A surge of state-sponsored nationalism is swiftly taking root in the most influential Arab states of the Persian Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These nations are embracing nationalist strategies that span efforts to maintain elevated oil prices, launch domestic mega projects, venture into global sports, and enhance relations with Russia and China.
The Saudi and UAE governments are shaping their domestic and foreign policies around these strategies, primarily targeting the burgeoning youth population to reshape national identity and state-society relations, all within an authoritarian framework. These initiatives have already yielded tangible outcomes, positioning Saudi Arabia and the UAE at the forefront of the Middle East’s de-escalation efforts and geopolitical landscape.
Leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are attuned to the evolving multipolar global order, a reality they acknowledge and adapt to in order to advance their short- and long-term interests, often against the backdrop of US opposition.
As power gravitates toward the Gulf, the unfolding transformation of nationalist agendas in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their subsequent influence abroad will inevitably reshape the Middle East and impact US foreign policy.
Nationalism emerges as the bedrock of authoritarian rule, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed aiming to consolidate control. These leaders have garnered more power domestically than their predecessors, with a goal to safeguard their absolute authority in the long run.
Essential to achieving this goal is the reconstruction of national identities. Both leaders engage in identity engineering aimed at domestic and international audiences, solidifying their grip on power.
In Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman seeks to redefine national identity beyond its religious roots, emphasizing a modern concept of Saudi identity. Traditionally, the modern Saudi state aligned with religious nationalism, presenting Saudi Arabia as a purified Islamic utopia, from which the ruling Al Saud family drew legitimacy.
Mohammed bin Salman aims to elevate Saudi nationalism as the primary unifying force, progressively aligning religion to endorse this new national narrative. His reforms include distancing official history from Wahhabism, granting women driving rights, expanding public entertainment, and recalibrating state education to embrace this nationalist narrative.
Meanwhile, in the UAE, bin Zayed focuses on forging a cohesive Emirati identity among the seven emirates. Efforts to cultivate shared identity intensified under bin Zayed’s tenure, concentrating power in Abu Dhabi while centralizing state authority.
Initiatives to foster common identity include events like the “Year of Zayed,” the establishment of national museums and libraries, and an emphasis on National Day celebrations in the Emirates. Education is also reshaped to emphasize Emirati identity, producing self-reliant and achievement-oriented citizens.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE emphasize economic transformation as a means to assert authority. The leaders’ Vision 2030 initiatives aim to diversify economies, transitioning from oil dependency to self-sustained economies.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seek to promote international images of modernity, progress, and stability to attract foreign support and investment. Although these economic initiatives are crucial, oil revenue remains central to both economies, particularly in Saudi Arabia where Vision 2030 progress lags.
As Saudi Arabia and the UAE strengthen their nationalist programs, they assert themselves as major players in the Middle East’s geostrategic landscape.
The nations played central roles in the counterrevolution following the Arab Spring, with military campaigns and strategic relationships reshaping regional dynamics. The Abraham Accords signaled the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel, solidifying its expanded presence in global politics.
In conclusion, Saudi Arabia and the UAE‘s embrace of nationalism as a tool for authority and influence has profound implications for the Middle East and US foreign policy. This transformation of identity, coupled with strategic maneuvering, will reshape regional dynamics, redefine allegiances, and determine the balance of power in the region.