UAE-KSA relations are truly exceptional thanks to understanding between their leaders, their wise and insightful vision, and commitment to the region’s territorial integrity.
The visit by His Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Crown Prince, to the UAE in November 2019, and the positive outcome vis-à-vis bilateral relations, truly reflected the broadening horizon of this ever-strengthening partnership.
This document, titled “UAE and Saudi Arabia – A Long History of Staunch, Deeply Rooted Relations”, tackles four main topics: “The UAE and Saudi Arabia – Historical Landmarks”, “The UAE and Saudi Arabia – A Cornerstone for Arab and Regional Security”, The UAE and Saudi Arabia – Basis, Foundations and Constants”, “Saudi -UAE Coordination Council” and “Prospects of deepening Bilateral Relations”.
UAE and Saudi Arabia – Historical Landmarks
During a visit to Saudi Arabia to perform “Omra” (Lesser pilgrimage), the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (May God bless his soul) was asked about UAE–Saudi Arabia relations. He said, “The UAE stands by Saudi Arabia all the way. We believe in one common destiny, and so it is essential to close ranks and support each other”.1
This ‘common destiny’ has stood the test of time; as proved once again at the second meeting of the Saudi-UAE Coordination Council in Abu Dhabi in November, 2019, which was held under the chairmanship of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and His Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, First Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and Chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.
Speaking at the meeting, the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince said, “The UAE and Saudi Arabia relations are not just historical and strategic, but one of blood and common destiny the deep-rooted foundation of which was laid out by Sheikh Zayed and fellow brotherly kings of Saudi Arabia (May God bless their souls).”2
A joint article by Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the UAE, Turki Al-Dekheil, and UAE Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Shakhbout Al Nahyan, which was published to coincide with the Saudi Crown Prince’s visit to the UAE in November 2019, noted that “the Coordination Council is not just a response to an emergency. If we want to understand the present and the future we have to consult history. Bilateral Saudi-Emirati relations are deeply rooted in history citing originality, essence and homogeneity.3
In August 2019 Prince Khaled Al Faisal, Advisor to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Prince of the Holy Mecca Region and Chairman of the Central Haj (Pilgrimage) Committee, eloquently summed up the UAE-Saudi Arabia relations by saying, “Emiratis are Saudis and vice versa.”4
These sentiments prove that UAE-Saudi relations are not only firmly rooted in a shared past, but also form a common vision for the present and future. In this respect, three landmarks in the history of UAE-Saudi relations need to be highlighted:
I. Pre-Federation Phase:
There was a special bond between the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (May God bless his soul) and Saudi kings, especially the late king Faisal (may God bless his soul), who played a positive role in the negotiations that preceded the UAE Federation in 1971.5
His correspondence with King Faisal (May God bless their souls) reveals a staunch brotherly bond between the two leaders, which went beyond statesmanship, including a letter on 4 February 1967 in which Sheikh Zayed informed King Faisal of his intention to visit Saudi Arabia.
The latter responded, “I received your letter dated 4 February 1967 and I appreciate you Highness’ good feelings which are reciprocal. I would like to assure Your Highness of our highest welcome to your visit to Saudi Arabia at any time. Saudi Arabia is yours. So are our people”.6
This brotherly bond between Sheikh Zayed and King Faisal before the Federation paved the way for the UAE-Saudi Arabian relationship to flourish well beyond 1971. The late Sheikh Zayed (May God bless his soul) was committed to this relationship as he took Saudi Arabia as an elder brother and the bedrock of security and stability in the Arabian Gulf and the Middle East. He noted that “The UAE and Saudi Arabia have always been more than sisters, thanks to the staunch centuries-old relations between the two peoples – relations that grew stronger and stronger over years. We take Saudi Arabia as a pioneer of this region and the Arab world. We are for anything it deems appropriate and what hurts it hurts us likewise”.7
II.Kuwait Liberation War:
The war for liberation of Kuwait stands out as one of the pivotal moments that proved the inherent strength of UAE-Saudi Arabia relations. The two nations took a firm, principled stand against the existential threat which Kuwait faced after the Iraqi invasion in 1990.
In this context, reference could be made to the “Desert Warrior” encyclopedia by Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, Commander of the Joint Forces during the Kuwait liberation war in 1991, to identify the nature of the brotherly, or the one-family, relationship that bonded the two nations.
Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz recalled that he asked the late Sheikh Zayed, “May I have a son-to-father chat with you? I consider myself like your son Mohammed”.
The kind-faced Sheikh Zayed surprised him by saying, “In this crisis you’re dearer to me than Mohammed himself.”8
III.Restoring Legitimacy in Yemen:
When an Iran-backed Houthi militia took control of Yemen, ousted its legitimate government in 2014, and became a threat to Arabian Gulf security, the UAE did not hesitate to join the Saudi-led Arab coalition for restoring legitimacy in Yemen in March 2015. A reason behind UAE’s participation in this coalition was that Houthi control over Yemen was a threat to Saudi Arabia’s security and interests.
This coalition is yet more proof of the strong bond between the two countries as Emiratis fight and bleed alongside Saudis in defence of Saudi Arabia and wider Arab security.
Every time civil concentrations or oil facilities in the Kingdom were targeted by Houthi militia, the UAE hastened to reaffirm its support for the Kingdom.
These important landmarks in the history of UAE-Saudi relations reveal two basic things:
First is the great role the leaders of the two nations have played over different historical stages in support of this relationship, citing mutual awareness of the importance of each country to the other and the close connection between national security of both.
Second is the special relation between the two peoples which added a deep popular dimension to bilateral relations. It looked as a relation between one people in two countries. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, was eloquent when he tweeted on the 89th National Day of Saudi Arabia on 23 September 2019”, “Your National Day is ours. So is your joy and so are your achievements. We’re strongly bound by brotherhood, love and common destiny”.9
UAE and Saudi Arabia – A Cornerstone of Arab and Regional Security
The relations between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia provide the foundation for Arabian Gulf, Arab and regional security. That is because of the combined power of their political and economic resources and their significance at the Arab and international levels. All through their close association they have displayed subtle and decisive attitudes vis-à-vis threats to regional security and interests.
Huge Economic Power
The two nations together form a formidable economic bloc, a fact highlighted by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, at the second Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council (SECC) meeting in Abu Dhabi in November 2019. He said, “Our joint economies rank 16 globally, and we could work together to put them among the top 10 economies world-wide. Moreover, our foreign investments now exceed $250 billion and our investment funds stand on the top globally, and we will increase our investments to become among the largest 10 investors globally. Our financial markets exceed $720 billion and we aim to become among the top 10 financial markets in the world”.10
Furthermore, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are among the top 10 exporters globally with commodity and services exports approaching $750 billion per 2018 statistics. They also account for two thirds of Arab exports of non-oil commodities to the world in 2018 and occupied the 6th rank globally in terms of commodity exports.11 Saudi Arabia accounts for 15.7% of world oil reserves and is the second oil producer after the United States. UAE oil reserves amount to 98 billion barrels accounting for 5.8% of world reserve.12
This joint economic power makes the two nations influential regionally and globally.
Wisdom and Poise
The UAE and Saudi Arabia’s foreign policies are wise, being the main source of regional security and stability over decades. Experience and balance have boosted bilateral coordination on how to deal with various crises. This attitude has helped thwart many disturbances and maintain regional peace, which explains the interest of international powers to boost relations with these two nations and identify with their vision.13
The UAE and Saudi Arabia enjoy considerable strategic weight regionally and internationally. The former is known for its successful Arab unity experience, its international reputation as a nation for tolerance, coexistence, openness and a pioneer champion in humanitarian, charitable, philanthropic and international affairs. It was ranked first globally in terms of human assistance-GDP ratio14, occupied first rank at the Arab and regional levels in terms of competitiveness, is the only Arab nation with a space program designed to colonise Mars and the nation to send the first Arab astronaut to outer space station.
It became the only Arab nation to produce nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in 2020. In November 2019 it became the only Gulf nation to receive His Holiness the Vatican Pope who signed with His Imminence the Grand Imam of Al Azhar the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. It is also the only Arab nation to assign a woman as Speaker of Parliament.
Saudi Arabia is the seat of the Two Holy Mosques which earns it unparalleled influence in the Muslim world. It is also one of the top 20 economies in the world, keeps fourth largest and strongest army in the region and boasts a large population and geographical clout.15
Countering Sectarian and Clerical Hegemony
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have countered, and are still countering, sectarian and religion-based hegemonic plots hatched against the region. Moreover, their decisive military intervention in Yemen to restore state legitimacy exemplifies their historic role to counter militias serving sectarian agendas of non-Arab powers. The UAE and Saudi Arabian military invention in Yemen helped strengthen Arab and Gulf national security, citing Yemen’s strategic significance vis-à-vis Arab and Gulf interests.
One expert rightfully described the Saudi-led Arab Coalition’s military intervention against Houthis and pro-Ali Abdulla Saleh forces through Operation Resolve (26/3/2015) and Operation Bring Hope (21/4/2015) as “One of the most significant and decisive Arab decisions against Arab national security threats”.16
Defending The Nation-State
The nation-state in the Arab world faced a serious threat after 2011 because of sectarian, ethnic and religion-based plots and emerging armed militias that attempted to hijack states, either in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq or elsewhere.
Countering Terror and Terrorists
The UAE-Saudi cooperation over the past years helped curb terror and terrorists, and their efforts have been central to identifying and neutralising sources of ideological terror and financial support. Their efforts led the world to understand the true magnitude of the threat of extremism, and extremist groups led by the Muslim Brothers, in the Arab region.
Supporting Public Interests
The UAE and Saudi Arabia supported Arab peoples’ interests in development, stability and progress against the sanguinary forces trying to hijack, control and direct them. The two nations’ support for the 30 July 2013 revolution in Egypt is an overriding proof of this fact.
Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council and Prospects of Deeper Bilateral Relation
The Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council (SECC) reflects “institutionalism” as the underlying characteristic of relations between the UAE and Saudi Arabia as the association is based on specific institutions that guarantee sustainability and cooperation in various fields.
SECC was formed in May 2016 and held its first meeting in Jeddah in June 2018 where the Strategy of Resolve (SoR) was announced 17 to strengthen bilateral relations in economic, human, political and military security fields.
SECC’s vision was based on “creating an exceptional model of integration and cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the UAE at the regional and Arab levels by executing joint strategic projects”.18
Strategic Goals and Giant Accomplishments
• SECC goals were set as follows:19
• Devise a joint vision to deepen and sustain bilateral relations per GCC agenda.
• Boost integral economic scheme between the two nations.
• Provide creative solutions for optimal use of available resource.
• Create an effective, fully-integrated educational system based on the comparative advantages of the two nations.
• Bolster bilateral cooperation and integration at the political and security levels.
• Secure effective exploitation of opportunities of cooperation and partnership between the two nations.
• Highlight the two nations’ status in economy, human development, political integration and military security.
Achieve community welfare in the two nations. These objectives carry two characteristics:
First: They are of strategic nature to create a gigantic leap in bilateral relations.
Second: They are of comprehensive nature, as they overstep economy to all realms of bilateral relations.
Since inception, SECC has held two meetings. The first was in June 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which resulted in laying out the SECC organisational structure and a common vision to deepen and sustain bilateral relations.20
• The second meeting was held in Abu Dhabi on 27 November 2019. Four Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) for cooperation were signed, and seven initiatives reviewed, which are as follows:
• Cyber Security: Counter cyber-attacks against highly sensitive sectors by 55% and reduce period of recovery by 25%.
• Saudi-Emirati Youth Council21 to create an interactive platform and a guide to elaborate SECC agenda, prepare quarterly reports on SECC achievements and create an interactive space for the youth to achieve Council objectives.
• Joint Tourist Visa Initiative for Saudi Arabia and UAE Residents to boost inter-country tourism. This initiative, according to the UAE Minister of Economy, Sultan Al Mansouri, is aimed at optimal use of Saudi resources to make entry to the Kingdom easier and more accessible for tourists. The new visa is expected to go into effect in 2020.22
• Streamlined Traffic Among Customs Outlets Initiative to reduce the duration of customs clearance from 14 hours in 2018 to four hours in 2019 as a first step to make commercial traffic across custom outlets in the two countries easier.
• Joint Food Security Initiative to overcome food challenges through joint cooperation in safe, sustainable and affordable food.
• Digital Currency Initiative in response to the latest technological developments in economic interactions. It provides for issuing an electronic currency negotiable among banks to boost elasticity of inter-bank transactions.23
Giant Refinery Project to provide outlets for Saudi and UAE oil sales to Asian markets, especially India. It provides for joint development of a giant oil refinery and a petrochemical complex per latest international standards. For this purpose, Saudi ARAMCO and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) entered in a strategic partnership to build a new crude oil refinery with a capacity of 1.2 million barrels per day.24
Indications and Meanings
1. SECC creation carries a number of significant indications/meanings:
A supportive strong political will, as SECC first and second meetings were chaired by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and His Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, Saudi Crown Prince, in a clear indication of the great support given to SECC by the highest leaders in the two countries.
2. SECC is undertaking specific projects/programs in certain fields according to clear-cut schedules. A 60-month deadline is given to carry out SoR strategy which serves a reference for SECC plan of action.25
3. SECC is interested not only in devising strategies and initiatives, but also in implementing them, which reflects a serious approache on both sides.
4. SECC realises the significance of economy as a governing approach in international relations at the regional and international levels. It relates to national interests to meeting basic public needs.
5. SECC is a model for effective partnership and integration at the Arab level, a fact which was highlighted by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, at the First SECC meeting in June 2018, when he said, “We have a historic opportunity to create an exceptional model for Arab integration. It is through integration, inter-dependence and unity that we can defend our achievements, strengthen our economies and build a better future for our people …We form the biggest Arab economies, keep the armies with the latest weapons, maintain the same social texture and we are building a better future for our people whose youth form the majority and aspire to giant development steps in the two countries.”26
Though SECC was illustrated by some as an attempt by both nations to marginalise GCC, SECC forms, in essence, the foundation for common Gulf action. This was expressed by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, at First SECC meeting, by noting that “The UAE and Saudi Arabian economies account for trillion-dollar-worth Gross Domestic Product plus $150 billion in total infrastructure projects, which provides exceptional opportunities for cooperation”.27
UAE-KSA Relations – Exponents, Runs and Constants
1.The relations between the UAE and Saudi Arabia are based on exponents, runs and constants that guarantee their strength, sustainability and ability to grow in various fields despite the remarkable changes in regional and international environments. These are:
Faith in Unity
The UAE and Saudi Arabia offer two successful unity experiences in the region. The late Sheikh Zayed brought the Emirates under one flag in 1971 and established a strong nation based on unity. On the Saudi side, the late King Abdul Aziz Al Saudi managed to unify “large, culturally diversified areas to form one homogenous nation: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.28
2. It created a consensus between the two nations on the vitality of unity at the Gulf level, by boosting joint Gulf action across GCC, at the Arab level by joint Arab action across the Arab League and at the local level by helping unified nations abort attempts to undermine their unity. This was made evident by UAE and Saudi Arabian policies towards Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and other nations whose home unity was undermined by religious or sectarian militias.
Faith in Common Destiny and “one Trench”
The UAE and Saudi Arabia believe that their special relations are based on a common target, destiny and “one trench” to counter challenges and threats. This was eloquently, and rightfully indeed, expressed by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, when he said at the second session of the Saudi-UAE Coordination Council (SUCC) in Abu Dhabi in November 2019, with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Crown Prince, attending: “The UAE-Saudi Arabian relations are not only historical and strategic, but also ones of blood and common destiny”. The same idea was reiterated by Prince Mohammed bin Salman who noted that “The staunch relations between the leaders and peoples of the two nations are based on rock-solid foundation and a long history of cooperation and policies towards the region and the world”.29 In September 2019, His Highness Mohammed bin Zayed said “The UAE and Saudi Arabia follow one-trench partnership in the face of ensuing challenges… Our common goal is to maintain security in Saudi Arabia and the UAE… We have a common destiny and common future”.30
3. This faith in common destiny is a baseline for bilateral relations and makes both regard their security a priority. His Highness Mohammed bin Zayed said after the attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019: “Security is part and parcel for both the UAE and Saudi Arabia”.31
1. While Saudi Arabia takes the UAE as a pivotal nation in the region and a main player in joint Gulf and Arab actions, the UAE takes Saudi Arabia as a cornerstone of regional security and stability, and a dependable anchor for the Gulf and the Arabs in times of need. This attitude was embodied by the statements of His Highness Mohammed bin Zayed on various occasions. He said, “The UAE has always believed that Saudi Arabia is a tent pole for the Gulf and the Arabs, that its security and stability is security and stability for the UAE, GCC member states and other Arab nations”.32 On another occasion His Highness noted that “Sisterly Saudi Arabia is a cornerstone of regional security and stability, and a safety valve to face ensuing dangers and threats”.33
Clarity of Vision
2. The UAE and Saudi Arabia share clarity of vision internally and externally. Internally, they serve their people and achieve all-out development. Externally, both aim at peace, security and stability at the Gulf, Arab and international levels.
Effective Economic Partnership
Bilateral relations rest on a solid basis of economic interests rather than emotions and good intentions. Statistics indicate that Saudi Arabia was the first trade partner at Arab level and third globally in 2018, with non-oil trade exchange amounting to DH 107.4 billion and 6.6% of total UAE foreign trade, compared to fourth position as international trade partner in 2017.34
Meantime, UAE’s investments in Saudi Arabia amounted to DH 34 billion, against DH 16 billion of direct Saudi investments in the UAE. Saudi Arabia came second as the most important tourist market to the UAE in 2018. National carriers in both nations operate 651 flights weekly, i.e. one flight every 15 minutes.35
UAE Minister of Economy, Sultan bin Said Al Mansouri, affirmed in September 2019 that the volume of UAE-Saudi non-oil trade exchange amounted to DH 417 billion in the past five years.36
Meanwhile, the UAE is the top Arab trade partner with Saudi Arabia and the second globally and accounts for 10% of total Saudi non-oil trade exchange with the world and 50% of its trade exchange with the Arab countries. The UAE comes second globally and first across Arabia in terms of Saudi non-oil exports, thus holding 13% of Saudi exports to the world and 40% of its exports to the Arab world. The UAE comes third globally and first in the region in terms of Saudi non-oil imports, thus accounting for 8% of its world imports and 59% of its Arab imports.37
3. The Saudi-UAE Coordination Council (SUCC) is a game-changer in economic cooperation and development between the two countries.
Resolve and Determination
4. UAE-Saudi Arabia policies, however wise, poised and for peace and stability, are still firm, resolute and determined whenever regional security is under threat. This was clear vis-à-vis the Houthi control of Yemen. Both nations have never hesitated to intervene militarily when they sensed a serious threat to the security of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf or the Arab world.
Unbreakable Public Bond
The people of the UAE and Saudi Arabia are bound by affection, brotherhood and rapport, feelings made public especially on national events.
It is these constants that make the UAE and Saudi Arabian relations impregnable and hard to break or undermine.