The simmering dispute between the UAE and Saudi Arabia over ID cards is unlikely to have a lasting effect on relations between the countries. But, analysts said yesterday, it highlights the need for a more effective method of resolving disagreements between GCC members. Saudi Arabia declared last week that Emiratis would no longer be able to cross the border using ID cards, alleging the map printed on the cards contradicted a border agreement.
Minor tensions such as these are common in Gulf history and show a need for stronger regional bodies to resolve such disputes, said Dr Ibtisam al Kitbi, a professor in political science at the UAE University. "If you look back over the past 10 or 20 years in GCC relations, you will find this kind of dispute everywhere. This is nothing new," Dr al Kitbi said. "But this raises the issues of having a proper body in the GCC to resolve this kind of dispute properly. It's there, but it's not effective; no one uses it."
The GCC has a Commission for the Settlement of Disputes, which forms committees to solve disagreements on an ad-hoc basis. Saudi citizens are still able to travel in and out of the Emirates using the cards, following a directive from Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, on Wednesday. The move has helped defuse the situation, said Dr Mustafa Alani, a researcher from the Gulf Research Centre. "It was an effort to calm down the whole issue." Saudi Arabia and the UAE signed a border agreement in 1974 in which the former dropped a claim to the Buraimi Oasis in return for the UAE giving up a strip of land bordering Qatar and some of the Shaybah oilfield.
"Historically, there have always been disputes between the UAE and Saudi on border demarcation," said Dr Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. "It's a relationship that sometimes sours because of disputes over the border, and sometimes it fades into the background and you don't hear about it." The issue came to the fore in 2006 when Saudi Arabia complained that it had not been consulted over the construction of a gas pipeline from Qatar to the UAE which it claimed crossed its territory.
Dr Karasik said last week's move was the latest example of the largest Gulf nation trying to assert its influence after the UAE quit the planned monetary union following a decision to place its headquarters in Riyadh. "There's been low-level tensions ever since signing the accord placing the monetary agency in Riyadh," he said. "I think this is part of that episode, a very minor tit-for-tat retaliation from Saudi after the UAE withdrew."
He cited the recent problems at the border, where UAE lorries were stranded for weeks after Saudi Arabia introduced a new fingerprinting system, as another example. Dr al Kitbi agreed the disagreement over ID cards could be an example of Saudi Arabia trying to assert its power as the "big brother" of the GCC. "Part of it relates to the monetary union, because of course Saudi Arabia has for a long time played the role of big brother. They can't absorb that somebody else could have its own way," she said. "But if you have a young brother, he will grow one day, and you have to give him his right to that. Things can't continue forever as they are and you have to be unified as you grow."