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Saudi and Abu Dhabi in naval skirmish, newspapers in denial 1, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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This article was published in the Daily News Egypt on 31st March 2010


Last week there was a minor naval altercation between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. In the incident it is reported that gunfire was exchanged, the crew of a Saudi patrol boat was taken into Emirati custody, two having been injured, but all were released within days.

Whilst the specific precipitant is unknown, it appears that the incident took place in waters that both sides claim. Despite Abu Dhabi being arguably the richest city on earth and Saudi Arabia having gargantuan oil reserves, neither is willing to give an inch of land under which there may be energy deposits. Furthermore, Saudi seemingly classes this tract of water as strategically important. When Qatar wanted to build the Dolphin pipeline to pipe gas to the Emirates and on to Oman, Saudi Arabia objected saying that its agreement was needed as the pipe would traverse Saudi territory. However, these objections were ignored and the pipe constructed.

Practically all reports of this incident seem to stem from one Daily Telegraph article so drawing firm conclusions is difficult. Yet given that only one Saudi patrol boat was involved and that the sailors were handed back so quickly, it seems likely that this incident is simply a ‘game’ of harassment gone awry; rather like the routine and illegal entry of Russian bombers into British airspace, revealed last week, which so far has not produced similarly accidental but nevertheless dangerous results.

If either side chooses to not to forget this incident and retaliate there are numerous potential international ramifications. Both Saudi and the Emirates are stalwart US allies in the Gulf, receiving access to the highest grade of US weaponry and even to civilian nuclear technology, in Abu Dhabi’s case. Moreover, both countries are theoretically vital parts of the American inspired putative united front against Iran, designed to present a cohesive and consistent front to pressure the Tehran regime.

Either which way, this incident is the very definition of a newsworthy story. It involved a military skirmish, casualties, capture, release, surprise, tension and it all happened in one of the most highly covered and analyzed regions on earth. Yet, there has been practically nothing from local newspapers and precious little internationally.

With respect, this is not overly surprising in Saudi Arabia’s case, for their indigenous newspaper industry is not known for its transparency and freedom; quite the opposite. But Abu Dhabi’s The National was supposed to be different.

Established in April 2008 to much fan-fare, The National recruited top–class journalists from the UK and America along with an editor — Martin Newland — with a strong reputation from Britain’s The Daily Telegraph. Moreover, The National was set up with a firm pledge to introduce Western newspaper standards to ”help society evolve”.

Today, The National has some excellent coverage of international issues and is clearly the best written newspaper in the Gulf. It is both surprising and disappointing, therefore, that a detailed search of their archive reveals that they appear not to have written a word on the topic.

To an extent, this is not surprising. Military matters are always among the first ‘red lines’ for newspapers to consider in this region, let alone in an incident with a supposed friendly country. This is also not the first time that The National has taken an apparently politically motivated stance. In January, ‘The Doha Debates’, a Qatar based BBC World discussion show with questions from a live studio audience, debated the topic “Is Dubai a bad idea?” The National, however, refused to advertise the Debate and continues this policy to date.

This decision, like the one not to run the Saudi-Abu Dhabi boat skirmish story, cannot be justified on editorial grounds alone: both are interesting and topical stories that unquestionably would have significant public interest. Even if the incident is not at all what it appears to be, which is entirely possible, it is still worth a clarification piece.

On both occasions The National’s editors or those deciding to block publication (if that is what happened) of these stories, have misjudged the situation. In the case of the Doha Debates, the Qatari audience decided that in fact Dubai was a good idea. This could have been correctly portrayed as a popular, democratic defense of Dubai at a time when Dubai sorely needed a good news story.

As for the Naval skirmish, given the number of ties between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia — the most galvanizing of which being their mutual distrust and fear of Iran — the chances of this escalating seriously are slim. In the open, discussed and debated this could have been an opportunity to acknowledge some minor operational mistakes, announce renewed efforts to resolve the boundary issue and reaffirm their brotherly ties. After all, make no mistake: this story will have spread like wildfire through the region’s Majlis, so it is certainly not as if The National is preventing this information for getting to the public. Instead, with Ministries issuing ‘no comment’ statements and The National blissfully ignoring it, speculation continues and all concerned run the risk that a relatively minor issue takes on a more insidious, rumor-filled life of its own.

Saudi & Abu Dhabi in naval skirmish 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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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.