Is UAE and Saudi Arabians are the same - Dialogue with the Islamic World

Whether in the civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Libya, the Qatar crisis, the Middle East conflict, in Egypt, Lebanon or Iraq: Saudi Arabia and the UAE have their hands in the game - usually with the result that the region is further destabilized .

In addition to the inexperience and aggressiveness of the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his Emirati counterpart and mentor Mohammed bin Zayed, there are two main motives that explain their regional political activities.

On the one hand, the foreign policy of both actors is still largely fed by the domestic core interests of the royal families there, namely the safeguarding of their autocratic rule. Securing rule means fighting or controlling the domestic opposition.

Danger to the Wahhabi state religion

The focus was and still is on Islamist groups whose ideology is close to that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. This is because since the 1950s many members of this organization fled Egypt and immigrated to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where they could spread their ideology.

This ideology poses a danger to the Saudi ruling house, which bases its rule largely on its state religion. Because the state propagates an authoritarian interpretation of Islam in which there are very few scenarios in which it would be allowed to stand against its ruler.

The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, sets the hurdles considerably lower. Therefore, the Saudi leadership feared in 2011 that the brotherhood, strengthened in Egypt by the uprising and the subsequent elections, might try to mobilize supporters of its ideology in Saudi Arabia against the ruling house.

Domestically, the royal family tried to counter potential opponents of the system through repression in accordance with this perception of threats. In order to remove the breeding ground for criticism from the general public from the Islamists, this strategy continued to be accompanied by an extensive package of financial benefits.

Economic pressure on the young population

In this way, the rulers tried to compensate for the difficult socio-economic situation in the country. In particular, the high level of youth unemployment (31 percent according to the World Bank in 2016) is putting the Al-Sauds under pressure, especially since around 60 percent of all Saudis are under 30 years of age.

Although the country is one of the richest in the world, the country's rulers have failed in the past few decades to reduce the economy's oil dependency and to invest the oil billions in the development of oil-independent economic sectors. However, due to the collapse of the oil price since 2014, government revenues have fallen massively. Since around 40 percent of all Saudis are employed in the state sector and the private sector is also heavily dependent on state investments, the previous strategy can no longer be maintained.

To solve these problems, King Salman and his crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, are relying on the "Vision 2030", a plan through which the state and the economy should become less dependent on oil.

However, this means additional economic pressure on the young population, which the Saudi leadership is trying to make tolerable by granting more social freedoms. In order to implement these reforms, the Saudi crown prince largely disempowered the rest of the royal family.

The rulers of the UAE face similar challenges. They too take action against any opposition, especially if it is close to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. But economically they are in a more comfortable situation. Because the leadership only has to share the enormous oil revenues with a much smaller population on a smaller national territory.

In addition, the rulers of the UAE have already diversified the economy significantly more, which on the one hand has earned them a high reputation among the population. On the other hand, the ruling house has no alliance with an influential clergy that could protect its position of power from attacks by an Islamist opposition. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi is one of the most uncompromising opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood. The same is true of some of his key advisors.

Joint stand against the Muslim Brotherhood

These factors largely determine the foreign policies of the two Gulf states. The latter have positioned themselves against the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in their mother country Egypt since 2011. Between the overthrow of the Egyptian President and Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and 2015 alone, the UAE and Saudi Arabia made grants and loans worth an estimated 27 billion US dollars to Cairo.

The embargo against Qatar imposed in June 2017 should also be seen against this background. Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and throughout the Arab world, including its shelter for dissidents and other supporters of the organization and their regional affiliations, are a key reason for the aggressive approach against the emirate.

The fact that King Salman has so far dealt with the Muslim Brotherhood more pragmatically than his predecessor King Abdallah, at least outside of Saudi Arabia, should not hide the fact that Saudi Arabia also sees the organization as a fundamental threat - albeit less than the UAE.

However, it is not only socio-economic interests that are oriented towards securing power and associated with it that decisively determine the foreign policy behavior of both actors. Geostrategy is a second important factor.

For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the main concern is to curb the regional influence of Shiite Iran. To some extent, securing power also plays a role in this conflict, as the aim is to prevent possible Iranian attempts at sedition by Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia. At its core, however, it is a hegemonic conflict. Because the proportion of the Shiite population in the kingdom is only ten percent and the risk of a mobilization that could endanger rule is low.

Regional containment strategies against Iran

The situation is different with Iran's long-standing, growing regional influence. Its direct military presence in Syria, the strong influence on numerous Shiite militias in Iraq and on Hezbollah in Lebanon and the - albeit far less - involvement in Yemen, i.e. in the immediate vicinity of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have these states in a mood of alarm offset. This must also be seen against the background that the export of the Iranian revolutionary ideology to other states is part of the Iranian state doctrine.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are therefore putting great pressure on actors who are close to or have close ties with Iran. The embargo against Qatar can also be explained by its relations with Iran, with which the emirate shares a common gas field.

In Yemen, the two Gulf states feared that Iran could set up a kind of second Hezbollah on the Arabian Peninsula, which - similar to Lebanon - could develop into a powerful military and political actor. In 2015 there was therefore an extensive military intervention against the Houthi rebels, some of whom were supported by Iran.

There is an interest in Syria in minimizing Iran's position of power in post-war Syria. This also includes preventing a land bridge from Iran via Iraq to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Even with Israel, one of Iran's archenemies, good security relationships are maintained. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to improve their relations with the central government and to reduce Iranian influence there through possible reconstruction aid. And in Lebanon, attempts have been made to put pressure on the prime minister to take a more offensive position against Iran-controlled Hezbollah.

In the future, individual foreign policy approaches, especially Saudi Arabia, will continue to be difficult to predict due to the impulsiveness of the Crown Prince there. However, the two basic interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE will not change much in the near future and will continue to form the guidelines of their foreign policy.

Matthias Sailer

© 2018

Matthias Sailer is a doctoral scholarship holder from the ZEIT Foundation Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius.

Authoritarianism, economy, Hezbollah, Houthi rebels, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Muslim Brotherhood | Muslim Brotherhood, petroleum, Shiite-Sunni conflict, Syrian civil war, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Wahhabism, Yemen conflict
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