A finger in every pie

When it comes to furthering their own interests, few political actors are currently attempting to influence developments in the Middle East and North Africa on so many fronts as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). By Matthias Sailer

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Matthias Sailer

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 fingers in every pie – with further regional destabilisation the usual outcome.

Aside from the inexperience and aggression of the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his counterpart and mentor in the Emirates Mohammed bin Zayed, two primary motives serve to explain their regional-political actions.

On the one hand, the foreign policies of both actors are to this day essentially shaped by the core domestic policy interests of the royal families in the two nations, namely the safeguarding of their autocratic rule. This means in particular the eradication or control of the domestic opposition.

Threat to Wahhabist state religion

At the heart of this stood and still stands, Islamist groups with ideological proximity to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. This is because since the 1950s, many members of this organisation have fled Egypt and emigrated to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where they have been able to disseminate their ideas.

For the Saudi ruling dynasty, which essentially bases its domination on its state religion, this ideology represents a threat. This is because the state propagates an interpretation of Islam that emphasises obedience to the ruler, in which few scenarios exist that would allow a person to challenge those in power.

Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (right) with Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh (photo: picture-alliance/AA)
The Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis: aside from the inexperience and aggression of the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his Emirati counterpart and mentor Mohammed bin Zayed, two primary motives serve to explain their regional-political actions. On the one hand, the foreign policies of both actors are essentially shaped by the core domestic policy interests of their respective royal families, namely the safeguarding of their autocratic rule. On the other, they seek to stem the regional influence of Shia Iran

The Muslim Brotherhood ideology, on the other hand, sets the bar much lower on this question. For this reason in 2011, Saudi leaders feared that – emboldened by the rebellion and the ensuing elections – the Brotherhood in Egypt might try to mobilise supporters of its ideology in Saudi Arabia against the ruling family.

At home, in line with this perception of a threat, the royal family attempted to counter potential opponents of the system with repression. This strategy was accompanied by a generous package of financial sweeteners, as a way of calming discontent and making it difficult for the Islamists to stoke criticism.

Youthful population feeling the economic pinch

In this way, rulers tried to compensate for the nation's difficult socio-economic situation. It is the country's high youth unemployment rate (31% in 2016 according to the World Bank) that is putting the House of Saud under particular pressure, especially as approximately 60% of the population is under 30.

Although the nation is one of the wealthiest in the world, its rulers have in recent decades failed to reduce the economy's oil-dependency and invest oil billions in the development of oil-independent economic sectors. But the falling price of oil since 2014 has massively reduced state revenue. As around 40% of all Saudis are employed in the public sector and even the private sector is heavily dependent on public investment, the current strategy is no longer viable.To resolve these problems, King Salman and his Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Salman, are relying on ′Vision 2030′, a plan to make the state and the economy less oil-dependent.

But this means additional economic pressure on the young, which Saudi leaders are trying to make bearable for the people by granting them greater social freedoms. In order to implement these reforms, the Saudi Crown Prince has also purged potential challengers within the royal family as far as possible.

The rulers of the UAE are facing similar challenges. They also move against any form of opposition, particularly if it shares the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. But economically speaking, they are in a more comfortable position. This is because with a significantly smaller population and territory, there is more of the huge oil revenues to go around.

Gitex 2017 Ruyaa (′Vision 2030′) in the Saudi Arabian pavilion (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Heralding an economic transition via modernisation and diversification: to resolve these problems, King Salman and his Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Salman, are relying on ′Vision 2030′, a plan to make the state and the economy less oil-dependent

Moreover, those in power in the UAE have already diversified the economy to a considerably greater extent, something that has earned them high esteem among the population. On the other hand, the ruling dynasty does not maintain an alliance with an influential clergy that could protect its position of power against challenges from an Islamist opposition. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi is one of the most intransigent opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood. The same applies to several of his key advisers.

United in their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood

These factors exert a considerable influence on the foreign policy of both Gulf states. Since 2011 they have positioned themselves against the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in its motherland Egypt. In this endeavour, between the toppling of the Egyptian President and Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 and 2015 alone, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have paid donations and credits worth approximately 27 billion USD to Cairo.

The embargo against Qatar imposed in June 2017 also needs to be viewed in this context. Qatar's support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in the Arab world as a whole, as well as its sheltering of dissidents and other supporters of the organisation and its regional affiliations, are a decisive reason for the aggressive treatment of the emirate.

The fact that King Salman has up to now been more pragmatic in his approach to the Muslim Brotherhood – outside Saudi Arabia at least – than his predecessor King Abdallah, should not belie the fact that Saudi Arabia fundamentally views the organisation as a threat – if perhaps less so than the UAE.

But the aim of safeguarding their rule and associated socio-economic interests is not the sole issue determining the foreign-policy approach of both actors. Geostrategy is a second key factor.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are chiefly concerned with stemming the regional influence of Shia Iran. Regime survival does also play a role in this conflict to some extent, in efforts to prevent potential Iranian attempts to incite the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. But this is essentially an hegemonic conflict. After all, the kingdom's Shia population is a mere 10%. By portraying them as a fifth column of Iran Saudi government propaganda has been able to stoke mistrust against them among the kingdom's Sunni majority. The threat of a broad mobilisation against the ruling family that could threaten their survival therefore remains small.

Saudi rials (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
An economy in free fall? At the beginning of 2018, the Saudi political elite launched the latest in a series of economic reforms: value-added tax. The government also upped the price of petrol by more than 80 percent. Plummeting oil prices in recent years have exerted huge pressure on the conservative Islamic kingdom, which invests considerable amounts in weapons. Saudi Arabia′s budget deficit in 2017 reached 8.9 percent – a minus of 230 billion rials (some 52 billion euros)

Stemming the regional influence of Iran

With the growing regional influence of Iran, a process that has been in place for quite some time already, the picture is a different one. Its direct military presence in Syria, its considerable influence on numerous Shia militia in Iraq and on Hezbollah in Lebanon and also – although far less here – its involvement in Yemen, or in other words on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have set alarm bells ringing in these nations. This should also be viewed in the context of the fact that the export of Iranian revolution ideology to other countries is part of the Iranian state doctrine.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE therefore exert huge pressure on actors that maintain close relations with Tehran. For example, the embargo against Qatar is also due to its relations with Iran, which shares a gas field with the emirate.

In Yemen, both Gulf states fear that Iran might establish a kind of second Hezbollah on the Arabian Peninsula, which could then – as happened in Lebanon – develop into a powerful military and political actor. For this reason, they initiated an extensive military intervention against Houthi rebels, some of whom were supported by Iran, in 2015.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are keen to minimise Iran's position in the post-war order. This also includes preventing the establishment of a land bridge from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

This is why they have even maintained good security relations with Israel, an arch enemy of Iran. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to improve their relations with the central government and push back Iranian influence there through possible reconstruction aid. And in Lebanon, they have attempted to put pressure on the prime minister to adopt a tougher stance towards the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah.  

In future, individual foreign policy strategies will continue to be difficult to predict, in particular those of Saudi Arabia, owing to the impulsivity of the Crown Prince there. However, there is no indication that the fundamental interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are set to change dramatically any time soon and this means these will continue to set the tone of the foreign policy of these nations.

Matthias Sailer

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Matthias Sailer is a doctoral scholar of the ZEIT foundation Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius.