Stronger ties between the two nations will help the Gulf withstand growing pressures in an uncertain world.
Over the past two years or so there has been a palpable acceleration of regional Arab dialogues, co-operation and co-ordination at the leadership, government and institutional levels. These movements have coincided with an increasing schism that is forming in the world, especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The G7 group of nations have come together to counter what they regard as threats from the East, emanating not only from Russia but from China as well. There is no doubt that Arab Gulf states, rich in minerals, and especially much-coveted oil and gas, will find themselves confronted by increasing pressure to side with one party or the other.
So far, the Gulf states have managed to hold neutral ground without compromising longstanding relationships with either side. These states no longer see themselves as tertiary or even secondary players, not only in their own region but throughout the world. In reality, they are most susceptible to being pressured when they face internal conflicts or disagreements, which allow for certain parties to take advantage of these schisms.
Encouraging steps have taken place, even over the past few months, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hosting a major summit that brought together nine regional leaders of the Gulf Co-operation Council, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, alongside US President Joe Biden. Even more recently, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi attended the opening of the Fifa World Cup in Qatar – the first official visit by an Egyptian president to the country in a decade. In the coming days, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will host Chinese President Xi Jinping for a major summit that will once again bring together regional leaders.
It is with these developments in mind that the visit of UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed to Qatar should be viewed. Dr Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE President, billed the visit as “another step towards strengthening solidarity and joint Gulf action. The path of co-operation, integration and coordination is a strategic Emirati choice towards achieving common Gulf aspirations.”
Sheikh Mohamed’s visit to Qatar, one of his first official visits since becoming President of the UAE, brings together two of the region’s economic powerhouses. The UAE’s GDP stood at Dh1.5 trillion in 2021 (around $402.9 billion) while Qatar’s GDP stood at $179.6bn, making them respectively the second- and fifth-largest economies in the Arab world.
Sheikh Mohamed’s visit, which coincides with the World Cup, the biggest event ever hosted by Qatar, is a warm gesture from one of the most effective leaders in the region. It also gives a boost to the AlUla Agreement of January 2021, which allowed not just for a resetting but also a strengthening of ties in the face of increasing regional and global conflicts and pressures. For his part, Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, visited the UAE in May 2022 to offer condolences on the passing of the late President, Sheikh Khalifa.
In a post on Twitter, Sheikh Mohamed wrote that the visit to Doha was to “discuss areas of mutual interests and strengthening bilateral ties between our nations”. This bodes well for the business community at a time of rising uncertainty in the world, and points to added opportunities for both peoples. As of this month, for instance, the number of daily flights between the UAE and Qatar has skyrocketed to 41. This increase in flights has allowed for a significant number of visitors to the Qatar World Cup to choose to be based in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and make daily commutes to Qatar (estimates vary around the tens of thousands). As a result of this increasing economic co-operation, bilateral trade stood at around $1.4bn in 2021.
Sheikh Mohamed’s historic address on the UAE’s National Day on December 2 (his first National Day speech as President) spells out his vision for the UAE as a regional and global actor. In the speech, Sheikh Mohamed stated that “in a rapidly shifting world, the UAE realises the importance of strengthening partnerships across the Arab world for the benefit of this region and its people, and will continue to invest in Arab resources and capabilities for the development of all”.
He further stated: “Recent transformations across the world have emphasised the importance of strengthening all aspects of regional co-operation between countries belonging to a particular region or geographical area, as is the case for the Arab countries in general or the Gulf Co-operation Council states, in particular. Our countries possess a potential for convergence and integration that may not be available to other nations in other regions.”
It is in this light of regional co-operation and – in the words of Sheikh Mohamed – the “potential for convergence and integration”, that his visit to Qatar could be seen.
This article was originally published in The National on December 5, 2022.