The United Arab Emirates is reengaging with rival Iran, taking reciprocal measures to deescalate Gulf tensions, and leaving its ally Saudi Arabia in the lurch.

A photograph of a smiling Iranian coast guard commander meeting with his Emirati counterpart in Tehran raised eyebrows this week. It appeared to be the first publicized meeting in years, and it came on the back of an announced drawdown of UAE forces in Yemen.

An Emirati presentation to the Security Council earlier this summer pointedly declined to single out Iran as the “state actor” behind a string of tanker attacks off its coast.

Each of these steps was part of a deliberate outreach to Tehran, according to analyst Randa Slim of the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“We are seeing a process of calibrated, tit-for-tat deescalation steps between the UAE and Iran,” she told Asia Times. 

“This is not just because of the recent attack on the tankers, but […] a product of ongoing high-level discussions between the two countries,” she added. 

Slim, who specializes in track-two dialogue, says the responses by Iran have been equally deliberate.

Last week’s hosting of UAE Coast Guard commander Brigadier General Mohammed Ali Musleh al-Ahbabi in Tehran was the first public step.

Then on Friday, the Houthi rebels of Yemen – who are backed by Iran – announced a decision to “freeze” attacks against the UAE. The reason, Houthi politburo member Mohammed al-Bekhiti said, was that Abu Dhabi had changed its “political and military position” toward the war on Yemen.

The moves are the result of a months-long buildup of senior-level channels, analysts said.

Luciano Zaccara, a professor at Qatar University’s Gulf Studies Center, points out that the tanker attacks that took place off the UAE coast happened after that process began. “Meaning the Emiratis were already trying to reduce the tensions before the attacks,” he said. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who has been pushing for a non-aggression pact among Persian Gulf littoral states, over the weekend heralded what he called the shrinking of the “B Team”; that being his nickname for US National Security Adviser John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and – formerly – UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

UAE, Saudi mismatch

The UAE move to distance itself from Yemen has major repercussions for Saudi Arabia, which now finds itself without a major regional partner.

For Slim, the divergence is the result of a “mismatch of risk” between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

“The presence of a Hezbollah-like force on their borders has always been an existential threat for the Saudis – this threat never materialized for the UAE,” Slim said.”For the UAE it was more the Muslim Brotherhood, the state of chaos in the region, maybe Iran gaining more of a foothold in Yemen.”

For the Emiratis, a divided Yemen – with the Houthis controlling the north, and allied militias holding sway the south – could be an acceptable solution, says Slim. For the Saudis – who share an 1,800 kilometer border along Yemen’s north – it is not.

“For Saudi Arabia a divided Yemen is a threat. Especially if it allows the Houthis to remain in control of Sanaa,” Slim said.

The challenge is to find a face-saving solution that will assuage Saudi concerns but also be in keeping with a new reality – a war effort without a major ally.

Until now, says Slim, the Saudi leadership has not grasped the “full intention” of the Emiratis to make a major break on Yemen.

MBS’s poisoned chalice

The Saudi loss of its key partner in Yemen comes as another crucial backer, US President Donald Trump, faces growing pressure from Congress to end support for the war.

While Trump has used his presidential veto to override the will of the Senate, the increasingly bipartisan opposition presents a growing challenge to Riyadh. The Emiratis, in effect, were getting ahead of a possible PR disaster by pulling out of Yemen before the upcoming 2020 US presidential elections.

The glare is now on Mohammed bin Salman, already shunned by Washington for the October murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

While the Saudis for decades have depended on the United States for Gulf security, the past months of confrontations – including the downing of a US drone by Iran – show this is no longer viable.

The Saudis, Zaccara says, are increasingly obliged to sit down with the Iranians.

“The Iranians are expecting the Saudis will engage in direct conversations – this is something the Iranians have been asking for,” said Zaccara. A starting point would be a new agreement for the Hajj to Mecca, the pilgrimage which every Muslim must undertake in their lifetime, and which is controlled by Saudi Arabia.  

“The security of the Gulf can only be secured by Gulf countries – not the United States,” he said. 

That will be a tough pill to swallow for the Saudi crown prince, who until recently was in apparent lockstep with the US campaign of maximum pressure on Iran.

“MBS is facing the Khomeini moment where he has to drink the poisoned chalice. We fought Iraq and we’ll never agree to negotiate with Saddam but eight years down after the war claims millions of people he said we have to drink the poisoned chalice,” said Slim. 

“Khomeini could do that because he was supreme leader of Iran – he was the father of the revolution.”

The question, she says, is whether the 33-year-old crown prince has the domestic base to make such a move. 

“He has hinged his success to three projects: One is the Yemen war, the second is Vision 2030, and the third is the social reforms,” said Slim. “With social reforms he’s moving forward, but the other two seem to have failed or stalled.”

To stand down on Yemen and accept a Houthi presence on the kingdom’s southern border would be a major upset. Eventually, however, he may not have a choice. 

Also read: Trump’s Iran ‘diplomacy’ is a cynical farce