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MbS and MbZ: Could Yemen crisis end the Saudi-UAE partnership?

One of the “givens” of the new Middle East that has emerged in the past four years is the close partnership between Saudi Arabia and its smaller Gulf neighbor, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). More particularly, it has been the close personal relationship between its two de facto leaders, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the richest emirate in the UAE.

“MbS” and “MbZ,” as they are called, are two significant characters in the dramas of today’s regional conflicts. Crucially for Washington, their views on issues ranging from the threat of Iran and the possibilities for Middle East Peace overlap considerably (although not totally) with those of the White House.

But things may be changing. The relationship is being tested and many players, as well as observers, are watching closely. The knock-on effects could affect the region from the sands of Libya to the Strait of Hormuz. A common thread is oil.

This week the focus is on Yemen, where both have been trying to reestablish the internationally recognized government for four years. It’s complicated: Basically, since 2015, Houthi rebels have controlled the capital, Sana, while the government has tried to function from the southern port city of Aden.

But last weekend, separatists in Aden, with the apparent support of the UAE, forced the remnants of the government to flee to the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It is clear that, policy-wise, Saudi Arabia and the UAE no longer are — choose your metaphor — on the same page or backing the same team.

Hence, there was considerable attention paid yesterday to the visit by MbZ to Mecca, where MbS’s father King Salman is hosting dignitaries who visit the holy city for the annual hajj pilgrimage. MbZ was greeted at the airport, apparently warmly, by a protocol prince and then headed for a meeting with the Saudi monarch. MbS and MbZ also reportedly had a separate meeting.

The Saudi position, at least publicly, is to call on Yemenis to dialogue “to defuse the crisis.” We await details about what that may mean, but it suggests that Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi is being encouraged to talk to those who have just kicked his forces out of Yemen. It does not appear to mean that anyone should talk to the Houthis — Riyadh, along with Abu Dhabi, view them as Iranian proxies. The Houthis certainly are supported by Tehran but whether they are “backed,” or “supplied” is a matter of considerable diplomatic and journalistic debate.

It was hard to assess MbZ’s facial expression in the official photos of his meetings with King Salman and MbS. The Arab keffiyeh (headdress) masked his face. More revealing, perhaps, was the photo on the front page of today’s Arab News, the main Saudi English-language newspaper, which shows a serious-faced MbZ trying to make a point to MbS, who is looking towards the ground. 

Whether this latter photo was taken yesterday or during a previous meeting is not clear, but it does illustrate how the Yemen crisis is being spun. The apparent facts seem to be a difference on tactics, which now have created a strategic setback. The narrative we are being encouraged to believe is that MbS and MbZ, as well as their countries, are as close as ever.

The abstemious and cautious MbZ has been a crucial supporter of MbS ever since King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne in January 2015 and MbS started his meteoric rise to defense minister, deputy crown prince, crown prince and now essentially king in all but name. Along the way there has been the arrests of princes and businessmen in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, as well as the killing of the dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. MbS’s spending, including on a yacht and a chateau, also extended to buying Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” which he gifted to MbZ.

At one time, articles described MBZ as MbS’s mentor, or their relationship as a “bromance,” but the Saudi prince increasingly appears to be immune from accepting advice and guidance. Yemen probably still is a sideshow in the drama of the Middle East, but even before the latest events the UAE had started to draw down on its involvement in getting rid of the Houthi regime in Sana. MbZ is judged to be satisfied with a separate South Yemen emerging. Whether this is part of MbS’s vision, or whether he is prepared to accept new realities, is the immediate question.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Abu Dhabi Gulf Arab states Houthi insurgency in Yemen King Salman Saudi Arabia Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed United Arab Emirates Yemeni Crisis

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