Cartoon by Osama Hajjaj
When the Saudis and Emiratis fall out
By David Hearst
Middle East Eye: Just over a fortnight after he issued a decree stripping Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive in Abu Dhabi on Friday to collect a prize - the Order of Zayed, the statelet’s highest civilian award.
This makes perfect business sense for the little Sparta of the Gulf, hell-bent on establishing its own seaborne empire, from the ports of Yemen to the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean and beyond.
India is the third-largest energy consumer in the world and the Emiratis’ second-largest trading partner. So why should the Emiratis care for seven million Kashmiris in Indian-administered Kashmir, whose internationally recognised dispute is now to be treated as an “internal matter” for India.
Its ally, lord and master, Saudi Arabia, should.
This is not such breezy matter for the House of Saud, which bases its legitimacy on presenting itself as the voice of Muslims, not least the four million living in the Kashmir Valley.
The Emirati path to the unlimited markets of India is strewn with elephant traps for their neighbour Saudi Arabia.
It starts in Riyadh’s backyard, Yemen.
Emirati and Saudi strategies for a country the two nations have wrecked in their intervention against the Houthis have clearly diverged.
Both train and pay local militias. But the Saudis want the effort directed at the north, from where all the attacks on Saudi air bases, airports and oil infrastructure are launched.
Having tried and failed to bring the defunct regime of the former Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh back to life through his son, the Emiratis have embarked on another strategy.
Amid a widescale troop redeployment, the UAE is clearly backing southern separatists.
With the Emiratis behind it, the Southern Transitional Council’s forces have seized the port city of Aden, and are now massing around a number of military camps in neighbouring Abyan province that are loyal to the exiled Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Even amid the fog of war and the ever-shifting matrix of tribal loyalty and allegiance in Yemen, there is now little doubt as to what is going on in Aden.
Just before he was “deported”, as he termed it, from Aden, Hadi’s interior minister, Ahmed al-Maisari, posted a video congratulating his brothers in the UAE “for their victory over us”.
“We are leaving but only to come back. We are speaking to you from Aden, we are heading to the airport in an hour or two so that they can ‘deport’ us to Riyadh,” he said.
“Thanks to the [Southern Transitional Council] for robbing our houses, cars and personal belongings.”
Maisari said the separatist takeover of Aden had been powered by 400 armoured vehicles driven by mercenaries doing the UAE’s bidding.
Eyes on Hodeidah
Aden may not be only the only Yemeni port to fall to an Emirati-funded separatist southern state.
Dr Mohammad al-Rumihi, a Kuwaiti political analyst writing in the Saudi-controlled Asharq al-Awsat, suggested the breakup of Yemen, a state he depicted as being in a permanent state of war, was a good thing.
“However, if we have a true republic in the south that would pave the way for the building of a modern state there, it will then be able to control the mainland in the south and safeguard the Red Sea - the Strait of Mandeb,” he wrote.
“These are the two important terminals for international maritime. It will also prevent terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS from filling the political vacuum.”
Warming to this theme of the breakup of Yemen, Rumihi eyed the northern port of Hodeidah as the next prize for southern separatists.
“If we annex the port of Hodeidah (to the south), the north would then be able to find its own mechanism that would guarantee a certain degree of stability,” he posited.
This amounts to a policy of letting the unconquerable north of Yemen rot.
Is this in the interests of Riyadh, which already is hard put to protect its airports and military bases from Houthi drones and rockets deep inside the kingdom?
And who, by the way, has sent its troops “on a training and advise mission” to guard the Saudi royal family? Pakistan.
History of bad blood
The confidence that the Emiratis show in pursuing strategies which openly diverge with Riyadh’s is a relatively recent phenomenon in the relationship between the two Arabian Peninsula states.
As Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University in Beirut, writes, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have endured decades of hostility over land and sea disputes, and rivalry between the Zayeds and the Sauds.
“When the UAE came into existence in December 1971, Riyadh achieved its objective of excluding Qatar and Bahrain from the new federal state. Tremendous Saudi pressure forced the UAE to sign the 1974 Treaty of Jeddah that ceded claims to the Khor al-Udaid inland sea that linked it to Qatar,” Khashan wrote.
“Riyadh refused to recognize the UAE's independence until its president, Zayed bin Sultan, signed the treaty under duress although the UAE has not yet ratified the treaty. When UAE head Khalifa bin Zayed took office in 2004, he visited Riyadh and demanded the treaty's abrogation, ushering in an explosive crisis between the two states that took six years to subside.”
When a young, power-hungry Saudi prince in Mohammed bin Salman happened along, the elder and wiser Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed was not slow to seize his opportunity.
It was he and his ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, not the Saudi establishment, who beat a path to the door of the Oval Office for Mohammed bin Salman, as I have recorded in past reports.
This is not to absolve the Saudi crown prince of agency and responsibility for the terror in which he has plunged his country, arresting, torturing and plundering political opponents and family rivals alike - all under the guise of “anti-corruption” and “modernisation”.
But the fact that Mohammed bin Salman is now surrounded by henchmen whose primary loyalty is to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the royal family.
Even with their pliant prince in total control of the family and kingdom, the Emiratis keep a close watch on affairs in Riyadh and monitor the slightest deviation from orthodoxy >>>
David Hearst is the editor in chief of Middle East Eye. He left The Guardian as its chief foreign leader writer.