Reuters talked Thursday about ramifications of loosening the relations between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have been leading a military coalition in Yemen in support of President Hadi againstthe Iranian-backed Houthi group, and about a rift in this alliance.
But this month, at his Mecca palace, Saudi King Salman took the unusual step of expressing "extreme irritation" with the UAE, his closest Arab partner, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The king's annoyance was voiced in a conversation on Aug. 11 with the Yemeni President AbdRabbu Mansour Hadi, whose forces in Aden had just been routed by troops supported by the UAE, as nominal allies in the country's south turned on each other in a power struggle.
The comment appears to be evidence of a fissure in the alliance, which is led in practice by the king's son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), and the UAE de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MbZ).
The immediate source of strain is Yemen's ruinous war. Friction had been growing for months over the conflict, which was initially expected to last a few weeks but has dragged on for years and killed tens of thousands with no end in sight.
A wider cause is the UAE's apparent decision to pivot toward narrower national interests, casting itself as the more mature partner that can stabilize the region, even if it means cutting losses and moving on without Riyadh.
The UAE also appears keen to salvage its image in Washington, where the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi deepened worries that the kingdom's foreign policy was growing impulsive and interventionist.
"The UAE wants to be seen as the small country that facilitates peace and stability rather than an appendage to a triumphant expansionist Saudi," a source familiar with the government's thinking told Reuters.
"It is in a way (putting) their interests first, because they think if you have an expansionist Saudi, it's going to engulf them," the source added.
Asked for comment, a Saudi official described that account as false and said: "Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain strategically aligned on the sources of instability in the Middle East and cooperate very closely to counter a wide array of security threats in the region and beyond. Bilateral relations between the two nations are unshakable."
A UAE official earlier told Reuters both countries were "completely aligned" on Yemen and that with Iran, de-escalation was the only way forward.
Reuters reportreferred to the UAE'sJunedecision to scale down its military presence in Yemen, saddling Riyadh with an unpopular war it had launched to neutralize the Houthis and prevent Iran from consolidating influence along the border.
A senior Emirati official said the move was a natural progression due to a UN-sponsored peace deal in the western port of Hodeida.
But some diplomats said the UAE accepted there was no military solution and were sensitive to criticism of the humanitarian disaster and coalition air strikes that have killed civilians. They also said that rising Iran tensions precipitated the decision.
"It was not perceived in a positive way. The Saudis felt abandoned," said a Western diplomat.
Another diplomat said the relationship was fracturing: "Their strategic interests are similar but don't quite match."
The UAE also downplayed divisions after separatists it backs seized Aden, interim seat of Hadi's government, this month, but did not ask them to cede control and criticized Hadi's government as "weak" and "ineffective".
Yemen has been racked by a 4-year bloody conflict between the internationally-recognized Yemeni government's forces, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who ousted the government in 2014.
Yemen conflict hastriggered what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with most of the population in need for a type of humanitarian aid and immediate protection, including 14 million people risking famine and some 1.8 million children suffering malnutrition.