The Saudi-led blockade on Qatar took many people by surprise but, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the growing friendship between Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman marked a “turning point” in Riyadh’s relations with its smaller neighbour. The two struck-up a strong connection while on a camping trip in the deserts of Saudi Arabia a year and half ago.
Quoting officials from both countries, the report described the meeting between the heirs to the thrones as the “pivotal moment” in the shift towards a more hard-line policy against opposition in the region. It is said that the two men hardly knew each other until they enjoyed the “beloved Gulf pastime together”.
Several well-informed officials cited by the Wall Street Journal believe that the aggressive policies of Bin Salman were not inevitable. While the Saudi leadership was divided over its dealing with Qatar, Bin Salman himself was thought to have had good relations with the ruling family in the capital Doha. Nevertheless, because of the differences between the UAE and Qatar, Bin Salman was forced to choose between Abu Dhabi and Doha, says Andreas Craig, a former adviser to the government of Qatar and a Gulf expert at King’s College London.
The WSJ said that Saudi Arabia began to adopt a much tougher stance in its foreign policy, particularly in supporting the UAE’s efforts to impose a blockade on Qatar following the camping trip. Bringing Saudi Arabia in line with the UAE is thought to have been a key objective of Bin Zayed. The UAE considers the presence of a moderate Saudi ruler to be a national security priority because of Saudi Arabia’s religious status in the world. The UAE leadership, which is accused of funnelling $3 billion towards the failed coup in Turkey in order to topple the democratically-elected government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saw Bin Salman as the best bet to prevent unrest in Saudi Arabia.
It’s claimed that President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May, just days before four countries — Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain — imposed a blockade on Qatar, was arranged by Bin Zayed. He is also said to have played a role in rallying the new US administration in favour of Bin Salman replacing an older relative as Crown Prince of the Kingdom.
The newspaper warned that the growing alliance between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will have far-reaching implications for the region and the United States. Their hard-line policy, said the WSJ, will pose challenges for Washington.
The Trump administration has sought to resolve the crisis between Qatar and the blockading countries, not least because Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has praised Qatar’s fight against terrorism and called for the blockade to be lifted. Moreover, US intelligence officials have accused the UAE of hacking Qatar state media and planting the fake news story that sparked the diplomatic crisis in the first instance.