Personality and the conflation of national interests with personal ambition are contributing to the widening gap betweenand the . It was only a matter of time before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) would want to go out on his own and no longer be seen as the protégé of his erstwhile mentor and counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ). By the same token, there was little doubt that the prince and future king would want to put to rest any suggestion that the , rather than , called the shots in the and the .
No doubt, MBS will not have forgotten revelations about emails by Yusuf al-Otaiba, the ambassador in Washington and a close associate of MBZ, which were leaked in 2017. The emails made clear that leaders believed they could use — the ’s behemoth — and Mohammed bin Salman as a vehicle to promote interests.attitudes toward and the ’s strategic vision of the relationship between the two countries. This was spelled out in
Sultans of the Gulf (Podcast)
“Our relationship with them is based on strategic depth, shared interests, and most importantly the hope that we could influence them. Not the other way around,” Otaiba wrote. In a separate email, the ambassador told a former US official that “I think in the long term we might be a good influence on KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], at least with certain people there.”
A participant in a more recent meeting with Otaiba quoted the ambassador as referring to the tweeted in Arabic, “It’s not humanity’s survival of the strongest, it’s the survival of the smartest.”as “the region,” suggesting an enhanced regional influence. In a similar vein, former Dubai police chief Dhahi Khalfan, blowing his ultra-nationalist horn,
To be sure, Mohammed bin Zayed has been plotting the’s positioning as a regional economic and geopolitical powerhouse for far longer than his counterpart. It is not for nothing that it earned the the epitaph of “Little Sparta,” in the words of former US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Windows of Opportunity
No doubt, smarts count for a lot. But, in the ultimate analysis, the two crown princes appear to be exploiting windows of opportunity that exist as long as their most powerful rivals, Turkey and Iran, fail to get their act together. Theand Emiratis see the Turks and Iranians as threats to their regional power. Both Turkey and Iran have far larger, highly educated populations, huge domestic markets, battle-hardened militaries, significant natural resources and industrial bases.
In the meantime, separating the wheat from the chaff in the Bader al-Saif, a analyst, notes that differences among Arab states have emerged as a result of regime survival strategies that are driven by the need to gear up for a post-oil era. The emergence of a more competitive landscape need not be all negative. Saif warns, however, that “left unchecked … differences could snowball and negatively impact the neighborhood.spat may be easier said than done.
Several factors complicate the management of these differences. For one, the Vision 2030 plan for weeningoff its dependence on the export of fossil fuel differs little from the perspective put forward by the and Qatar, two countries that have a substantial head start.
regional headquarters in Riyadh. IATA denied that the office would have regional responsibility. The announcement came on the heels of the disclosure of plans to create a new airline to compete with Emirates and Qatar Airways.sought to declare an initial success in the expanded rivalry by revealing last week that the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the airline industry body, had opened its
Further complicating the management of differences is the fact that potentially plateaus and then declines in the 2030s.and the are likely to compete for market share as they seek to maximize their oil export revenues in the short and medium term. This is particularly before oil demand
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, economic diversification and social liberalization are tied up with the competing geopolitical ambitions of the two princes in positioning their countries as the regional leader. Otaiba signaled MBZ’s ambition in 2017 in an email exchange with Elliot Abram, a neoconservative former US official. “Jeez, the new hegemon!imperialism! Well, if the US won’t do it, someone has to hold things together for a while,” Abrams wrote to the ambassador, referring to the ’s growing regional role. “Yes, how dare we! In all honesty, there was not much of a choice. We stepped up only after your country chose to step down,” Otaiba replied.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas
Differences in the ideological and geopolitical thinking of the princes when it comes to political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood reemerged recently. Differing told an interviewer that “there is no problem between the kingdom” and the Brotherhood.and approaches were initially evident in 2015 when King Salman and his son began their reign in . This was a period when Mohammed bin Zayed, who views political Islam and the Brotherhood as an existential threat, had yet to forge close ties to the new leadership. At the time, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, barely a month after King Salman’s ascendancy,
Just a month later, the Muslim World League, a body established by organized a conference in a building in Mecca that had not been used since the banning of the brothers. The Qataris, who have a history of close ties to the Brotherhood, were invited.in the 1960s to propagate religious ultra-conservatism and long dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood,
After King Salman and his son came to power,adopted a harder approach toward Brotherhood-related groups as Mohammed bin Zayed gained influence in affairs. The Muslim League has since become Mohammed bin Salman’s main vehicle for promoting his call for religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue. and the are portraying themselves as icons of a socially moderate form of Islam that, nonetheless, endorses autocratic rule.
Last week, the kingdom signaled a potential change in its attitude toward Brotherhood-related groups with the broadcast of an interview with Khaled Meshaal, the Qatar-based head of the political arm of Hamas. The interview was aired on Al Arabiya, thestate-controlled news channel. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls Gaza, maintains relations with Iran and is viewed as being part of a Brotherhood network. Meshaal called for a resumption of relations between and the Palestinian movement.
In 2014,designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. This was part of a dispute between Qatar, a supporter of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and , the and Bahrain, which had all withdrawn their ambassadors from Doha. The were particularly upset by the close relations that Hamas had forged with Iran and Turkey, Riyadh’s main rivals for regional hegemony.
A litmus test of the degree of change in refrained from broadcasting a segment of the interview in which Meshaal called for the release of the detainees.Arabia’s attitude will be whether it releases scores of Hamas members. These members were arrested in 2019 as part of efforts to garner Palestinian support for then-US President Donald Trump’s controversial peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quoting the Arabic service of Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, Al-Monitor reported that Al Arabiya had
The– rivalry and the ambitions of their leaders make it unlikely that Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed will look at structural ways of managing differences. This includes areas like greater regional economic integration through arrangements for trade and investment and an expanded customs union. The latter would make the region more attractive to foreign investors and improve the states’ bargaining power.
In the absence of strengthening institutions, the bets are on the crown princes recognizing that, despite their differences, “it doesn’t make sense for either one of them to let go of the other.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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