Theoretical models predict that the relative importance of facilitation and competition may vary inversely across gradients of abiotic stress. However, these predictions have not been thoroughly tested in the field, especially in semi–arid environments. In this study, we evaluated how the net effect of the tussock grass Stipa tenacissima on the shrub Pistacia lentiscus varied across a gradient of abiotic stress in semi–arid Mediterranean steppes. We fitted the relationship between accumulated rainfall and the relative neighbour index (our measures of abiotic stress and of the net effect of S. tenacissima on P. lentiscus, respectively), which varied across this gradient, to a quadratic model. Competitive interactions dominated at both extremes of the gradient. Our results do not support established theory. Instead, they suggest that a shift from facilitation to competition under high abiotic stress conditions is likely to occur when the levels of the most limiting resource are so low that the benefits provided by the facilitator cannot overcome its own resource uptake.