Over the past weeks, Gulf analysts have been paying closer attention to two long-time Arab Gulf allies - Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - as they began to forge seemingly divergent courses in pursuing their own regional and domestic interests. 

The first sign of a decoupling emerged in late 2019 with the UAE’s announcement of its intended withdrawal from Yemen - a move that some analysts and observers described as an act of abandonment by an ally. In February 2021, Saudi Arabia announced its intention to forbid any business transactions to foreign companies not headquartered in the Kingdom by 2024—a move that directly applied to the UAE. Although official reactions were restrained, a culmination of decisions deemed detrimental to both sides resulted in an unusually public disagreement between the two, which surfaced at an OPEC+ meeting in June 2021. 

Saudi and Emirati citizens immediately took to social media to support their countries’ official stance. The instinctive reaction of citizens was in stark contrast to the speculative circumstances in the wake of the Qatar blockade in 2017, which had prompted the public prosecutor in the UAE to issue a stern warning that any sympathies expressed towards Qatar would be criminalized. In the OPEC+ incident, however, the steering of public opinion was not necessary. Citizens’ understanding of the welfare state on which they have long depended was the main reason to support the economic interests of their nations. This moment posed the question of whether or not constituents, who were long prepared to forego political participation in exchange for economic privileges, that are now diminishing, could infringe on the age-old understanding that the political domain is the exclusive prerogative of government. 

With declining oil revenues, however, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had to look at diversifying their economies by making their conservative and hierarchical states attractive to foreign investors - an uneasy compromise that is threatening the viability of existing social contracts. 

The Case of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030,” a roadmap for a post-oil economy, entails introducing vast social changes to make the Kingdom more appealing to tourists and international businesses. The Kingdom, looking to emulate Dubai and create an international hub for business and tourism, saw potential appeal in the country’s vast geography and access to the Red Sea. Thus, it allocated $810 billion to develop the tourism sector in the coming years. The sector is expected to generate three million jobs, two-thirds of which will be given to expatriates

To increase the number of expats who live and work in the Kingdom from 30 percent to 50 percent, the Saudi government introduced new schemes to allow foreigners permanent residency and access to economic benefits, such as the ability to start a business and invest in and purchase property. Interestingly, however, these new moves prompted members of the Shura Council, a consultative body appointed by the king, to draft a proposal asking for a similar treatment to be granted to children of Saudi women who are married to non-Saudis. 

While Saudi Arabia has successfully allowed women to drive in 2018, a decision that was socially contested for years, other changes have been facing resistance. For example,  the Kingdom received backlash on Twitter ensued when the Ministry of Islamic Affairs decided to restrict the use of loudspeakers in mosques. The ministry justified the decision as a means to protect children and the elderly as well as to regulate the use of loudspeakers. Interestingly, the recent move to allow shops to remain open during prayer times has been primarily promoted by the Federation of Saudi Chambers, a body that represents the Saudi business community, as a preventive Covid-19 measure. This informal promotion, and the seeming lack of official statements, show how the state is seeking to avoid public debate around the issue of minimizing the role of religion in public spaces. These examples serve as a reminder that religious identity remains strong despite the kingdom’s increasing emphasis on the youth and its pursuit of “moderate Islam.” 

Austerity measures, especially the tripling of the value-added tax to 15 percent in 2020, have added another dimension to the changing reality of Saudis today. In an attempt to ease the budget deficit, the Kingdom accelerated the push toward privatizing 16 key sectors, including healthcare and education, which would help raise $55 billion over the next four years. Saudi officials have downplayed the potential effects of privatization on Saudi citizens. However, the scarcity of information about this change has left Saudis fearful about job security which they have long enjoyed as mostly public sector employees. These developments are clear indications of a social contract under pressure in the Kingdom.

The Case of The UAE

Among Gulf Arab states, the UAE played an early and influential role in promoting citizenship and national identity in the Gulf. This project began with modest steps in the mid-2000s, with the practice of theming each year based on a national symbol (i.e. the late Sheikh Zayed) or a national aspiration (i.e. national identity or tolerance), culminating in a large-scale, multifaceted social engineering program, which included the 2016 introduction of military conscription. 

But the rallying cry for “national identity”, triggered by the growing demographic imbalance that the official census of  2005  revealed, is confronted by the shifting agenda of the state. The pandemic, along with the imminent end to the oil age, has compelled the UAE to pursue previously unthinkable policies.

Among the boldest of these new policies was the August 2020 announcement that the UAE was normalizing relations with Israel. The orchestrated jubilations that followed, however, took the region by surprise. Emiratis rallied behind their government - not normalization - in a demonstration of loyalty and unquestioning obedience. But the projected image of a unified front was soon ruffled by a series of events that allowed for differing views to surface. 

In an unprecedented legal overhaul, which was aimed at ensuring the country remains appealing to expatriates, the UAE decriminalized the consumption of alcohol and cohabitation. Soon after, it announced that it will be extending citizenship to investors and other professional expatriates. The decision was initially met with reticent silence, but Emiratis versed in the art of insinuations were unrestrained in lamenting the atrophying of the Arabic language, and the proudly curated “National Identity”. The decline of Arabic has been a go-to venting corner for Emiratis since the mid-2000s, as it is deemed the least confrontational and apolitical means through which to express frustration with a myriad of issues, such as the demographic imbalance, without ruffling state feathers. With citizenship now extended to non-Arabs and non-Muslims, the convenient wailing wall for Emiratis has been re-erected. Not only have Emiratis denounced the loss of Arabic, but the loss of their national identity due what they feel may be an overstretched performance of tolerance.

In a now deleted tweet, a bewildered aliased citizen noted that those invited to naturalise will be able to retain their existing citizenship, while the same is not afforded to Emirati nationals. The post also pondered the culture of political participation to which the newly naturalized citizens are accustomed and how that might impact the UAE. 

The recent Israeli attacks against Palestinians, however, sparked much louder condemnations by Emiratis against the UAE’s new and unduly- celebrated ally. Aside from the better-known state-affiliated Twitter handles, Emiratis were not only vocal in their condemnations of Israel, but also in their fierce and unified chastising of their compatriots, whose inapt deployment of the ‘peace and tolerance’ talk outraged many citizens. These wide condemnations revealed that sustaining an image of a unified- front is, in fact, untenable. 

It is only natural to expect that Emiratis, emboldened by the recent flurry that created a breathing space for expression, might continue to practice the public holding of opinions, especially if the social contract continues to be undermined by new changes in the configuration of society. An anticipated work-week change will make Saturdays and Sundays the official weekend, while Fridays will mark half-days to allow for the religiously observant to attend Friday prayers - a decision that might carry through despite being unfavorable to a largely conservative citizenry. And judging by the hints from prominent public officials in the form of speculative conversations, it might not be far-fetched to assume that a corporate tax will soon be introduced, followed perhaps by an income tax.

A post-oil UAE will not necessarily spell doom for the state, but social changes that undercut the privileges on which the social contract rests might rouse citizens into an uncomfortable reality as the country braces for more changes to come. 

The ramifications of existing grievances and the increasing polarization within Gulf societies following the Arab uprisings as well as the extensive social engineering programs have pitted conservatives against liberals. Arab Gulf States’ ability to redefine their social contracts without turbulence will depend on their tactful avoidance of creating new grievances and on solving existing ones.

Mira Al Hussein is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, UK. Her research focuses on the Sociology of Higher Education in the UAE.

Eman Alhussein is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, focusing on Gulf affairs.