Ukraine War

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates: A Risky Balancing Act

Faced with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, two important allies of the USA and France in the Gulf region have opted for a cautious attitude. Their wait-and-see approach reflects the increased Russian influence in the reason over the past few years and a distrust of the West which abandons its allies as in Afghanistan and is not very consistent when it comes to defending its “values”.

Moscow, 17 March 2022. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyane enter a meeting
Evguenia Novozhenina/POOL/AFP

NATO is one of the keys to this recent crisis … it is certain that Russia – the legitimate heir to the Soviet Union – will not accept under any condition, NATO’s expansion close to its borders”, Muhammad Mofti wrote in the influential Saudi daily Okaz on 25 February, three days after Russia invaded Ukraine. And the next day, Jamil Ziyabi wrote in the same paper: “What is certain is that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has established new facts on the ground that cannot be ignored. He has undoubtedly imposed a new world order that is completely different from the world order imposed by the West on Russia since the end of the Second World War,” In the same vein, on 3 March, in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, Muhamad al-Hamzah piled it on:”The old world order that emerged after the Second World War was bipolar, but became unipolar following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is now witnessing the start of a shift to a multipolar system.” Addressing the West, the writer added: “It is clear that the stance of some countries on the war is not aimed at defending the principles of freedom and democracy as much as it is aimed at defending interests related to maintaining the existing world order.”1

The same critical stance is to be found in the media of the UAE. “The fluctuations in the U.S. position are not surprising. It is not new for it to engage in deception and renege on its commitments, as it has done in several arenas and issues. It has consistently exploited local forces in one place or another to serve its purposes, only to turn its back on them and leave them vulnerable to conflicts after achieving what it wants. Washington and the West have fueled the Ukrainian inclination to clash with Russia with deceptive, overblown presumption… Washington’s behavior and the European positions on the Ukrainian crisis, and their exploitation of Kyiv’s difficult conditions, reveal a problem in the values of their political system that will be put to a difficult, serious test by the developments and outcome of the Russian/Ukrainian conflict.”2

Reading these opinions, we might almost forget that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are strategic allies of the United States. Yet they sum up very well the two dominant themes in the media of those countries alongside severe condemnations of the Russian invasion. On the one hand, sometimes very sharp criticisms of U.S. President Joe Biden and the United States which, though still considered their allies, are not regarded as trustworthy, since at the end of the day they betray their friends. As for their defence of international law, it is hypocritical: did they not invade and destroy Iraq in 2003 without a green light from the UN? And while Ukraine has been partially occupied for a few weeks, Palestine has been occupied for decades with the steadfast support of the USA and more embarrassed support of Europe. Not to mention the racism evinced by the refugee crisis with its double standard, according to whether you are Ukrainian or African.

The other recurring theme in the press deals with the reconfiguration of the international order, as it becomes multipolar, with a new place for Russia and especially for China (and Asia in general) which goes along with the U.S. withdrawal from the Gulf. Consequently, it is in the interest of both countries to pursue the diversification of their foreign relations and put an end to their special relationship with the West.

This media backdrop sheds light on the attitude of these two countries’ rulers, of whom the least we can say is that they do not feel bound – any more than the other countries of the region (Egypt, Turkey, Iran) – to take part in the Western campaign to “punish” Russia.

A vote that speaks volumes

There was no doubt but what the UN Security Council resolution condemning the Russian intervention in Ukraine would be defeated by the Russian veto. But the surprise came when not only did China and India abstain, but so did the UAE! A few days later, on 2 March, under pressure from the U.S., Israel, and France, they did vote in favour of the General Assembly’s resolution but without really changing their cautious attitude. On 28 February, the Emirati foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan had met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, an indication of the closer ties between the two countries, whose trade relations have increased by 38% over the past eleven months. Russia has entered many partnerships with the Emirates in the area of new technologies and even military ones, the two countries having signed a strategic cooperation agreement in 2018. There has been a tightening of political coordination with Moscow as well, regarding the Syrian situation – with Abu Dhabi now arguing in favour of the return of the Damascus regime to the Arab League; in Libya too, where the two countries have made common cause against Turkey; and in Yemen – Moscow having finally decided not to use its veto against a Security Council resolution to label the Houthis a “terrorist” organisation.

At the same time, Abu Dhabi has more and more grievances against Washington. The U.S. did not react immediately to the Houthi attacks on 17 January. They were reluctant to provide support for the war in Yemen and failed to consider their interests in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Among other signs of tension, at the end of 2021, Abu Dhabi decided not to go through with the purchase of 50 F-35 U.S. fighter planes worth 23 billion dollars in reaction to the technology transfer restrictions demanded by Washington. And in February 2022, though the purchase was on a smaller scale, the UAE immediately acquired a dozen Chinese Hongdu L-15 training fighter aircraft (with an option on 24 more), an acquisition justified by a determination to diversify their military purchases.

While the war in Ukraine has triggered a sharp rise in energy prices, the UAE, one of the world’s major oil exporters, have the capacity to respond to the demand, but are reluctant to do so. While their ambassador in the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba declared on 9 March that his country was prepared to raise its production quotas – causing in a single day a 15-dollar drop in the price per barrel – he was contradicted a few hours later by the Emirati Minister of Energy. Some observers interpreted this as a sign of divisions within the Emirati leadership, while others, no doubt quite rightly, saw it simply as a message to Joe Biden, reminding him of the Emirates’ capacity to influence oil prices and thus the need to consider their role on the international scene. Even if the final decision on production levels rests with the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+)3 i.e., mainly Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Now the latter country does not seem about to comply with Washington’s exigencies. More so as the “misunderstandings” between Washington and Riyadh, as with Abu Dhabi, have been piling up. Even prior to Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House, the Saudis had been shocked by the tepid U.S. reactions to the 14 September 2019 attack on its eastern petroleum facilities, President Trump having stated that he had never promised to defend Arabia. The U.S. debacle in Afghanistan in September 2021 and their disgraceful desertion of their local allies definitely convinced the Saudis and other Gulf rulers that the U.S. were quite prepared to turn their back on their allies and leave them defenceless, as the editorialist quoted above explained.

Mohammed Bin Salman, pariah or ally?

Biden’s election only made matters worse. He had promised to treat Saudi Arabia as a rogue nation following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, since U.S. intelligence agencies held Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) personally responsible. He had also denounced the war in Yemen. And though despite his promises, the Democratic administration has not changed policies, Biden refuses to have any contact with MBS.

Will the war in Ukraine make any difference? After all, Washington has got in touch with Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela after denouncing it up till now in vigorous terms, trying to get it to increase its oil production. Such spectacular reversals are commonplace in the Middle East. People with short memories should remember that just after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, President George Bush made his peace with Hafez Al-Assad’s regime in order to enrol it in the coalition against Saddam Hussein.

But this time it seems to be the Saudis who are dragging their heels. According to the Wall Street Journal, MBS refused to take a call from Joe Biden at the beginning of the Ukraine war. He had demanded immunity if he travelled to the USA which would have been difficult to grant him, especially after the execution of 81 prisoners in one day on 12 March. And the fact that the White House spokesperson reiterated at the beginning of March the President’s declarations on the pariah status of the Saudi Kingdom will not improve matters at all.

In an interview he gave to The Atlantic on 7 March, when asked whether Biden failed to understand him, MBS replied contemptuously that he did not care about the President’s opinion but that he ought to think twice about the interests of his country. More generally, the Saudi leadership, like that of the Emirates, is exasperated by not having been consulted, as were the Western allies, in the weeks preceding the invasion. They also resent the lack of U.S. support in Yemen, its reluctance to help Arabia acquire civil nuclear power, when Moscow has undertaken, via the public company Rosatom, the construction of several power plants. Arabia also seems determined to diversify its trade relations, as shown by the ongoing negotiations with China which would enable the latter to purchase its oil in yuans instead of dollars – already 10 to 20% of its oil imports are invoiced in yuans.4

Will this non-alignment last?

Why punish Russia, when relations with that country have developed considerably over the past two years, especially since the creation in 2020 of OPEC+ which made Russia a party to negotiations on oil production levels? This involvement has brought about an excellent coordination between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which Moscow has come to regard as strategic.5 When he met with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on 4 March, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said little of the Ukrainian crisis, only that “the best way to handle that crisis is to promote talks between the two parties with an eye to reaching a political solution, making it possible to restore security and stability in that region and in the world.” Neither Saudi Arabia nor the Emirates are about to implement sanctions against Russia, and Dubai is currently becoming a refuge for Russian capital and for all the billionaires who have the benefit of direct airline connections, either via Aeroflot or the powerful Gulf companies.6

The situation remains unstable and the repercussions of the war in Ukraine on international relations are hard to predict. Already the postponement of the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear deal is a worrying sign. But if the war goes on, if the confrontation between Russia and the West begins to resemble a new Cold War in which everyone will have to choose sides, there is no doubt but what the USA and their allies will bring pressure to bear on their allies in the Gulf. The tools at their disposal are more powerful7 as the sanctions have already considerably weakened the Russian economy and as it will become increasingly dangerous to do business with that country. Will the “non-alignment” of the two monarchies in the current crisis be able to survive?

1These excerpts are all taken from BBC Monitoring Saudi Arabia, 8 March 2022.

2Quoted by Mideast Mirror, London, 1 March 2022.

3An alliance which includes, besides the members of OPEC, ten other countries: Russia, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Brunei, Malaysia, Oman, Sudan, South Sudan and in which, since 2020, Moscow and Riyadh play dominant roles.

5Konstantin Truevtsev, “ Russia’s New Middle East Strategy: Countries and Focal Points”, Valdai Discussion Club Report, February 2022. Valdai is a Russian think tank on international politics.

6Gwen Ackerman and Ben Bartenstein, “Rich Exiles Put Dubai in Spotlight”, Bloomberg, 14 March 2022.

7The inclusion of the Dubai-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in the “grey list” of countries that have not made sufficient efforts to combat “dirty money” constitutes an effective weapon against the Emirates.