Saudi Arabian and UAE foreign policy

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

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.

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