The Repercussions of Saudi-Emirati Dispute on the War in Yemen: Will Yemen Become a Conflict Zone Between the Two Sides?

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Will Yemen Become a Conflict Zone Between the Two Sides?


The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the UAE Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, have jointly led several Strategic, political, economic, military, security and cultural fronts in the Middle East. Afterward, the two crown princes became strategic allies who adopted the same views and attitudes toward many cases in the region. Among those cases leading “counter-revolutions” in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and others, following the (Arab Spring Revolutions) spread in those countries in 2011.

Both the KSA and UAE are members of the Gulf Cooperating Countries (GCC), within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which is a global organization of 13 countries that depend on their oil exports for their economies; their member states own 44% of all world oil output and 81.5% of world oil reserves, according to September 2018 estimates.

In November 2016, a larger group (of countries), known as OPEC Plus, was formed with 23 oil-exporting countries, including 13 OPEC member states, as well as other non-OPEC oil-exporting countries, with the aim of gaining more control on the global crude oil market by reducing oil production to improve oil prices on global marks. The UAE ranks fourth among the OPEC Plus producers, following Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The UAE has recently come into conflict with OPEC Plus member states, especially Russia and Saudi Arabia. However, it seems that there is a widening Saudi-Emirati dispute that appears to be reflecting on their positions. How real is this dispute? What impact does it have on the Yemeni scene?

Oil Conflict

The recent dispute between KSA and the UAE has reflected the nature of the disputes between the two countries. The dispute that emerged between KSA and UAE was due to the UAE’s opposition to the Russian-Saudi proposal to the OPEC Plus alliance to extend the oil-production reduction agreement for an additional eight months. This proposal was accepted by all of the members, while the UAE called it ”unfair”. This dispute has led to the postponement of the agreement for several weeks and made mutual polemic between officials of the two countries and their media platforms. A few days later, KSA suspended all flights to the UAE and banned its citizens from traveling to the UAE until formal approval was obtained. However, the UAE has responded and retaliated against them.

The explanation of the Gulf States’ dispute was predominantly centered on economics. This is because the dispute occurred, as the Gulf States need huge funding for their economic programs before the transition to alternative renewable energy sources is complete. In addition, it was because the two countries had rushed to build “their own stockpiles of advanced weapons, as they are considered among the major arms buyers around the world”.

The UAE, which is considered a close ally to KSA, has shown a rare challenge in its position toward KSA. However, there are several tracks to make the situation reach the crisis point between the two countries, as Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest crude oil exporter and the largest economy in the Arab world.

Roots and Dimensions of the Dispute

First: The Border Dispute

The border dispute between Saudi Arabia and the UAE dates back to the reign of King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud (also known as Ibn Saud). The border dispute revolves around the land border in the oil-rich Al-Buraimi Oasis area and the coastal area of Khor al Adaid, located between the UAE and Qatar. The dispute between the two countries ended with them each signing a border agreement in 1974, known as the Treaty of Jeddah, and was accompanied by Saudi Arabia’s recognition of the UAE as an independent state. The agreement provided for Saudi ownership of the coast separating the UAE and Qatar, about 50 kilometers long, in return for ceding part of the Al-Buraimi Oasis to the UAE. It also provided for the Saudi ownership of Shaybah Oil Field of which the UAE claims that 80% is located within its territory and that it has the right to develop this field and get the complete benefit of its oil production. In addition, under this agreement, KSA has obtained Al Howaisat Island.

In 1999, a dispute broke out between the two countries about the background of Saudi Arabia’s inauguration of an oil field in the Shaybah area. Accordingly, the UAE protested that it was not involved in sharing oil revenues from this field, according to the agreement with KSA in 1974. The production of this field is 500,000 barrels per day.

In its yearbook in 2006, the UAE released new maps showing the Khor Al Adaid area as parts of the UAE’s territorial waters. Consequently, this behavior angered the Saudi government at the time.

In 2009, Saudi Arabia suspended the entry of Emirati citizens into its territories using Emirates ID cards. This was to protest against the UAE, which changed its geographical map on those cards. As a result, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded immediately to the Saudi decision. The Ministry decided that every UAE citizen that needs to travel to KSA, or needs to cross its territories, must use his/her passport instead of ID cards. 

In 2010, the relations between the two countries nearly broke down when two UAE security boats opened fire on a Saudi boat in Khor al-Adaid, and two Saudi border guards were detained.

UAE expressed its dissatisfaction with the agreement signed in the mid-1970s with KSA, describing it as an unfair agreement. This was expressed during UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed’s visit to Riyadh in December 2004. UAE justifies that the agreement was signed in exceptional circumstances. However, Saudi Arabia considers the agreement valid and fair to both parties.

Second: Economic Competition

Some experts consider that the economic competition is at the forefront of the dispute between the two countries, and the two countries urgently need substantial funding for their economic programs. A former White House official, Kirsten Fontenrose, who is currently in charge of the Saudi diplomatic file at the Atlantic Council, says the two neighbors decided “they have to prioritize their financial future over their friendship,” and continues, “There is no rancor here, just economic facts.” She also adds, “It is an exaggeration to talk about a split as both of the countries try to secure their economic future”.

 The Saudi competition with Emirates had begun through developing many sectors, such as tourism, technology and aviation. Moreover, on July 5, 2021, the KSA announced some amendments to import rules from other GCC member states. This is to exclude goods produced in free zones and those that use Israeli components from preferential customs concessions.  On February 15, 2021, Riyadh issued an ultimatum to foreign companies that, in order to obtain government contracts, they must move their main regional headquarters to Saudi Arabia by 2024. The Saudi Crown Prince is leading a strong campaign to persuade multinational companies to move their regional headquarters from Dubai to Riyadh, the Financial Times reported.

Third: Diplomatic Contrast

The rulers of the two countries are competing for greater influence in regional and international politics and allying with the U.S. administration since it is the superpower and ruler of the new world order. Both states want to establish themselves as a regional and international center, and, on this basis, they are dealing with regional and international issues and actors.

While the UAE wants to make Saudi Arabia a vassal state, Saudi Arabia wants to remain the first and the top as the leader of the GCC, the league of Arab states and OIC members. As a result, this has led Saudi Arabia to form several Arab and Islamic alliances in record time to emphasize its regional and international presence and influence.

As a result of the changes caused by the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States, Saudi Arabia has recently sought to improve its relations with Qatar and Turkey. On January 5, 2021, KSA called for the Al Ola Summit as a springboard to end the Saudi-Qatari dispute and to be a step toward reconciliation between the two countries, after three years of rupture. However, Emirati Crown Prince was absent at that summit, as the UAE does not prefer the rapprochement with Qatar and Turkey. It just deals with that reconciliation with reluctance.

The UAE, in turn, maintains its political and economic relations with Iran despite the claim of its alliance with Saudi Arabia. This happens despite the fact that Iran threatens and attacks Saudi interests from its territory and through Iraqi and Yemeni territories. Furthermore, the volume of trade between Tehran and Abu Dhabi remains at a high level, and the UAE has no threat to its economic interests by Iran.

The UAE was also headed toward normalization with Israel in early 2020, without prior coordination with its supposed ally. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia improved its relations with the Sultanate of Oman, which culminated in the visit of the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, to Riyadh on July 11, 2021.

Fourth: Personal Grudges

The WikiLeaks documents, leaked to decision-making circles in the United States, show the extent to which the rulers of the UAE secretly despise Saudi rulers and their political system. According to a document dated June 16, 2004, the ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE, Mohammed bin Rashid, told U.S. Forces Commander General John Abizaid,  during a dinner meeting in Abu Dhabi, “The Saudi leadership does not have a long-term vision, which allowed the extremists to become powerful, so the whole region is suffering now.” In that same meeting, bin Zayed said, “The Saudi leadership is too old.”

Another document, dated June 25, 2008, reveals that the UAE Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, was trying to incite the Americans against the regime in Saudi Arabia. The document also revealed that Abdullah bin Zayed’s position toward King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was extremely negative. He had told a U.S. official that he did not see any promising faces in the younger Saudi princes, and he continued that, “the Saudi regime only allows those corrupt and those allied with religious sheikhs to get to the top.”

One of the documents also mentions Mohammed bin Zayed’s ridicule of the late Saudi crown prince, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz. He would say that bin Abdulaziz used to resemble a “monkey” during bin Zayed meetings with American officials. This is confirmed by the book Blood and Oil, released in 2020 and written by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck. The authors cited that from official FBI records, saying that the UAE crown prince told an American official “90% of Saudi people are waiting for the U.S. to change Al Saud regime in Saudi Arabia after they finish the war in Iraq”.

A document from November 2010 revealed that Mohamed bin Zayed said to the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, on July 31, 2006, that “Emirates and Qatar fought wars against the Saudis. Emirates alone fought 57 wars against Saudi Arabia within the last 250 years. Saudis are not my dear friends, but we need to come to an agreement with them.”

In another confidential letter, dated September 25, 2005, the former U.S. ambassador to the UAE, Michele Sison, said that Mohammed bin Zayed had said that Saudi Arabia needs a “retirement system” and that the education system in Saudi Arabia is run by “Wahhabi ideas”.

A “confidential” and “not authorized to be published” document sent from the U.S. embassy in Emirates to Washing DC, dated October 15, 2009, in which the sender (not precisely known) speaks of the fact that the younger Emirati rulers find themselves increasingly at odds with what they consider to be the old Saudi leadership. Moreover, they try to get out of the control of their giant neighbor and build up a unique Emirati identity and seek to find bigger leadership opportunities, either in the region or in the international community. The unknown sender also added that the UAE does not miss the opportunity to tell the U.S. visiting officials that the UAE considers Saudi Arabia to be ruled by “obstreperous old men, surrounded by advisors, who believe that the earth is flat.”

The leaked conversations confirm that the long-standing differences of the past between the UAE and Saudi Arabia still overshadow the present and that disputes are even personalized to the rulers of the Emirates.

The Fate of the Saudi-Emirati Dispute

Observers of the Saudi-Emirati dispute expect several fates, centered on three levels:

The Dispute is Under Control:

Some observers believe that, despite the rivalry, the two regimes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have much more to do with each other than cut off their relationship and push them to antagonize and clash. Despite the recent tensions between the two countries, analysts see their relationship as far from a failure, although relations have become increasingly sensitive. This is because the two countries have a strategic alliance in a number of files, although details differ. This is confirmed by Mohammed bin Zayed’s visit to Riyadh on July 19, 2021, during his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman. After his arrival in Saudi Arabia, bin Zayed stated, “We discussed strengthening our strong fraternal relations and strategic cooperation…The partnership between the UAE and Saudi Arabia is strong and continuous for the good of the two countries and the region.” Recently, an agreement was struck in the OPEC Plus alliance to end the dispute between the two countries. “You had a blind eye about what brings us together; what brings us together is unfortunately more than you write,” said Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman in a press conference, addressing reporters and media.

Relationship Vulnerability and Alliance Disintegration:

The makers of this opinion indicate that, although Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a close confidant of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the two men have not met or appeared together since November 27, 2019. This refers to the lethargic state of their relationship as a result of their recent policy tracks. Some observers also believe that the accumulations of rivalry on the one hand, and the conflict on the other, between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are increasing and expanding in the recent period. This is happening in light of the intensification of economic rivalry and contradiction in the strategic choices of both regimes, so adjusting the tempo is a challenge faced by the two countries in conflict. However, in the opinion of analysts, it does not mean the end of the communication or alliance in the near perspective between the two countries.

The Complete Rupture:

This time, the dispute has started to go public, and its circles are widening. Furthermore, the competitive spirit is intensifying with the great changes in Saudi Arabia, which urgently needs huge funding for its economic programs before the transition to renewable energy is complete. In his article in Bloomberg on February 2021, the American writer and journalist Bobby Ghosh, who specializes in foreign affairs, expects the intensification of competition between the two countries because they drain their wealth of oil and gas exports. He also added that that the World Bank expects the two countries to reach that stage by 2034.

Despite that, observers say that a complete break between the two regimes is unlikely. However, if the competitive spirit intensifies, managing disagreement and trying not to confront as adversaries will continue to be the preferred policy of the parties. This is because they need each other in their policies and positions. The two regimes in the two countries will also be careful not to pass on the benefits of their rivalry to other regional parties expanding in the region, especially while the GCC is unable to stand up against them. In addition, the disintegration of the so-called “Camp of Arab moderation”, which, in addition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also includes Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain, and would bring back the wave of political Islamism by extending popular revolutions. However, the West and other regional countries in the region do not want that to happen.

The Impact of the Saudi-Emirati Dispute on the Yemeni Crisis: 

The UAE’s ruling regime adopts a policy of zero tolerance with political Islam and Islamic movements, and sponsors all forces hostile to them in the region. This procedure includes sectarian forces, rebel, and lawless militias and military coups.

As confirmed by the retired Saudi General, Anwar Ashki, the UAE has supported the Houthis (Ansar Allah) in Yemen to topple the regime in Sana’a. The UAE was the main financier of the Houthis and their ally, Saleh, in order to overrun the capital, Sana’a. That was in the context of the war against the Islah party in Yemen.

On the other hand, the UAE was among the countries of the Arab Coalition, which Riyadh announced to carry out military actions in Yemen, under the slogan of restoring the state and returning legitimacy to Yemen, on March 26, 2015. However, the UAE supported the Southern Transitional Council, which is an anti-legitimacy movement. Saudi Arabia supports legitimacy in the framework of countering the Houthis. As a result, Yemen has been in a new, armed conflict in the Southern part of the country since 2016. This happened after getting the Houthis out of Aden. On August 18, 2017, the American magazine Foreign Policy revealed the details of the secret report of the panel of experts of the international sanctions committee in Yemen. This report was presented to the United Nations Security Council and spoke of suspicious Emirati movements in Yemen, accusing the UAE of ripping up the efforts of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. The report also accused the UAE of supporting militias outside the control of the legitimate government, presenting evidence and information to reveal the UAE role in Yemen. The report also said, “The militias funded and controlled by the UAE have undermined the authority of the president and the countries that fight to return him to power,” referring to Saudi Arabia. “The use of proxy forces, operating outside a government hierarchy, creates a gap in accountability for serious violations that may constitute war crimes,” the report added.

In mid-2019, the UAE claimed its withdrawal from Yemen after having held the most prominent role in the Arab Alliance with Saudi Arabia. Consequently, this unilateral decision infuriated Saudi Arabia as it was made without prior coordination or consultation with it. However, the events demonstrated the UAE’s military presence on Socotra and Perim (Mayyun) islands in Yemen. The UAE, through its militias and backed forces, also controls vital areas of southern Yemen, such as the cities of Aden and Mukalla. It also controls strategic airports and ports overlooking the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, as well as gas and oil fields in the southern governorates.

The rivalry between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in the Yemeni arena remained present during the course of the war. The UAE sought to increase its political, military and economic influence, at the expense of Saudi influence in Yemen, in search for its own interests and prestige. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has also remained wedded to legitimacy and its traditional allies in Yemen, trying to crowd out the Emirati presence in Hadhramaut and Al Mahrah.

Here are three projections of the tracks of the Saudi-Emirati dispute on the Yemeni arena:

The track to maintain the Saudi-Emirati alliance and consensus: Managing the Yemeni crisis. This will happen while keeping the area of disagreement marginal and minimal between the two countries in order to achieve their political, economic, and military and security agendas in Yemen. In other words, the Yemeni file remains subject to the budgets of the two parties and their own accounts in each of the stations of political negotiation or military progress. However, this will weaken the Yemeni decision and strengthen the “anti-legitimate” forces in the north and south. This is because the UAE enjoys relations with both sides of the coup alliance in Sana’a, as well as the Transitional Council in Aden, which is rebellious on “legitimacy” and demands secession in the southern part of the country.

This track depends on the extent to which Saudi Arabia marginalizes the “legitimate” government and shackles its executive authority represented in its government. This happens in exchange for leaving room for the UAE and its agencies to shape the entire landscape in the south, and “legitimize” Emirati movements through retaining the Riyadh Agreement. Nothing has been achieved so far, as a reference for the management of the stage.

The track of keeping the Saudi-Emirati alliance does not preclude that some famous and active Saudi and Emirati figures on social media criticize the other party, or from launching counter-campaigns on social media pages. However, the situation seems to be more understanding and consistent at the level of the leadership of the two countries.

Track of Collision, Conflict and Turning Yemen into a Battleground Between the Two Sides: Saudi Arabia has many priorities, in terms of the war in Yemen. It wants to secure its southern border, restore the state in Yemen and eliminate Iranian threats coming from Sana’a, through the Houthi (Ansar Allah) movement. On the contrary, the UAE is pushing Yemen further to rely on coup forces in the north and south, providing financial support, weapons, training, equipment and logistical support to parties outside the “legitimate” authority. This means getting Saudi Arabia into the core of the bloody war in Yemen. This is because Saudi Arabia will be forced to have an open war with the Transitional Council and its affiliated forces and militias in order to finalize getting Yemen free from the Houthis, and then withdraw with less loses.

Under this track, both sides — Saudi Arabia and the UAE — will provide more support to their traditional allies in Yemen to tie each other’s hands. As a result, Yemen will become the arena of the Saudi-Emirati conflict, as it has been the scene of the Saudi-Iranian conflict since 2014. As the Yemeni crisis is extremely related to the security and safety of Saudi Arabia’s territories and the threats of its arch-foe Iran to its southern flank, this file is considered very sensitive for Saudi Arabia. 

However, this track depends on the extent to which Saudi Arabia supports the Yemeni “legitimate” government, strengthening its executive power, the government, the National Army and security agencies. This support will enable the legitimate government to assume full responsibilities over liberated areas and eliminate pockets of rebellion and security chaos. As a result, the leadership can return to Aden, the interim capital, at the earliest opportunity.

The Track of Solutions and Treatments: This is possible either through the track of political negotiations between all Yemeni parties, or through a military solution that ends coups and restores the state project and allows the return of the “legitimate” government. According to this track, the dispute between Saudi Arabia and the UAE will weaken their influence on the Yemeni affairs in favor of purely internal Yemeni solutions and treatments. However, such solutions will be based on the cost of the conflict between them and the impossibility of the continuation of the alliance as well. Consequently, the restoration and the presence of the Yemeni decision will appear to be the nearest solution for both of them. 

On the whole, the Yemeni side should do the following: 

  • Observe the Saudi position of the UAE regarding Yemen because it is the actual measure of the extent to which Riyadh is moving to correct the course of its military intervention in Yemen, so that the war ends in full guarantee of the interests of both the Republic of Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

  • Seek to make the Yemen’s sovereign decision independent, away from the regional parties’ attraction or to use it in favor of their own agendas or inter-governmental disputes.

  • Not wait for the external changes in regional and international positions because they depend mainly on the balance of power on the ground, the legitimacy of actions and positions, public acceptance and popular satisfaction. The Yemeni government should also work hard to strengthen the track of military resolution on the fronts that it can win.

  • Mobilize regional and international public opinion in such circumstances in favor of supporting legitimacy. Yemen should also demand the UAE’s complete withdrawal from its territories, move internationally to file lawsuits to condemn its actions in Yemen, and demand compensation for the damage caused in private and public affairs.

Click to download the article

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button