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

© 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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

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