Growing Saudi Vs. Emirates Conflict May Open The Door For Moscow

In 2015 the Saudi cown prince Mohammad bin Salman was best friend with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed. Together they decided to attack the Houthi government in Yemen which had ousted the former regime under the former President Hadi. The war on Yemen has been waged since.

But by now the interests of the Saudis and the UAE have diverged on several issues. Over the last days the between them conflict exposed itself on three important fronts.

Soon after the start of the intervention in Yemen the interests of the Saudis and United Emirates split. While Saudis forces occupy western and some southern parts of Yemen in the name of former President Hadi and his Islah party, the UAE took the side of the Southern Yemen Transition Council (STC) which wants to split from a united Yemen.

Two days ago the Saudis supported side decided to replace a police chief in the southern town of Lawdar in Abyan province in south Yemen with one of their man, an allegedly a former(?) al-Qaida member. The STC wanted a keep the old police chief. The Saudi supported forces attacked the town and caused several casualties.


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The UAE responded by sending reinforcements to the STC which threatened to escalate the issue.

Yesterday one or more missiles hit a military brigade headquarter of the Saudi supported forces in the city of Marbat, some 50 miles east of Lawdar. There were reports that planes and drones had been seen in the area and that the attack had come from UAE airplanes. At least five militia soldiers were killed in the attack.


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However the ‘official’ reports blamed the attack on Houthi forces:

(Reuters) – Yemen’s Houthi movement on Sunday carried out a rare missile strike on a southern region that has seen renewed infighting between forces allied to a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, three government sources said.

The attack on a military base in Abyan, which two of the sources said killed at least two soldiers and injured over 20, comes as the recognised government and a separatist group both mass fighters in the area while Riyadh moves to ease tensions.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC) has been vying with the Saudi-backed government for control of the south. The Houthis, who ousted the government from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, largely hold the north.

There was no immediate comment from the Houthis, who are trying to seize the government’s last northern stronghold in gas-rich Marib while also keeping up cross-border attacks on Saudi cities.

The claim of a Houthi attack makes little sense. There haven’t been any significant Houthi operations in the south for several months. The missile attack was definitely part of the infighting between the proxy forces of the ‘coalition partners’ Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Neither side though seems interested in making that publicly known. There are more important issues between them that demand full attention.

On Friday the oil ministers of the OPEC oil producer cartel and Russia negotiated about new limits to oil production. Everyone but the UAE accepted plans to raise the current production limits but to also keep them at that level for a longer time:

The United Arab Emirates on Sunday pushed back against a plan by the OPEC oil cartel and allied producing countries to extend the global pact to cut oil production beyond April 2022, a rare statement revealing the country’s frustration with the group.

The Emirati Ministry of Energy called the proposal to extend the agreement for the entirety of 2022 without raising its production quota “unfair to the UAE,” according to state-run WAM news agency.

One of the group’s largest oil producers, the UAE is seeking to increase its output — setting up a contest with ally and OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia, which has led a push to keep a tight lid on production.

The combined OPEC Plus grouping of members led by Saudi Arabia and non-members, chief among them Russia, failed to reach an agreement Friday on oil output. Negotiations over the dispute are set to resume Monday.

The additional negotiations planned for today have been canceled.

The UAE argues that it has increased its maximal production capacity and thus deserves a higher share of the total output. Since the new OPEC+ limits were introduced in the spring of 2020 everyone had held back on increasing their produiction capacity. The UAE jumped out of that line, invested in more capacity and now demands a greater share. The other OPEC+ member reasonably reject such trickery:

Saudi Arabia’s energy minister pushed back on Sunday against opposition by fellow Gulf producer the United Arab Emirates to a proposed OPEC+ deal and called for “compromise and rationality” to secure agreement when the group reconvenes on Monday.

It was a rare public spat between allies whose national interests have increasingly diverged, spilling over into OPEC+ policy setting at a time consumers want more crude to aid a global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

[The UAE] said baseline production references – the level from which any cuts are calculated – should be reviewed for any extension.

OPEC+ sources said the UAE contended its baseline was originally set too low, but was ready to tolerate if the deal ended in April 2022. The UAE has ambitious production plans and has invested billions of dollars to boost capacity.

Today Saudi Arabia escalated the conflict into a new field:

Saudi Arabia has amended its rules on imports from other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to exclude goods made in free zones or using Israeli input from preferential tariff concessions – in a challenge to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the region’s trade and business hub.

Despite being close allies, Saudi Arabia and the neighbouring UAE are competing to attract investors and businesses. Their national interests have also increasingly diverged, such as in their relations with Israel and Turkey.

Saudi Arabia will henceforth exclude from the GCC tariff agreement goods made by companies with a workforce made up of less than 25 percent of local people and industrial products with less than 40 percent of added value after their transformation process.

The ministerial decree published on the Saudi official gazette Umm al-Qura said all goods made in free zones in the region will not be considered locally made.

Free zones, a major driver of the UAE’s economy, are areas in which foreign companies can operate under light regulation, and where foreign investors are allowed to take 100 percent ownership in companies.

Decisions in Saudi Arabia as well as in the UAE are made by the respective man at the top. The deadly infighting in Yemen, the OPEC+ scuffle and the new import rules in Saudi Arabia can therefore not been seen as separate issues.

MbS of Saudi Arabia and MbZ of the UAE are now fighting each other in several domains. Neither man is willing to give grounds. We can therefore expect further escalations which, given the aggressiveness of both man, could even lead to an armed conflict.

But the Saudi side, despite being the larger country, is unlikely to win a fight. The Biden administration has already been cool towards Saudi Arabia and the Israel lobby will push the U.S. to take the side of the UAE. Militarily the Saudis have lost in Yemen against barefooted Houthi fighters while the UAE has over the years built a quite disciplined and well trained force led by ‘western’ mercenary commanders. The Saudis also lack the air defenses they would need in the case of a conflict.

Two weeks ago the U.S. pulled back its air umbrella from Saudi Arabia where it had covered Saudi oil assets against Houthi missile attacks:

The Pentagon is pulling approximately eight Patriot antimissile batteries from countries including Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, according to officials. Another antimissile system known as a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad system, is being withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, and jet fighter squadrons assigned to the region are being reduced, those officials said.

The latest reductions, which haven’t been previously reported, began earlier this month, following a June 2 call in which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin informed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the changes, officials said. Most of the military hardware being removed is coming from Saudi Arabia, officials said.

Without a decent air cover a Saudi military conflict with its neighbor UAE is not feasible. Let down by the U.S. Mohammad bin Salman needs new allies on the global and regional stage.

A large Saudi purchase of Russian air defense systems of all shapes and types could help it to fill the holes the U.S. pull back has opened up. It would also give Moscow a sound reason to care for Saudi Arabia’s further fate. The idea is not new. It was last discussed in March when the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Muhammad bin Salman in Riyadh. The rising conflict with the UAE may well give it new impetus.

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