Beyond Oil: UAE vs. Saudi Arabia’s Battle for Dominance
Before Mohammed bin Salman's ascent as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, he was a relatively obscure young prince, and his global influence was hardly discernible.
However, the trajectory of his rise was significantly altered by an influential figure from the United Arab Emirates.
As Prince Mohammed garnered attention in the mid-2010s within Saudi Arabia, notably becoming defense minister before the age of 30, it was Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the United Arab Emirates, who played a pivotal role in elevating his profile on the global stage.
Once seen as symbiotic, this dynamic partnership has experienced a perceptible strain as the Saudi Crown Prince’s relentless pursuit of personal ambition began to overshadow their camaraderie.
The deep-seated tensions and rivalry between the UAE and Saudi Arabia have historical roots but were further exacerbated during the Arab Spring when both nations found a common cause in opposing Qatar. This alignment was strategic but tenuous, and the relationship remained complicated due to their competing interests and visions for the region.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has emerged as a central point of contention between the two countries. This ambitious plan aims to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil, with a particular focus on sectors like entertainment and hospitality that are integral to the UAE’s economic success. The UAE’s longstanding regional business hub advantage is now threatened by its neighbor’s aggressive economic transformation.
Recent developments, such as the introduction of Riyadh Air and Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of Newcastle United FC, underscore the intensifying competition. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s forthcoming regulation requiring foreign companies to establish regional headquarters within the kingdom could further escalate the rivalry by forcing businesses to make strategic decisions about their Middle East operations.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s assertive political agenda has sparked international concern. The high-profile anti-corruption purge at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh in 2017 and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 have raised questions about the extent of the Crown Prince’s ambitions and the potential consequences of his unchecked power.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also engaged in conflicts beyond their borders, most notably in Yemen, where they support opposing factions in a protracted and devastating civil war. The outcome of this rivalry ultimately hinges on Saudi Arabia’s ability to deliver on the promises of Vision 2030 and navigate its ambitions while maintaining regional stability.
The future trajectory of this complex relationship remains uncertain, with significant implications for the Middle East and the broader global landscape.