Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (Emirates Today)

Are KSA and the UAE Vying for Regional Leadership?


Thu, 02-02-2023 12:21 AM, Aden Time

Jacob Al-Sufyani & Abdullah Al-Shadli (South24)

The mutual relationships between Saudi Arabia and UAE are described as being the strongest and the closest in the whole region. The roots of these relations date decades back since the establishment of the UAE in 1971 and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. With the dynamics of the regional and international scene, the two countries have adopted positions which were seen by some experts as being signs of competition for regional leadership, especially with the reconfiguration of the global order and the decline of the unipolar policy.

However, during decisive moments, this relationship has proved to be solid as it is based on a common vision about many issues related to the two countries and the region. It has developed during the era of the current Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. [1]

The unified position towards the so-called “Arab Spring” revolutions and the subsequent establishment of a broad military coalition to support the legitimacy in Yemen in 2015 and counter the Houthi coup against the state in Sanaa constituted the most prominent aspects of the strong relationships between the two states over the past years. The two countries led their operations in Yemen together despite the differences in assessing the results they achieved in Yemen which entered its eighth year of war. 

In May 2014, a joint supreme committee led by the two countries’ Foreign Ministers was established. At the same month of 2016, an agreement was signed to establish a coordination council which aims at making consultations and coordination in the matters of common interests. [2]

In June 2018, the two allied countries launched the “Strategy of Resolve” which includes a common vision to integrate between the two countries at the economic, development and military levels through 44 joint strategic projects. 350 officials belonging to 139 governmental, sovereign and military bodies from the two countries have worked in the strategy. [3]

Parallel, the two countries are making their way towards their ambitions and goals at all levels, especially the political, economic and the regional clout. This has stirred talks about the escalation of the competition and whether it is able to penetrate the wall of solid relationship and turn it into a point of contention.

In the midst of that, the Yemeni file has emerged as one of the issues that has witnessed a strong presence from the two countries in a way that affects its course of events.

Entrenched relationships

Saudi security and strategic researcher Brigadier General Mutair Al-Rwahily describes the relationships between KSA and UAE as being “solid”.

He told “South24 Center”: The UAE and Saudi Arabia have strong ties and commonalities. Nothing can affect their relationship whatever happens. It is a strategic relationship. They have strong ties like other GCC states”.

Dr. Mohammed Baharoon, the Chairman of Dubai Public Policy Research Center believes that “the Emirati-Saudi relationships have a brotherly nature, strategic in their objectives, integrative in their operations, and dynamic in their pace”.

He told “South24 Center”: “Both countries have a common vision for the region and the world. They work in concert through a number of coordination committees even within different domains. They work in a proactive way which gives them a dynamic dominated by a proactive look”.


On December 9th, the UAE President Sheikh, Mohammed Bin Zayed, was absent from the two (Gulf-Sino and Arab-Sino) summits held in Riyadh. Ruler of the Emirate of Fujairah, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi attended on his behalf. 

Bin Zayed’s absence from the two important summits raised questions and speculations, especially that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, usually does this task on behalf of the UAE President like what happened in the opening of the Arab Summit in Algeria and the World Cup qualifiers in Doha. [4]

Similarly, the absence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman from the consultation meeting which gathered the leaders of the UAE, Egypt, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan on January 18th in Abu Dhabi raised the same questions again and stirred up a pandemonium on the social media platforms about the backgrounds and reasons. [5]

Political analysts and activists considered the absence of the Saudi Crown Prince as an indication of a "disagreement" phase between the two countries. [6] On the other hand, others believed that what happened is “natural” and doesn’t necessarily refer to any disputes. [7] 

Saudi Arabia was not the only country which didn’t attend the meeting as Kuwait was also absent. Sultan of Oman Haitham Bin Tariq participated for the first time in a regional summit since he came to power. Al-Rwahily rules out any form of tension or disagreement between the two countries. 

He said: “There is no way for disputes between brothers. They may have different visions and certain positions which probably carry some contrast but they don’t amount to the level of conflict”.

He added: “What has been stirred recently are related to the conditions of these countries. The international circumstances have witnessed a state of political instability which creates confusion regarding taking positions for some countries which don’t adopt a clear vision unlike Saudi Arabia which has a clear one”. He said that “the GCC’s leaders have enough wisdom and cohesiveness to contain any Gulf disputes or different points of view. Therefore, they would be able to bypass them in light of this principle”.

He continued: “We all know that the Qatari-Gulf dispute was solved in a very smooth way and didn’t go too far. They were in contact with each other even during the time of the dispute. Everything has been back to normal. The siblings have restored their brotherly relationships. This is the best real example”. 

The Saudi researcher believes that “what has been published are just words from analysts and media platforms, some of which have political purposes and try to expand the circle of doubts and rumours”. Al-Rwahily bets that the relationships are in good shape and that even if something happens, it will be accidental and will be overcome". 

There is no doubt that KSA seeks to challenge the UAE’s position as an economic hub in the region. In 2021, Saudi Arabia declared its intention to ask the foreign countries which want to secure government contracts to make their regional headquarters within the kingdom. Western experts believed that the fact that the Saudi official news agency ignored the meeting and other high-profile Emirati events held this month may support this view. 

For his part, Baharoon believes that "the ties between Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed and Prince Mohammed Bin Salman are bigger than just attending or not attending a summit. There is clear cooperation in very complicated files at both international and regional levels".

He added: "Questions about the UAE-KSA relationships are bigger than those related to the France-Germany ties although they are strategic partners in several issues".

In this regard, Southern politician Adel Al-Shabhi told "South24 Center": "The absence of both countries' leaders from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi summits in different events does not suggest a dispute or confirm it, especially that we have not heard any statement from any official in the two countries hinting or pointing to any disagreement".

Al-Shabhi believes that "there are political messages by these meetings which will impact several important files in the region among these countries as well as their relationships with the Israeli enemy and the developments of the Yemeni file".

Regional Leadership 

Previously, "Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington'' claimed that there is a "real crack" in the relationships between Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding a dispute over oil production between members of OPEC+. It said that the UAE has emerged as a more capable international player and that its current desire for public feud with KSA is a result of its growing power.

Back to the Abu Dhabi summit, "Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington''- chaired by former US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald M. Feierstein,- said: " It is clear that the hexagonal summit was designed to demonstrate the Emirati regional leadership".

However, Baharoon does not see that there is a leadership rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

He added: "There is no such rivalry. I don't think that the UAE has ambitions to dominate the region. Our view for leadership is related to the conceptual level and establishing successful applicable models that open more horizons of cooperation rather than closing them".

He added: "Undoubtedly, there is a positive competition in achieving the national goals. However, there is no rivalry between the two countries for leading the region. There is a possible disagreement on the implementation mechanisms but I don’t see any dispute regarding the strategic look to the region".

There is no Saudi-Emirati disagreement about the nature of the global threats, whether climate change, food security or energy security according to the Emirati researcher. He added: "There is no disagreement over dealing with complex regional files such as Iraq, Egypt, Sudan or Ethiopia. The mechanisms for dealing with these issues may differ sometimes or in the order of priorities, but this does not mean a disagreement".

Al-Rwahily agrees that "The kingdom and the UAE have not been in feud to engage in a conflict over this". He added: "Saudi Arabia puts the interests of its GCC neighbors ahead of its own interests".

Al-Rwahily said that "the Gulf states are under the umbrella of GCC. All decisions of these countries are not taken by majority, but by consensus. 

The occurrence of a situation in which there is some degree of discrepancy between this and that country, does not necessarily mean a dispute”. 

The Indian famous platform "TFI Media" drew a similarity between Saudi Arabia and UAE in the Middle East on one side and France and Germany in Europe on the other side. It said: “France and Germany had engaged in bloody wars in the 20th century. However, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi don’t share such bitter memories but what is between them is more complicated than you might think”.

STC’s official Adel Al-Shabhi agreed with the two Gulf experts that there is no regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and UAE. He added: “I don’t see a rivalry related to the role of each one in the region. There has probably been economic competition but does not amount to the degree of conflict and dispute”.

He added: “I confirm that there is integration between the two countries, and great coordination between their leaderships. There is a conviction between the leaderships of the two countries on the importance of integration and joint action in everything related to their fate and their role in the region, especially with regard to the Yemeni file."

Nonetheless, the Foreign Policy Magazine previously described the relationships between the two countries as being in a “turbulent new era”. The magazine mentioned a series of political disagreements between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that included “the positions towards the war in Yemen, the pace of reconciliation with Qatar after 3.5 years of dispute, normalizing relations with Israel represented in the Abraham Agreements, managing relationships with Turkey, OPEC production shares, Iran strategy and cross-border trade”. 

The Yemeni file

UAE is the only remaining country in the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Yemen and the several attacks launched by the Iran-backed Houthis against the two countries, especially Saudi Arabia through the ballistic missiles and drones. They were criticized for their military role in the Yemen war. 

On the other hand, the two countries have continued supporting parties within the camp of the internationally-recognized government. However, it has not been a unified support. While the UAE supports STC and its military and security forces remarkably in South Yemen, Riyadh provided unlimited military support to the forces of “the national army” which was run over the past years by the Islah Party in North Yemen.

Furthermore, the UAE has supported operations to combat extremist groups such as ISIS and AQAP in the cities of South Yemen by the Southern forces in parallel with supporting the anti-Houthi forces in the western coast. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has focused on the fronts of Marib, Al-Jawf, Hajjah and Al-Baydah where the Houthis have ultimately achieved their biggest victories. 

Qatari media outlets have long accused the UAE of supporting the Southern forces who seek for the independence of South Yemen although the UAE has not declared this publicly. On the other hand, Western research centers accused Saudi Arabia of supporting the Islah Party, the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Yemen.

However, Baharoon believes that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a "unified vision regarding the Yemeni file and its stability". He indicated that "South Yemen's right for self-determination is not a matter of dispute between the two countries. They probably believe that practicing this right after the end of the crisis will be more sustainable than doing this during it".

"Undoubtedly, there are differences regarding the reliability of the players in the Yemen arena, whether in South Yemen or North, based upon the experience of each team. Furthermore, there are differences in evaluating the scale of political and security value of each player. There are differences on the tactical assessment not a strategic one," he added.

Consequently, Baharoon believed that "the dissimilarity is natural and has no impact on the strategic orientation. There is an Emirati support of the Saudi political moves and there is a Saudi support of the stability policies adopted by the UAE in Yemen".

Al-Rwahily believes that "the UAE, KSA and other GCC and the Arab Coalition states have made great efforts led by KSA to prevent the Houthi expansion and the Iranian penetration in the region and restraining it".

He said: "Saudi Arabia launched an initiative by King Salman Center for the reconstruction of Yemen, supporting the Central Bank of Yemen, relieving the humanitarian crisis and providing all forms of support to the Yemeni government and PLC. UAE is a partner in this regard ".

However, Al-Rwahily believed that "field commanders from the two countries have views which are conveyed to their political leaders and discuss them together. Ultimately, all efforts are moving in the right direction and will continue to be so".

Al-Shabahi stressed on the importance of the Yemeni file for the two Gulf states as "each one does its role on the ground based upon the vision of the Coalition. The coordination between the two countries is very clear. Any observer can make sure of that by going back to the events and their results". 

Jacob Al-Sufyani, Aden office manager Fellow and journalist editor with South24 Center and Abdullah Al-Shadli, journalist at South24 Center for News and Studies


[1] The Fifth Allegiance of King Salman..Qualitative Move in the Saudi-Emirati Relationships -

[2] KSA and the UAE.. Close, Consistent and Integrated Relationships, Regionally and Internationally - SPA Agency

[3] The UAE and Saudi Arabia announce a joint vision for economic, developmental and military integration through 44 joint strategic projects - UAE Cabinet 

[4] The Absence of Mohammed Bin Salman from Abu Dhabi Summit Raises Questions and Controversy.. Why?

[5] El-Sisi attended while Mohammed Bin Salman was Absent: Questions about the Gulf Consultative Summit and the Absence of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - BBC

[6] Mohammed Huwaidi - Twitter

[7] Dr Mohammed Al-Hashimi Al-Hamdi - Twitter

[8] Abu Dhabi Meeting.. The First Regional Summit Attended by Sultan of Oman Since he Came to Power - Erm News

Saudi ArabiaUAEYemenArab GulfGCC