The United Arab Emirates celebrated its 49th national day this week – while commemorating such an occasion is imperative, it certainly isn’t the only reason to celebrate.
It is also a reminder to take pride in – and celebrate – the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s indispensable ties, as well as the strategic economic, social, and geopolitical value bilateral relations offer the region at large. Strategic alignment at the national level between Saudi Vision 2030 and UAE Vision 2021 comes with positive byproducts that extend far beyond Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Ties between both nations are central to regional stability, socio-economic development, intra-Islamic tolerance, interfaith dialogue, youth empowerment, and unleashing the unmet potential of cultural and creative industries.
Spheres of bilateral intersection continue to expand, culminating most recently in the Aber project – an initiative launched by the central banks of the UAE (CBUAE) and Saudi Arabia (SAMA) to explore the viability of a shared digital currency aimed to reduce transfer times and costs between banks of both nations. In a 93-page synopsis of the Aber project, the two central banks concluded that a distributed payment system is not only viable, but offers “significant improvement over centralized payment systems in terms of architectural resilience.” Beyond digital currency development, the project’s name, Aber – which is the Arabic word for “crossing boundaries” – encompasses the broader nature of ties between the Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.
The most obvious manifestation of such alignment is evident in the formation of the Saudi–Emirati Coordination Council in 2016—an unprecedented model for bilateral cross-sectoral coordination with a plethora of strategic byproducts, including job creation, investments, GDP growth, cultural exchange, and regional security. Official figures paint a clearer picture: The Council is set to implement 175 initiatives across 44 joint strategic economic, developmental, and military projects.
The economies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE represent a gross domestic product of slightly more than $1 trillion. As both nations transition to knowledge-based economies, economic diversification is central to their respective national strategies. This places great strategic weight on bilateral economic integration and coordination between the two largest economies in the Arabian Peninsula.
Economic, cultural ties
Economic ties have swelled since the creation of the GCC Customs Union in 2003: Saudi-UAE non-oil trade increased 1,230 percent from 2003 to mid-2018. Bilateral investments are also on the rise – the UAE has direct investments amounting to more than $9.2 billion in the Kingdom spanning 122 investment projects, while Saudi direct investments in the UAE amount to over 4.3 billion. These figures are expected to witness an exponential increase as the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council embarks on a series of strategic economic initiatives. These include a joint investment fund to invest, in partnership with the private sector, in small and medium enterprises of emerging industrial sectors, a joint venture company for agricultural investment to enhance sustainable food security, and a Saudi-Emirati investment fund for renewable energy to attract large and start-up companies and provide funding support for research and development projects.
Geopolitically, bilateral ties are best described as a cornerstone of regional stability. The strengthened security dimension of the alliance gives both nations greater latitude to engage in coordinated multilateral action. It is precisely this cooperation that has given both nations the ability to effectively counter extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, extremist non-state actors such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, and state-sponsored terrorism emanating from Iran and its regional proxies.
Joint geopolitical intersections extend far beyond combating extremism and into the realm of positive peacemaking: The historic 2018 Jeddah Peace Agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea that was made possible by joint Saudi-Emirati efforts is a testament to that commitment. The peace accord between the Horn of Africa neighbors is just one example of bilateral commitment to regional peace and sustained stability.
Culture and creative industries serve as a prime source of employment and foreign direct investment (FDI), while making up over 4.5 percent the global GDP. These figures point to a clear link between cultural development and economic diversification. But what sets Saudi-UAE cultural relations apart is the fact that both nations believe in the intrinsic value of culture beyond its economic efficacy, and its indispensable role preserving heritage, promoting national unity, and building bridges of mutual understanding at both regional and global levels.
Bilateral cultural exchange is continually strengthened through various platforms and festivals such as Souq Okaz, Janadriyah, the Misk Art exhibition, Riyadh International Book Fair, Sharjah theatrical days, and Abu Dhabi’s Al-Burda Exhibition, among others.
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Saudi Arabia and the UAE to find ways to keep cultural ties strong amid global lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The UAE’s embassy in Riyadh launched the Cultural Corridor Initiative through which prominent cultural figures in both countries participated in interactive virtual dialogues on topics including music, heritage, poetry, fashion and culinary arts. Further, the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council established a Saudi-Emirati Youth Council as a body to facilitate the exchange of skills and ideas between youth from both countries, while acting as a link between youth and decision-makers.
It is difficult to overstate the centrality of the Saudi-Emirati partnership to regional peace and prosperity. Strengthened ties between both nations propels the region to a brighter future through a common vision, one that is driven by an ironclad commitment to regional stability, optimism, and inclusive socio-economic development . A common vision begets a common destiny—as strategic ties increase in size and magnitude, the region’s destiny continues to look brighter with each passing moment.