between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This alliance allows both countries to cooperate at a bilateral level on containing Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and developing mutually beneficial joint economic initiatives.
Although Saudi and Emirati officials have continued to express their commitment to preserving the cohesion of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the ongoing Qatar crisis has led many Arab analysts to speculate that the new Saudi Arabia-UAE alliance will eventually supplant the GCC in strategic importance. This speculation reached a fever pitch after the Dec. 5-6 GCC leaders’ summit was cut short, and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman refused to travel to Kuwait to meet with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Even though inter-state tensions within the GCC are at their highest level since the collective security organization was founded in 1981, a closer examination of geopolitical dynamics on the Persian Gulf suggests that the new Saudi Arabia-UAE coalition is unlikely to permanently supplant the GCC. The long-term survival prospects of the GCC are bolstered by Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to make Qatar a long-term adversary, and latent tensions between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that could weaken their military alliance.
Despite the strident anti-Qatar rhetoric emanating from Riyadh and Bahrain’s call for Qatar’s expulsion from the GCC, Qatar’s permanent defection from the GCC would pose a grave challenge to Riyadh’s strategic interests. Qatar’s extensive financial resources, and links to Islamist groups across the Arab world make it a formidable adversary for the Saudi Arabia-UAE alliance to confront.
Fighting a two-front proxy war would divert resources from what Saudi Arabia views as an existential struggle against Iran and facilitate the development of an anti-Saudi Qatar-Iran security pact. These risks undercut the popular theory that Riyadh’s efforts to economically and diplomatically isolate Qatar are aimed at vanquishing Doha. Instead, Saudi Arabia’s use of coercive diplomacy against Doha was a gamble to convince Qatar to acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s hegemony over the GCC and stop funding Islamist groups that threaten Saudi interests in the Middle East.
The new Saudi Arabia-UAE alliance is the last throw of the dice in a failed strategy to isolate Qatar from regional affairs. While Al Thani’s statement that Qatar has prospered since suspending its ties with other GCC members is an exaggeration, Qatar’s expansion of trade with Russia, China and Pakistan, and avoidance of an economic recession, demonstrates its resilience as a regional power. Qatar’s fortitude in the face of adversity was not predicted by Saudi officials and will likely prompt a reassessment of Saudi Arabia’s Qatar strategy.
As Saudi and Emirati officials do not want Qatar to permanently realign its foreign policy away from the GCC, the new Saudi-UAE alliance could be eventually integrated into the GCC. To restore unity in the Gulf, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could seek out Qatar’s participation in projects discussed within the framework of their new bilateral economic and security partnership.
A normalization of relations between the Saudi-UAE alliance and Qatar might occur once the Syria and Yemen conflicts progress towards peace settlements. A united GCC front will greatly bolster the Gulf Arab states’ bargaining position vis-à-vis Iran. Major policy disagreements between Qatar and the Saudi-UAE alliance could continue to surface, as negative memories of the current crisis will persist for years to come. However, the endgame of the Qatar crisis is more likely to resemble the 2015 Saudi Arabia-Qatar normalization than the degeneration of the late 1990s Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement into open conflict.
In addition to the risks associated with permanently alienating Qatar, the Saudi Arabia-UAE alliance could also be weakened by marked differences in both countries’ visions for the Middle East regional system. Saudi Arabia’s vision is largely sectarian in its outlook. Riyadh views Iran as the principal threat to regional stability and sees pro-Iran Shia actors as antagonistic forces. The UAE’s vision rejects Saudi Arabia’s hardline sectarian approach. Under Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed’s stewardship, the UAE has resolutely supported secular forces in the Middle East and viewed Sunni Islamist groups as more threatening to regional stability than Iran.
The conflict between Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s strategic visions has revealed itself in both countries contrasting responses to the Yemen and Syria crises. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s military campaign has focused primarily on confronting the threat that Houthi rebels pose to its borders. The Saudi military also continues to support exiled Sunni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s bid to consolidate power. To strengthen Hadi’s position, Saudi Arabia has aligned with the Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch, al-Islah, and resisted the UAE’s attempts to carve out a sphere of influence in southern Yemen.
Since the outbreak of war between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and the GCC coalition in March 2015, the UAE has focused on restoring secular authoritarian rule to Yemen. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi is indifferent to the sectarian affiliation of Yemen’s new leader. The UAE’s military support for Ali Abdullah Saleh, the recently deceased moderate Shia former president of Yemen, and willingness to use force against Saudi-aligned al-Islah militias underscores the chasm in strategic objectives in Yemen between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The discrepancy between Saudi and Emirati objectives in Syria is less stark than those in Yemen. Nevertheless, both countries have adopted different positions on what a Syrian peace settlement should look like. Despite Assad’s military successes since 2015, Saudi Arabia has remained a place of refuge for Sunni rebel groups resistant to diplomacy with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Even though the UAE has provided financial support to Syrian opposition factions, Abu Dhabi held back-channel dialogues with Assad regime officials in 2012 and has cooperated with Russia on resolving the Syrian conflict. These policies have clashed with Saudi objectives and highlight the chasm in perspectives between the leaders of both countries.
Even though the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi conflict of strategic visions is likely reconcilable in the short-term, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have enough common objectives to remain allies, these disagreements could pose a long-term threat to the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi alliance. The persistence of discord within the Saudi-UAE bilateral relationship suggests that both countries’ strong alignment against Qatar is an alliance of convenience, which lacks firm ideological foundations.
Despite these tensions, targeted cooperation on specific objectives, like the joint Saudi-UAE $130 million Sahel counter-terrorism operation, and efforts to facilitate cross-border banking transactions will likely continue for the foreseeable future. However, these areas of cooperation are relatively low stake and are insufficient in scope to consolidate the Saudi-UAE alliance enough to supplant the GCC.
Even though a formal commitment in the Saudi Arabia-UAE alliance benefits both countries’ aspirations of preserving stability in the Persian Gulf, the long-term durability of this alignment and its ability to exist independently from the GCC is unclear. While the Saudi-UAE alliance will likely continue to strengthen as long as both countries have strained relations with Qatar, latent tensions between them, and escalating hostility between Riyadh and Tehran could enable the GCC’s revival as a collective security organization in the months to come.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.