The alliance has come under strain as a new administration, with different priorities, gets ready to take over the White House.
For years, three axes have dominated the politics of the Middle East. The first is the axis of Iran with its numerous Shia militias all over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The second is the revolutionary axis of Turkey and Qatar which supported popularly elected governments and the pursuit of free elections. The third is the axis of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which tries to maintain the status-quo of authoritarianism in the region.
With the incoming Joe Biden administration in the US, the status-quo axis may be on the verge of an internal break-up over differences on Iran and the threat posed by it.
Since the Arab popular uprisings, the axes have entered different coalitions with each other and have fought against one another via proxies or by direct means as seen in the embargo on Qatar.
The relationship of the axes to each other is one of rivalry, but not animosity that may lead to direct war. During the Trump administration, the “maximum pressure” strategy had weakened the Iranian axis and increased the rivalry between that of the revolutionary axis and the status-quo axis.
From the murder of Khashoggi to the war in Libya and Syria, or the dispute in the eastern Mediterranean and the crisis in Lebanon, these axes have been battling each other.
However, before the Trump administration, these two axes were cooperating to limit Iran in Syria and elsewhere. At that time, the Iranian threat was the main source of concern for Saudi Arabia, but up until the election of Biden, this threat has become less urgent. In the meantime, the UAE took over and asserted itself in the status-quo axis, pushed Saudi Arabia into the background, and followed its interests.
With that, the differences between Saudi Arabia and UAE have become more visible in Yemen where the UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council has undermined the Saudi-supported government of Yemen.
The UAE, on the other hand, labelled Turkey as the main threat to the Gulf monarchies and tried to appease Iran. While Saudi Arabia cannot be found in the top ten of Iran’s trade partners, the UAE is a top three export market for and its second-biggest import market.
The Iranian axis is a religiously legitimised hierarchical order in which the Iranian supreme leader is the head of all the Shia Muslims, according to the religious believers of the Twelver Ja'fari school of Islam. Therefore, this axis is the most robust but has little room for manoeuvring to make new alliances. The revolutionary axis has found its manifestation with the Turkish base in Qatar which provides security to the gas-rich tiny state and has little to no internal differences.
Among the three axes in the Middle East, the weakest cohesion exists in the status-quo axis. Saudi Arabia and the UAE share a common interest in preventing popularly elected governments and regards them as a threat to their own regimes, but in contrast to the UAE, Saudi Arabia carries the burden of leading the Sunni Muslim world as the protector of the two holy places of Islam.
This difference was eased thanks to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, but with the new incoming Biden-administration, this may change. The UAE’s rapid alignment with Israel will be hard to follow by a Saudi kingdom that claims to represent Sunni Muslims.
Saudi Arabia is now on the verge of making a decision. Either, Saudi Arabia will continue to oppose Turkey and Qatar or work with them to limit Iran. The recent developments of a rapprochement with Turkey and the progress in resolving the Qatar crisis might be strong indicators of that, but it is still early to call definitively.
Saudi Arabia’s ally, the UAE, might hinder Saudi Arabia from pursuing its interests and try to convince the kingdom to follow its lead. The personal relationship between the UAE’s MBZ and Saudi Arabia’s MBS might prevent Saudi Arabia from doing so. MBS has invested too much in its relationship with the UAE to bolster his position in the Saudi realm.
The UAE could use its lobbying power in Washington DC to convince the Biden-administration to take Saudi Arabia’s interests more seriously and to limit the possibility of sanctions on Saudi Arabia.
If the UAE can’t convince Saudi Arabia to follow its path or find a middle ground, the status-quo axis risks collapse and new axes may emerge out of it. Keeping in mind that the UAE has found a new ally in Israel, the Middle East may find itself between three axes where Israel and the UAE form the status-quo axis.
While the UAE might be willing to do so, the Israeli position might be different as Israel also wants to limit Iran. Saudi Arabia might try to find a new ground for itself by cosying up to Turkey and Qatar after reconciliation.
However, all of this is just a hypothetical scenario at the moment. Only after the inauguration of the Biden-administration, and its initial policies towards the Middle East, will these dynamics become clearer. It will be Biden’s policies that determine the fate of the region's alliances.
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