As the Arab world uprisings in 2011 erupted in a number of countries and ousted some conservative regimes, Saudi Arabia and the UAE initially struggled to save the status quo in the allied countries but when they could not, they tried to bring to rule like-minded political elites.
As time passed by, they shifted their approach, adopting an aggressive policy to get influence for their camp especially after the assumption of power in Saudi Arabia by King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son Prince Mohammed.
But they do not appear to have moved this way evenly as the current regional conditions suggest that Abu Dhabi has deepened its influence in many cases while Riyadh’s influence declined, something that could push to a collision course the interests of the former allies and current rivals.
Since the rise to power of King Salman in Saudi Arabia five years ago and especially after his son Mohammed was named the Crown Prince, the Kingdom took a way of aggressive policy so that it could give shape to a regional order favorable to Riyadh. In fact, in the last years of the rule of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the Saudis saw the regional developments posing a threat to their security interests and also conservative approaches and also serving a promotion to the regional position of Iran as the Arab kingdom’s old rival. In fact, they got the belief that the balance of power was transforming in favor of the Tehran-led Axis of Resistance.
In the middle of this situation, the new generation of political elites who were devoid of deep political experience saw the solution in the full-scale confrontation of the regional changes through military force, media propaganda, support of terrorism against the rivals, and fueling insecurity and conflicts.
They launched their multi-faceted project to tip the scales in their favor. Saudi Arabia has the full UAE help in its destabilization campaign across the region. They did so through a military coalition that struggled to realize their objectives. The coalition waged a war against Yemen as a direct target. However, since the beginning of the anti-Yemeni bombing and then ground campaigns, days witnessed the emergence of conflict between some policies of the two Arab allies.
As time went by, the Yemen case turned into a separation point of the policies of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia, which never calculated for a years-long war and thought it could seize the capital Sana’a within a week or two, ran into serious troubles. A string of factors hamper Saudi Arabia’s maneuvering power in the Yemeni case:
1. The prolonged Yemen war dramatically increased Saudi military costs. The country calculated for at worst one-month war without knowing that it was waging a war that could last for years as it continues to date.
2. The credibility of Prince Mohammed who at the time of the start of the war was defense minister is heavily damaged. After all, he is directly responsible for the case and failing to make the least gains left his credibility at home and abroad on the skids.
3. The international pressure is ever-building on the Saudi Arabian rulers as they are committing genocide in the already-impoverished country. So far, the air campaign left hundreds of thousands dead and more wounded and millions displaced. A majority of the victims are women and children. The strikes mainly target the Yemeni infrastructure. The world community pressures cut the kingdom’s power to maneuver in Yemen’s case.
4. The home division makes things worse for Saudi Arabia. There are clashes between Mohammed and the other royals who want him removed from his post. This is adding to his troubles.
5. Actually, the Saudi regional influence is fed by bribery and financial support to the allied sides which is funded by huge oil revenues. But now that the oil industry is in dire straits amid free fall in oil prices on which the Saudi is greatly dependent, its regional sway is expected to see a downturn. The UAE which is less dependent on oil incomes is expected to attract the political and economic partners of Saudi Arabia.
All these factors have driven Riyadh to prioritize finding solutions to its internal problems, especially the setbacks to the future ascension to the throne by bin Salman. And this largely cut its power to act influentially in important regional cases.
On the other side, the UAE, which seems to have been following specific goals and mainly different from those of Saudi Arabia since the beginning of their alliance, strengthened its toehold in the region and its role in many important cases. It is within this path that Abu Dhabi, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is leading a number of essential strategies to intensify its power to affect the regional equations. Here are they:
1. Expanding ties with Egypt to increase the power to influence equations, especially in North Africa. The Arab emirate has made huge investments in Egypt since the uprising. The face of this cooperation is its role in Egypt’s construction of the Berenice military base on the Red Sea coast. The large, multi-purpose base was inaugurated in mid-January. Its active role in Libya, a scene of war for Egypt-backed militia and Government of National Accord supported by Turkey, comes within its relations with Egypt.
2. Expanding ties with the Red Sea coastal states along with implementing its domineering projects in Yemen. The strategy is designed to give it access to the geopolitically important regional areas. An example is its attempt to gain control over islands in the vicinity of the Gulf of Aden and Bab-el-Mandeb.
3. Exceeding Saudi Arabia in the Arab-Israeli normalization case to take a lead in this area is another strategy of Abu Dhabi. The latest moves by the small emirate and especially stances taken by its officials regarding Tel Aviv obviously reveal this strategy.
It seems that the UAE is seizing the chance provided by the decrease of the Saudi power to influence the regional equations due to home troubles and international pressures. It takes this opportunity to embark on strategies aimed at promoting its role in important West Asian and North African cases.