The first bilateral dispute arose when Nayef was deputy minister; it was settled when the young UAE federation signed a border agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1974. Saudi Arabia had laid claim to the oasis city of Al-Ain, some 500km inside the UAE. Although details of the agreement are still not fully known, it is believed the fledgling federation agreed to cede to Saudi Arabia parts of its Al-Udaid land borders with Qatar, a state that had also recently won independence from Britain.
Such a move might avoid tensions with the young country’s largest neighbour at a time when nation-building was founding president Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan’s priority. But this dispute erupted again in 2005, when Nayef publicly opposed plans for a sea bridge that would link Abu Dhabi to Qatar, citing Saudi territorial claims to the region.
In May, Abu Dhabi withdrew from the Gulf Co-operation Council’s proposed monetary union after Riyadh was chosen as the administrative headquarters of the proposed Gulf central bank. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan said: “The decision made by the GCC was not based on merit; it was based on different issues altogether.” The following month, Abu Dhabi newspaper The National published photographs of thousands of lorry drivers, many of whom were carrying fresh produce, stranded for a week in often appalling conditions in a 32km queue at the border with Saudi Arabia. According to Saudi Arabia, the dispute arose when the MoI introduced a new fingerprint-scanning system. Then, in August, it suspended the use of UAE ID cards for entry to the Kingdom, ostensibly because of the UAE map that appeared on them.
But the issue is not as simple as that. The accord that gave UAE and Saudi citizens reciprocal travel rights using an ID card was signed in May 2007. Three years before that, in May 2004, the new design of the $52m UAE ID card was approved by Interior Minister Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed and unveiled to the world along with the now contentious map. The accord included a 90-day notice period in the event that the measure was suspended, but according to an Emirati official, Riyadh gave them “less than two days before announcing the decision to the public”. The Saudi Press Agency also issued a strongly worded MoI statement that the Saudis had “warned the UAE”. This is a worrying precedent since such language has almost never been used between the GCC states. The UAE then put the Saudi government in an awkward position when it said it would continue to welcome Saudi citizens visiting the federation using Saudi ID cards.
In this difficult context, the UAE must draw up a strategy to deal with the various scenarios that could arise if Nayef becomes king. There is consensus that the future of both countries lies under the GCC umbrella, but the Gulf states must have options to deal with potential conflicts. There is concern that if Nayef succeeds to the throne, he may appoint to the government those from the MoI responsible for the deterioration of relations with the UAE.
The deep familial relations that tie the Saudis to the Emiratis will make sure that this dispute is contained. As the region’s largest, most populated and wealthiest state, big brother Saudi Arabia will remain first among equals in the GCC. But as in all family disputes, its younger siblings hope it deals with contentious issues discreetly. Until then, the UAE may have to hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
*This article first appeared in Gulf States Newsletter on 25th September 2009