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United Arab Emirates - Saudi Relations

As formerly Bedouin, Arab Gulf oil producing states, the UAE and Saudi Arabia indeed share a similar culture and history. Differences in age, religious attitudes, and approach to modernity among the successor generations of Al Saud and Al Nahyan, however, should not be discounted. A UAE determined to succeed in establishing a national identity not necessarily in conflict with, but separate from, its big GCC neighbor has inevitably lead to an erosion of Saudi influence over UAE decision-making. These so called squabbles should not be dismissed as mere bickering. Distrust among GCC countries (which goes back to tribal days) weakens the effectiveness of the GCC as a collective and as an effective moderate player in the region.

During the 2011 [Arab Spring] uprisings, neither favoured revolutionary movements across the region. They also perceive Iran as a threat to traditional monarchism and Sunni regimes in the region, and both have had tense relations with Turkey, Both sides sometimes adopted slightly or moderately different stances on various issues, such as the war in Yemen, the Syrian war, and normalisation with Israel. Since 2018 the liaison between Saudi’s de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) has increasingly fractured. Initially, both went to war against the Iran-aligned Houthi militia in Yemen in 2015, and lobbied the United States against the Iran nuclear deal. Both imposed an economic blockade on Qatar, which they considered too friendly to Iran, too kind to the Palestinian Hamas movement, and too close to the Muslim Brotherhood. But the UAE ceased its fight against the Houthi rebels in the north of Yemen in the summer of 2019. And in August 2020, the UAE normalised its relations with Israel, essentially undermining the Saudi peace offer for the Middle East conflict – recognition of Israel in return for a Palestinian state. The struggle between the Al Saud and Al Nahyan dynasties can be traced to 1810 when the Al Saud, already in control of most of eastern Arabia, took control of the Buraimi Oasis, the traditional home of the al Nahyan, at the time poor herdsman and pearl fishermen. The Al Saud brought with them a puritanical form of Islam -- Wahabism -- which Emirati leaders still complain about as responsible for extremism and intolerance in the region.

For 150 years control of the Buraimi Oasis fell in and out of Al Saud control. In 1952 Sheikh Zayed, then the son of the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, refused a 42 million dollar bribe from the Saudis to give up Abu Dhabi's claim on Buraimi; the amount was recorded in the Guiness Book of World records as the highest bribe ever offered. In 1955 the Saudis were expelled by force by Abu Dhabi and Omani troops with the support of Britain. When the UK announced the end of its treaty arrangement with the trucial emirates in 1968, Saudi King Faisal again set his sights on Buraimi, claiming the area stretching eastward to the coast of Abu Dhabi was rightfully Saudi.

Never actually published, Saudi Arabia "registered" the text of its 1974 border agreement with the UAE with the UN in 1993. It can be found in the UN Treaty Series titled, "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates Agreement of the delimitation of boundaries (with exchange of letter and map);" signed at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 21 August 1974 by Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates.

According to the terms of the agreement, the KSA gave up its claim on the al Buraimi Oasis (located in eastern Abu Dhabi and including the traditional home territory of the Nahyan Abu Dhabi ruling family). Abu Dhabi, in turn, gave up a 23-kilometer strip of land near Khor al Odeid, cutting off any land connection between Qatar and the UAE. Under the agreement both parties have "joint sovereignty" over the entire area linking the territorial waters of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the high seas. Many argue that the Saudis primary target here was to isolate Qatar. Disagreement over interpretation of territorial waters also allowed Saudis to dispute the UAE-Qatar Causeway project in 2005.

The 1974 Agreement granted Saudi Arabia 80 percent of the land area encompassing the giant al Shaybah oil field, discovered in 1968 by Emiratis, and, unusual for this type of agreement -- 100 percent hydrocarbons rights to exploration and drilling of the entire field, including the 20 percent that remained inside UAE territory.

Leading up to Sheikh Zayed's death in November 2004 and since, the Emirati leadership has increasingly and publicly tested the Saudis will to reconsider parts of the 1974 agreement, which they believe Sheikh Zayed signed under duress. The ruling generation felt the Saudis mistreated Sheikh Zayed; the agreement was the price the Saudis insisted on in return for recognizing the new nation. It is also possible Zayed feared that if he failed to agree to the 1974 borders, the Emirati confederation would be swallowed up by the Saudi state.

Since the death of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nayhan in late 2004, his sons President Khalifa bin Zayed, Crown Price Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, demonstrated less willingness to defer to the Saudis on all issues. The leadership in Abu Dhabi never missed an opportunity to let visiting senior officials know that they regarded the Kingdom as run by cantankerous old men surrounded by advisors who believed the earth is flat. The younger Emirati successors found themselves increasingly at odds with what they view as geriatric Saudi leadership as they attempted to step out from the shadow of their giant neighbor and carve out a uniquely Emirati identity, seeking greater leadership opportunities, within the region and the international community.

By 2005 the Saudis were on bad terms with their neighbors, including Saudi objections to the proposed UAE-Qatar causeway. The Saudis were "envious" of direct UAE-Qatari contact, that was frustrating to the UAE. If the Saudis had taken a different attitude to the GCC when it was founded, political integration would be much further along than it was.

Thirty years after signing an agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over their common border, the UAE Government still viewed three issues as unsettled and needing discussion: exploitation of the Zarrarah/Shaybah oil field; the maritime border between Saudi Arabia and the UAE; and the delimitation of the convergence point of the tri-border area between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. After the two countries had signed a border agreement in 1974, the UAE realized it had conceded more than it should have. It was a case of "force majeur," he said. In 1974, the newly federated Emirates were in a "to-be-or-not- to-be" position and badly needed Saudi recognition. The period was marked by border disputes with all neighbors and until the agreement, Saudi Arabia had refused to recognize UAE passports.

The 1974 Agreement established a new land boundary between the two states that crossed the mammoth Shaybah-Zarrarah oil field, leaving approximately eighty percent of it on the Saudi side of the border. Article 3 of the Agreement states that all hydrocarbons in the field &shall be considered as belonging to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia8 and that the UAE would not engage or permit any exploration or drilling for hydrocarbons in that part of the field within its new border. Article 3 also gave Saudi Arabia the right to engage in exploration and drilling on that part of the field within the UAE and the "two states shall subsequently reach agreement on the manner in which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia shall engage in such activities". Since the Agreement was signed, the field has turned out to be among the largest oil producing formations in the world. Estimates in the trade press of its potential oil reserves have risen from 15 billion barrels to 20 billion barrels, most of it highly valued light crude. There is also twenty-five trillion cubic feet of associated gas in the field, according to Saudi Aramco.

One impact of the boundary delimitation that benefited Abu Dhabi was that Saudi Arabia formally abandoned its claims to the Buraimi Oasis that is shared between the UAE and the Sultanate of Oman. This oasis lies about 120 miles away from the current Saudi-UAE border and was a long standing subject of dispute as the tribes in the region shifted allegiances. In 1952, King Abd Al-Aziz ibn Saud sent a force to reassert claims over the oasis. After three years of failed negotiations and arbitration between the British (as the protectors of Abu Dhabi) and the Saudis, forces loyal to the Sultanate of Oman, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and the British (the Trucial Oman Scouts) recaptured the Oasis. Sheikh Zayed Al-Nahyan was the Amir's representative in Al-Ain (Buraimi) at that time and Al Ain is considered an important part of the Al-Nahyan's territory.

Tension between the two Gulf neighbors was triggered in 2005 by the UAE and Qatar's announcement of interest in building a causeway connecting the two countries. The most likely route is one that would run through waters offshore of the Saudi coastal strip granted in the Agreement. The Saudi and UAE Governments have radically different views on the UAE's legal authority to build this causeway. The text of the Agreement grants "joint sovereignty" over the coastal waters and a right of passage for Saudi Arabia to international waters. UAE officials stated that the UAE did not give up control over territorial waters (only the land border). The Saudis object to the causeway because it violates what Riyadh maintains was the Agreement,s grant to Saudi Arabia of full access to international sea-lanes from its coastal strip and &joint sovereignty8 over the waters. As joint sovereigns, Riyadh,s view is that neither state can take action in the face of objection from the other.

Ratcheting up its public stance on the border issue, the UAE's 2006 Yearbook included a map of the UAE with re-drawn borders with Saudi Arabia. In a departure from earlier yearbooks, the map (both hard copy and internet version) showed the UAE's territory extending to Qatar. The book devotes two paragraphs dealing with the territorial dispute with Saudi Arabia, noting that this was the first time that the UAE had publicly stated its 30 year position that the 1974 "provisional agreement signed between the two but not formally ratified" should be reviewed. The Yearbook quotes UAE MinState for Foreign Affairs Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed as saying, after a June 2005 visit by the Saudi Interior Minster, that "a brotherly, frank and transparent dialogue on certain boundary issues" had taken place, and that "the UAE said that some parts of the 1974 boundary agreement can no longer be implemented. The UAE, therefore presented fundamental amendments to these parts of the agreement. The UAE's stance in this respect is not new since the UAE has been expressing the same position since 1975." The yearbook noted that a negotiated solution to the issue, which concerns mainly the southern border close to the UAE's Zarrara oilfield (Saudi Arabia's Shaybah field) and the Khor Al-Odaid area (the strip of land that would connect the UAE to Qatar), is being actively sought.

The summer of 2009 witnessed a sharp uptick in tensions between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, beginning with the UAE's May 2009 decision to pull out of the GCC Monetary Union (after the Headquarters went to Riyadh when the UAE had lobbied for Dubai). Shortly thereafter the Saudis effectively closed a major border crossing. In July more than 2000 trucks backed-up on the UAE side of the Saudi Border awaiting entry to the Kingdom (Ref A). UAE customs officials reported that the problem was technical and related to the institution of a new Saudi fingerprinting system. The delays caused thousands of drivers to be trapped in temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit, ruining many UAE perishable exports. Although neither side gave any public indication that the delays were politically motivated, local commentators suggested the "humanitarian crisis" was a Saudi attempt to retaliate against the UAE for withdrawing from the GCC Monetary Union.

On 19 August 2009, the Saudis announced that Emirati citizens would have to use their passports to enter the Kingdom, rather than the identity cards traditionally accepted for GCC nationals because of an irredentist rendering of the UAE border on the back of the card. While Emiratis almost universally interpreted these actions as being evidence of the Kingdom's overbearing attitude toward smaller Gulf states, the UAE leadership was careful not to escalate the conflict and worked the issues quietly behind the scenes. The success of this approach has been confirmed by the fact that Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Al-Saud paid a lengthy visit on UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed last week in Rabat. According to one of MbZ's courtiers, the MbN call constituted a significant step toward reconciliation.

While the UAE paid lip service to the idea of GCC unity, the reality is that Abu Dhabi is deeply skeptical of multilateral approaches particularly on military matter. And while publicly expressing close ties with Riyadh, the UAE privately regards the Kingdom as its second greatest security threat after Iran (Israel was not on the list). This is based on historic enmity between the Wahabi tribes of the Najd and the Maliki Bedouin/merchants of the UAE, as well as deep seated if rarely articulated anxiety about what might happen if Saudi Arabia came under a more fundamentalist regime than the Sudairi/Abdullah reign.

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Page last modified: 19-07-2021 18:28:28 ZULU