Shift of power in Arabia?

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. July 19, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Jordanian King Abdullah was the first Arab head of state to be received by President Joe Biden. Biden drew a line under the preferential treatment towards the Gulf States in the White House. His predecessor Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia as the destination of his first trip abroad in May 2017. At that time he was accompanied by Defense Minister Jim Mattis, who as a general three years earlier had ennobled the neighboring United Arab Emirates to “Little Sparta”.

In his fight against Iran and in an effort to gain recognition for Israel, Trump relied on two heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. According to the Emirati concept, it was clear which of the two would lead the way. Yusuf al-Otaiba, their ambassador to Washington, wrote, according to an email distributed by Wikileaks in 2017, that the Emirates are using Saudi Arabia to achieve their goals. It was like that. In the conflicts over Yemen, Qatar and Egypt, the emirates were in front.

The preferential treatment ended when Biden took office. The assassination of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi hangs as a log on the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (“MBS”), and the Emirates are likely to be harmed by the fact that a close friend of Trump, Thomas Barrack, is indicted.

At the same time, the balance between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates is shifting. Three factors drive the alienation between the Crown Princes, who have formed the axis of power in the Arab world in recent years: the Saudi self-confidence that it is the sole regional power, the struggle for the post-fossil era and tensions between personalities.

The new Omani Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq recognized the balance of power in the Gulf when he made his first trip abroad to Saudi Arabia on July 11. This also corresponds to the self-image of the House of Saud. It is the oldest ruling family on the Arabian Peninsula and looks back on a history of more than a quarter of a millennium. In contrast, the Nahyan house of Abu Dhabi, whose crown prince is Muhammad Bin Zayid, is only one of the seven ruling families of the Federation of the United Arab Emirates, formed in 1971. It was born when Great Britain withdrew from the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf.

Saudi Arabia draws its legitimacy from the holy places of Islam, Mecca and Medina. The Emirates score with Dubai as the place of Arab modernity and economic freedom. They are a small, albeit rich, country between the giants Saudi Arabia and Iran. The founder of the Emirates, Zayid Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, had therefore left his sons with the advice to avoid conflicts with Iran, which had occupied three Emirati islands in 1971.

Second, the Crown Princes are alienated as they are both looking for a new business model for the post-fossil era and Saudi Arabia is invading areas that Dubai owes its prosperity to. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that the share of oil in energy demand will shrink from 37 percent in 2020 to 12 percent in 2050. So there is enormous pressure to achieve success in the (too) long postponed diversification of the oil-dependent economies. The International Monetary Fund warns that the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will have used up their saved surpluses from oil sales by 2034 without far-reaching reforms.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are pursuing ambitious goals with their respective “Vision 2030”. Thanks to the success of Dubai as an international trade and service center, the Emirates are much further ahead than the Kingdom. However, the question is no longer whether Saudi Arabia will penetrate the Emirates’ domains – such as being a transit airport for international air traffic and a global logistics center. It is only a matter of the speed and force with which this happens.

Third, similar personalities play a role in the estrangement between the two crown princes. At first the ascent of both seemed blocked by older brothers. Only since his eldest brother Khalifa Bin Zayid, Emir of the Federation, was treated for a brain tumor, the ambitious Muhammad Bin Zayid, born in 1961, has been able to rule as Crown Prince alone. Muhammad Bin Salam, born in 1985, owes his rise to his older brothers’ disinterest in politics. Now at the very top, he no longer surrounds himself with other climbers, but with members of the most respected tribes and families of the kingdom.

Both crown princes pursue a “liberal authoritarianism”. But differences of opinion emerge. While the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi see Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat, both are only manageable problems for the Saudi Crown Prince. A turning point came when Saudi Arabia resorted to the Muslim Brotherhood in the battle for the city of Taizz in Yemen. It became obvious that both are pursuing different goals: Saudi Arabia wants peace on its southern border, but the Emirates want the island of Socotra and the port city of Aden in Yemen as strategic bases. It seems that Saudi Arabia alone will play the first fiddle again.

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