The Saudi-UAE clash: Power rivalry in the Middle East

Entrance of the OPEC Headquarter in Vienna, Wikimedia Commons:

Sameera Pillai

The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Plus’ (OPEC+) recent decision to increase oil production has marked the climactic end of a month-long conflict between the gulf countries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The recent disagreement is but one of a myriad of issues facing the countries' relationship and have had the potential to impact the stability of OPEC+.

This necessitates an analysis into what seems to be deep-seated issues in the Saudi-Emirati alliance. More pressingly, the recent spat has illuminated geopolitical tensions that continue to loom large and threaten to further fracture their partnership. Given their position as top oil producers in the Middle East, a breakdown of the Saudi-UAE relationship could leave lasting complications for OPEC+.

Incompatible interests

The two Gulf countries have been enmeshed in geopolitical disagreements, that have not been very public, but continue to strain the relationship behind the curtains.

For example, in 2020, the UAE signed the Abraham Accords, normalising ties with Israel and cooling the region's otherwise hostile attitude towards Israel. The Emirates became the first Arab nation to broker such an agreement with Israel in over 25 years. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, refused to sign such accords unless Israel agreed to form a peace treaty with Palestine and has indicated that an overt attempt to normalise relations with Israel does not seem likely in the near future. The de facto OPEC+ leader does share mutual interests with Israel on matters pertaining to Iran and its expansionism, and the two nations have furtively liaised with each other on security issues and shared intelligence information. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia, as the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” and committed to the causes of Islam, maintains its steadfast support for a Palestinian state, and so the possibility of a formal alliance with Israel is hampered.

So, why does Saudi Arabia continue to interfere with the UAE-Israel alliance? Analysts have a