The Saudi-Emirati intersection | Haitham El-Zobaidi

At the intersection leading to the InterContinental Abu Dhabi Hotel, when you are coming from Al Bateen Street or from Al Khalidiya, you are bound to notice that one of the most beautiful and key streets in Abu Dhabi bears the name of the late Saudi monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. This posh street leads to some of the most important landmarks of the Emirati capital: the Emirates Palace, the Etihad Towers and the road to the Presidential Palace.

A few days ago, passing through that intersection I was reminded of a major phase in the Saudi-Emirati consensus-based relationship. Developments during this phase helped save the region from one of the most challenging crises it had faced since the modern Middle East came of age after World War I.

The Gulf region was undoubtedly the least affected part of the Arab world by the repercussions of the so-called “Arab spring”. The social and political reality in the Gulf region is very different from that of tension-plagued countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen. The social welfare state in the Gulf region has been one of political accommodation between rulers and their citizens. This, of course, did not prevent the emergence of voices in the Gulf that repeated the clamour of the early days of the “Arab spring” as it unfolded in other parts of the Arab world.

What set the Gulf reactions to the “Arab spring” upheaval apart from other responses in the Arab world was the particular awareness of Gulf leaders, quite early on, of the potentially destructive repercussions of the wave of unrest. Furthermore, nothing guaranteed that the relatively placid waters of the Gulf region would not be affected. Qatar, for example, chose to ride the raging storm by investing in the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading role in the protests, even if the Islamist organisation had only seized on the protests opportunistically. The Emirates’ leadership was alarmed by the unfolding developments.  It was keenly aware that the so-called “Arab spring” could usher in a harsh winter that would wreak havoc and destruction on the region.

In a watershed moment, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, then-crown prince of Abu Dhabi, moved decisively to convince the Saudi leadership that there was no room for hesitation about the need to cope with the crisis as it was being exploited by the two main sponsors of political Islam in the region, namely Iran and Turkey. Saudi Arabia and the UAE moved to ensure security in Bahrain, but the most important and most crucial step was their containment of the Muslim Brotherhood threat in Egypt. Their actions eventually helped deal the movement a fatal blow. The rest is history.

In times of crises, reasonable leaders in the region knew there were few options but to confront them head on and stick together in handling the challenges at stake. Saving the region from chaos buttressed the agreement between the UAE and Saudi Arabia at the time. The two countries transcended the political frictions between them over the border issues which had lingered since the inception of the United Arab Emirates. Residual manifestations of these incipient frictions still do resurface from time to time. Calm and serious demeanour as well as rigour in dealing with the “Arab spring” crisis erased the previous sight of trucks queuing up to cross from the Emirates to Saudi Arabia, against the background of a drawing on an Emirati map which the late Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz considered a violation of a Saudi “right” to a particular border area.

Then relations further evolved at the end of the reign of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and the beginning of the rule of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, which saw the meteoric rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The “special relationship” between the two countries made possible a rare political consensus in the region. Over time, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s vision for the region took shape and joint arrangements were forged between the two countries while the Saudi-UAE axis gathered momentum.

The Muslim Brotherhood had by then retreated throughout the Arab region and its bids for power disintegrated in more than one country. But the two regional powers supporting political Islam, that is Iran and Turkey, were at the apex of their ambitions. And it was necessary for the Gulf-Arab axis to stand together in confronting their threat.

The logic of the “special relationship” between the two countries was no different from any kind of other special strategic relationship between other nations which share close but not necessarily identical interests.

Take, for example, the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain. When Washington rushed towards war on Iraq, Britain did not join its campaign out of conviction but rather because it feared that the cost of staying out of the war would have exposed the relationship to more adverse repercussions. The two countries had in the past disagreed on the Vietnam War, and paid a heavy toll for their disagreement.

A lot has happened in the region since this special Saudi-UAE relationship was established. The Yemen war did not go as planned. The Iranians, the Qataris, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Omanis interfered a great deal in the conflict and the picture was muddied.

What Saudi Arabia did not achieve in northern Yemen, the Houthi-controlled territory, it then wanted to achieve in Hadramawt and Al-Mahra provinces. Some of the explanations for the cooling of the relationship between Saudis and Emiratis were linked the dispute to the outcome of the war in Yemen. In all alliances such disagreements are always expected. But the main common goals driving alliances usually eliminate or help contain difficult issues.

But in my opinion, one of the reasons for such disagreements is the UAE’s willingness, unlike Saudi Arabia, to pay the price for its political positions, regionally and globally. I am writing here as an observer and not as a strategic analyst. One cannot expect to reap only benefits from every political position or action one takes, especially when policies come in regional or international contexts, where interests intersect with those of others.

It can be said that the UAE believes there is a price to be paid for the dividends one stands to reap. It does not matter whether the price is political or economic, one has to accept paying it out of objective political consideration or mere realism. You cannot always win them all.

This is perhaps what set the positions of the UAE and Saudi Arabia apart. For some reason, there is a widespread belief in Saudi Arabia that it can emerge absolutely victorious from regional turmoil, without paying any price, or in other words without incurring any losses.

But reality says otherwise. It is not possible, for example, to consider a peace agreement with Israel that would make possible a security pact with the United States without paying some price for it. You cannot reach an agreement with Iran and be surprised by the loss of your influence in Lebanon when the Lebanese come to feel abandoned to their fate and left to deal on their own with Hezbollah and its hegemonic ambitions.

Why can you forge understandings with a relentless enemy, such as Erdogan’s Turkey, which has slandered you to the utmost degree, while you refuse to extend a helping hand to Jordan, a country on your northern border which faces a tough economic predicament and has to deal with the incitement against it from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood?

These are political examples but the logic of disengagement from the region and focus on “Saudi Arabia first” carries many economic and trade implications as well, especially since Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the region in terms of the size of its oil-driven economy.

Is there really a need to pressure major foreign companies by threatening them with loss of business in Saudi Arabia if they do not move their regional headquarters to Riyadh?

Here is the Saudi-owned MBC attracting most of the Arab drama production, especially from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, without resorting to the “either/or” policy. Just as it has decided to pay the price domestically for the astonishing social transformation on which it has embarked in recent years, Riyadh has no choice but to accept with the logic of paying the price, especially in the political realm.

Cynics and opportunists who thought they stood to gain from the fraying of the Emirati-Saudi alliance have sought to capitalise on the cooling of ties between the two countries. Social media accounts are rife with comments seeking to undermine the special relationship. Even positive developments, such as the meeting which took place between Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Al-Aziziyah Palace in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia last weekend, was spun and subjected to interpretation. The paucity of details about the encounter was misrepresented as confirmation of discord. The photograph published by the chief of staff of the Saudi crown prince, Badr Al-Asaker, and the comment about the meeting written by the advisor to the president of the UAE for diplomatic affairs, Anwar Gargash, were not enough to quell the rumours. One has the right to ask those investing in rifts: Why cannot such a meeting be a meeting of frank exchange of views including reproaches?

Once again, the region now finds itself at a dangerous crossroads, reminiscent of what happened at the beginning of the last decade, when the two countries, facing a critical juncture, joined hands. That intersection on King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Street reminds us of those fateful moments in the life of the region, and reminds Saudi visitors that it is bound to take them to the most beautiful sites in the heart of Abu Dhabi.

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