Tensions have emerged between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia over a border row dating back to the 1970s and fresh differences, chiefly over trade links with the US and a proposed bridge linking the UAE and Qatar which crosses Saudi maritime waters.
UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, who succeeded his father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan (who died in November 2005) as head of the seven-member federation, reportedly raised the border issue when he visited the Saudi capital Riyadh in December 2005 on his first trip abroad after his accession to power.
The Saudis reportedly replied that the issue had been settled under an agreement signed by the two countries on 21 August 1974 in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah.
Under the agreement, Saudi Arabia dropped its claim to the Buraimi oasis region, while the UAE relinquished a 25-kilometre-long strip of land linking it to Qatar, and gave up some 80% of the resources of the Shaybah oilfield in southeast Saudi Arabia.
Shaybah, located in Saudi Arabia’s vast Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter) desert, has some 15 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and untapped gas reserves of 25 trillion cubic feet.
Saudi Arabia made recognition of the new UAE federation conditional on a settlement of the territorial dispute.
It is difficult to say what exactly has sparked the renewal of the border dispute. There are a few potential explanations, such as the new UAE leadership, Saudi production from the Shaybah field since 1998, a rise in the field’s estimated reserves since the 1974 border agreement, current high oil prices, or a desire to rely more on natural gas as a long-term, lucrative alternative to dwindling oil supplies.
Another bone of contention between the UAE and Saudi Arabia is the fact that the Emirates is set to become the second Gulf country after Bahrain to sign a free-trade pact with the US. Bahrain’s free-trade deal with the US has angered Riyadh, which sees it as hindering economic integration within the Gulf Cooperation Council (comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait).
Saudi Arabia has also complained that it has not been consulted about a proposed bridge linking the UAE and Qatar via Saudi maritime waters.
Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is the UAE’s most important neighbour, and relations have been close for many years. Furthermore, the two countries’ stances on the GCC and pro-Western policies are closely aligned, Saudi Arabia is by far the Council’s largest member geographically, economically and in terms of population, and the Council has pledged to resolve disputes peacefully. Thus there is no reason to believe that the dispute will deteriorate to the point of seriously harming bilateral relations.