Abu Dhabi and Riyadh Are Beginning to Diverge on Yemen and Iran

Published September 4th, 2019 - 12:12 GMT
Southern separatist fighters patrol a road in Aden, Yemen, Aug. 29, 2019 /AFP
Southern separatist fighters patrol a road in Aden, Yemen, Aug. 29, 2019 /AFP


Over the last few months, Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy objectives have started diverging away from Riyadh’s foreign policy objectives. After many years of following a joint strategy, recent developments have put Saudi-UAE bilateral relations on the edge. Signifying a shift for the entire region, a complete breakdown in ties could have vast implications for the Middle East.


First, Abu Dhabi tried to improve ties with Iran by sending a coast guard delegation to ink a memorandum on border security after the recent tanker explosions in Gulf waters.

Practically speaking, the UAE cannot endanger its global trade with any frictions in the Strait of Hormuz, especially as it has diversified its economy recently and moved into non-oil sectors such as tourism and the financial industry. This is why it never severed diplomatic ties with Iran and preferred to maintain a business- like approach. 

By moving closer to Iran, Abu Dhabi distanced itself completely from Saudi foreign policy objectives and Riyadh is in a predicament as it cannot end the war in Yemen on its own, nor can it forget its sectarian rivalry with Iran overnight. As it is, the Yemen situation has dragged on for years without any solution. Having lost the support of its most important partner, the UAE, on both fronts, Saudi Arabia may be forced to review its options. 

By moving closer to Iran, Abu Dhabi distanced itself completely from Saudi foreign policy objectives and Riyadh is in a predicament as it cannot end the war in Yemen on its own, nor can it forget its sectarian rivalry with Iran overnight.

Second, the UAE has also extricated itself from the ongoing war in Yemen and switched over its support to the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) instead. Seizing the port of Aden on 10th August, the separatists have consolidated their position and are trying to establish an independent South Yemen. Ceasefire talks are not possible now unless they hand back the port of Aden and military bases they captured in Abyan province. But as long as they  keep on receiving support from Abu Dhabi, the separatists cannot be contained. 

From the very beginning, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had different goals in Yemen as Riyadh wanted to secure its southern border from Houthi attacks while Abu Dhabi wanted military and economic access to vital global trade routes via the Bab el-Mandeb straits and Horn of Africa. Fearing worse days ahead, the UN’s envoy in Yemen, Martin Griffiths has recommended that the UN Security Council urgently broker a peace deal. 

From the very beginning, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had different goals in Yemen as Riyadh wanted to secure its southern border from Houthi attacks while Abu Dhabi wanted military and economic access to vital global trade routes via the Bab el-Mandeb straits and Horn of Africa

Facing the backlash of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s crumbling alliance, Yemen is badly stuck now. Forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE are fighting on opposite sides in the battle and the entire dynamics of the coalition has fallen apart. However, this dead-end scenario could result in the end of the Yemen war and the normalization of relations with Iran. If this happens, the Middle East might become more stable and peaceful in the future. Nowadays, the UAE has undoubtedly taken the lead in Middle Eastern geopolitics, be it Yemen, Iran or even the recent crisis in Kashmir, the rest of the Arab world is quite prone to following its example.

However, this dead-end scenario could result in the end of the Yemen war and the normalization of relations with Iran. If this happens, the Middle East might become more stable and peaceful in the future.

Compared to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi is secular and it is not interested in sectarian geopolitics. Promoting Hindu and Sikh temples as well as Christian churches, over the years the UAE government has propagated a tolerant and liberal image that can attract tourists and foreign investors from all over the world. Understandably, Abu Dhabi would wish to save its liberal image from being sullied by the continuing humanitarian crisis in Yemen or even the aftermath of the Khashoggi incident 

Even though the friendship of Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) and Mohammad Bin Zayed (MBZ) has been quite legendary, MBZ seems determined to resolve regional issues independently. Nevertheless, both the princes had a meeting in Mecca recently so they seem to have some understanding. Trying to put a rest to media speculations, the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid Bin Salman also tweeted that co-operation with the UAE is “the cornerstone for security, stability and prosperity in the region in the face of extremism, chaos, discord and division.” 

However, problems persist, as the Yemen government from Riyadh declared the UAE a “bigger danger” for their country than Iran while the UAE state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, observed that ties with Riyadh are “existential.” Predictably, any attempts to salvage the situation will fail until there is ceasefire in Yemen.  

However, problems persist, as the Yemen government from Riyadh declared the UAE a “bigger danger” for their country than Iran

Even Washington’s foreign policy in the Middle East is in danger these days due to the breakdown of this crucial Arab alliance. Nicknamed “Little Sparta” for its reliability by former U.S. defense secretary Mattis, the UAE is testing the waters as it furthers its own interests. And this is where the risk lies.


Sabena Siddiqi is a Foreign Affairs Journalist and Geopolitical analyst based in Karachi, Pakistan. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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