jump to navigation

Saudi & Abu Dhabi in naval skirmish 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

In a worrying development for regional security, naval forces of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi have been involved in an exchange of gunfire in disputed waters. Reports indicate that Abu Dhabi naval forces opened fire on a small Saudi naval vessel which had strayed into what they considered to be Emirati waters injuring two Saudi sailors and forcing their surrender. Captured Saudis were handed back to KSA authorities earlier this week.

Given that this was seemingly such a minor incident and the Saudis were handed back relatively quickly, it is tempting to assume that this was simply a quasi-game of harassment gone awry (just like with the RAF and Russian bombers that I reported earlier this week).

This incident has caught many by surprise. Whilst boundary disputes between the UAE and KSA are well-known, there have been no such clashes in recent memory. Saudi unsuccessfully sought to block Qatar building their Dolphin pipeline to the Emirates claiming that their agreement was needed as it passed through Saudi territory. Even though Abu Dhabi is essentially the richest city on earth and Saudi easily has the world’s largest oil reserves, neither side wants to forgo the potential oil under the disputed territory.

America will be displeased to see such an obvious clash between two key members of its putative coalition establishing a united front against Iran. Particularly so given that Doha hosts a conference on maritime defense early next week including speeches by Saudi and Emirati naval commanders.

The Gulf has an unfortunate combination of latent and overt tensions combined with – as far as defense is concerned – seemingly unlimited liquidity. It is, therefore, unsurprising to find that 5 Gulf countries are in the top 10 of world defense spending as a percentage of GDP. The Emirates are only behind India and China as world’s largest weapons importers. Furthermore, both countries receive some of the most up to date military hardware from the US, with the Emirates being the first country in the world agreeing in principle to purchase America’s THAAD defence system. More generally, America agrees to the massive build up of arms by Saudi and the UAE thinking that they will bolster their defense, their deterrence and balance the power of Iran regionally, not so they can take pot-shots at each other, much to the amusement, no doubt, of Tehran.

It is also interesting to note that this incident appears to have been largely hushed up. This is unsurprising. Despite this incident, KSA and Abu Dhabi are generally cooperative allies and are united in their mutual antipathy and suspicion of Iran. I very much look forward to seeing whether Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper covers this story, for it is clearly newsworthy, yet clearly a sensitive topic. This is, in short, a perfect test for their level of independence, or lack thereof.


I’ve changed a few words of this article. I misunderstood a few facts such as about the number of Saudi’s injured.