Authorities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) decided this month to ban the entry of United Arab Emirates (UAE) citizens to the Kingdom, citing concerns over the spread of Covid-19. The ban went into effect on July 4 and was applied to three other countries: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Vietnam—though none of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, besides the UAE, were included. The Saudi decision dealt a blow to Abu Dhabi’s efforts to open up the country, which has just eased restrictions on US citizens entering the UAE.

The Saudi travel ban may seem like a normal precautionary measure to protect its population from the spread of the virus. Yet, a number of recent political developments in the relations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE suggest that deeper factors could stand behind Riyadh’s decision. Indeed, until recently, the UAE was considered the closest Arab ally to the Kingdom.

Why UAE Citizens?

While Saudi Arabia has adopted drastic measures to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus in the Kingdom, the UAE apparently has not taken similar measures, which could explain Riyadh’s move from a practical standpoint.

For instance, when Saudi Arabia was reported to be planning to bar Muslim pilgrims from attending the annual Hajj, for the second time in two years, due to fears of spreading the virus, the UAE kept its borders open and continued organizing public events throughout the year. In fact, just recently Dubai announced that it is expecting more than 25,000 visitors to attend the Expo 2021 Dubai – a large-scale exhibit featuring scientific innovations from around the world – starting on October 1. A senior UAE official responsible for organizing the event was quoted as bragging that the country is opening its doors to a “brighter future.”

Rumors are widely circulating in the UAE that Covid-19 infections rates are not being accurately reported.

Meanwhile, rumors are widely circulating in the UAE that Covid-19 infections rates are not being accurately reported. UAE citizens and foreign expatriates are living in fear of openly speaking about the pandemic. UAE authorities have threatened that anyone in the country found to be circulating what they deem as “rumors,” about the spread of the virus, will be met with harsh punishments. In a telling statement, Human Rights Watch recently demanded that the UAE take necessary measures to mitigate the virus in the Emirates’ prisons, and for it to “be forthright about what’s going on and move quickly to avoid a wider spread of the virus.”

These developments were closely watched by governments in the region, casting doubts about the UAE’s efforts to fight the pandemic. For many observers, they reflect a serious lack of transparency on the part of Emirati officials, which should be addressed urgently.

Saudi Vision 2030

Adding to the divergence between Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s priorities is the effort to transform their respective economies. Amid the challenges facing energy production in the world, and the prospects of oil depletion as well as a worldwide reduction in oil consumption in response to the climate crisis, KSA is trying to become a “global investment powerhouse.” The Saudis are aware that their country won’t be able to continue depending solely on oil in the future, thus they are planning to diversify their economy.

The Saudis are aware that their country won’t be able to continue depending solely on oil in the future.

The Kingdom embarked on an ambitious project in 2016 called the “National Transformation Program,” which aimed at building the necessary infrastructure to accomplish such objectives. The strategic measures included plans to shift the economy away from oil to ensure “the sustainability of vital resources” and achieve the Saudi Vision 2030. The Vision involves creating a strong private sector, developing economic partnerships, and using the Kingdom’s “strategic location to build its role as an integral driver of international trade and to connect three continents.”

The latter objective was not warmly received by the UAE’s leaders.

Furthermore, in October 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman announced the creation of Neom, a new mega city on the Red Sea coast. The city will be located on an area of more than 26,000 km2 (9,652 mi2) and will cost over US$500 billion to build. It is designed to accommodate at least a million residents, including foreigners, and will have sub-cities, ports, major business zones, entertainment attractions, and tourist destinations.

The Saudis hope that Neom will serve as a foreign policy soft power tool, which could expand its political opportunities. Major powers around the world – the United States, Russia, and France to name a few – have already rushed to Riyadh and publicly expressed their desire to be part of the mega project. UAE officials, however, are not happy with the Neom endeavor, as they fear it will strip away investments from the UAE, further pitting the Kingdom against the UAE.

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Political and Economic Differences

Differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE date back to 2004, after the death of UAE founder Sheikh Zayed Al-Nahayan, who did not oppose Saudi hegemony in the Gulf region. The new generation of rulers who took power in the Emirates, however, sought more equal relations with the Saudis.

The push for greater independence on the part of the new UAE officials, has been the source of continuous friction in the bilateral relations between the two countries since then. This has been reflected in various aspects, starting with border disputes and culminating in major regional policy divergences.

The contrasting views were further exacerbated early this year when Saudi Arabia and Qatar reached an agreement to end their three-year dispute. The initial discord had resulted in a diplomatic and economic boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, followed by a land, sea, and air embargo against Qatar. The UAE authorities were not pleased with lifting the sanctions on Qatar or the ensuing normalization between Riyadh and Doha. This resentment deepened the gap between Saudis and Emiratis.

The latest disputes between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates surfaced in early July, when the UAE Minister of Energy, Suhail Mohamed Al-Mazrouei, openly opposed a deal proposed by OPEC+ members. Al-Mazrouei wanted his country’s current baseline of oil production of 3.17 million b/d to go up to 3.8 million. The Minister claimed “injustice,” complaining that his country was “sacrificing” due to the organization output limits.

The UAE position prompted a rare public rebuke by Saudi Energy Minister, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Salman, who suggested that the UAE’s stance was isolated. “I’ve been attending OPEC+ meetings for 34 years and have never seen such a demand,” he stated. The disagreement was not resolved and led to the canceling of the OPEC+ oil policy meeting, which was supposed to be held on July 5.

Any efforts by the UAE to inflict economic harm on Saudi Arabia does not appear to be a wise foreign policy decision.

For decades, Saudi Arabia, a founding member of OPEC, has considered maintaining a certain level of oil prices to be a matter of national security. Thus, any efforts by the UAE to inflict economic harm on Saudi Arabia does not appear to be a wise foreign policy decision. The Saudi-UAE clash reflects their growing disagreements, marking a first in the countries’ relations.

Finally, the war in Yemen has been another source of deep divisions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, though not publicly acknowledged. The two countries entered the Yemen conflict in full agreement, yet differences soon began to emerge over the conduct of the war. The divergent interests of the two countries have gradually escalated to a point where the alliance between them has been deeply affected and is now “completely under question.”

Ultimately, there is no doubt that relations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE are going through a difficult period, exposing a deeper rift which has been increasing over many years. The public exchange of barbs between the energy ministers crossed a dangerous line, as such public criticism lays bare the absence of a once strong bilateral political dialogue. If history serves as an example, such discord will not bode well for the future of the Gulf region.