Analysis: The Gulf hedges its Russia bets on

Ahmed Mustafa, Tuesday 18 Oct 2022

Though previously scheduled, the UAE president’s visit to Moscow is now seen as a Gulf pivot away from pro-Western policy.

The Gulf hedges its Russia bets on


Last week, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan paid “a pre-scheduled visit” to Russia, meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Though official statements around the visit mention only “discussing bilateral relations and other issues of mutual interest”, the Western media have portrayed it as yet another example of the Gulf moving away from United States and closer to Russia.

Analysts in the US picked on the fact that it took place just days after OPEC+ coalition cut oil production in defiance of American requests which after calling on Saudi Arabia to increase production US President Joe Biden saw as a snub. He threatened to review American relations with Saudi Arabia and many in the US saw the move in terms of the Saudis siding with Russia in the Ukraine war.

The two oil market kingpins, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, disputed American accusations and insisted the decision to cut production is purely technical, to avoid energy market imbalances. But Gulf’s stand on the Ukraine war and its reluctance to side with America and the West in punishing Russia led many observers to see Bin Zayed’s visit to Moscow as a new step in that direction.

Some in the region feel the UAE has been following a proactive foreign policy seeking stability and security, using its financial leverage to help settle conflicts in the region and beyond.

According to Emirati Presidential Adviser Anwar Gergash, the president “found that the Russian president is convinced of a political solution of the crisis that takes into account Moscow’s concerns about its national security”. Gergash tweeted: “The UAE resumes its efforts, with friendly countries, to de-escalate and enhance opportunities for a political solution that ends a crisis threatening every region of the world.”

That was the only remark from an Emirati official beyond regular statements by the government about the visit. The adviser’s tweet implies that Putin responded positively to a suggested Emirati peace effort, or mediation in the Ukraine conflict.

The Emirati media previously quoted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation statement, “Sheikh Mohamed’s visit to Russia comes within the framework of the UAE’s continuous endeavor to contribute to achieving security and stability in the region and the world”. The statement went on to say that “the bilateral talks will address the latest developments related to the crisis in Ukraine, as the [UAE] seeks to achieve positive results to reduce military escalation, reduce humanitarian repercussions and reach a political settlement to achieve global peace and security.”

But in a long analysis published this week on the Carnegie Endowment website, the organisation’s Vice President Andrew S Weiss concluded that the Emirati president’s visit to Russia and Saudi-influenced oil cut are a clear shift of policy. He mentioned some drivers behind that shift, including the fact that “Russia’s relationship with the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states typically centres on a widespread desire across the region to hedge against the purportedly waning security ties to the United States. According to this logic, the writing on the wall says that the Middle East is becoming less of a core US national security interest as a result of the US pivot to Asia, the drawdown of the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and surging US domestic oil and gas production, among other things.”

But in concluding his analysis, Weiss plays down the rhetoric of some zealots in the US and the West who couldn’t pass up an opportunity to attack Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Gulf. He adds, “it would be an exaggeration to conclude that Russia and regional players are actually positioning themselves for the Kremlin to become a leading provider of security in the Gulf, let alone supplant the United States.”

That final statement echoes what many in the UAE and the Gulf describe as a foreign policy stand that is “not taking sides for free”, but balancing their relations with others based on their interests.

The UAE in particular has been leading a sort of new approach to relations with world powers, both traditional and emerging ones. As a Dubai-based analyst told Al-Ahram Weekly, “the days of only following the Western way is gone.” He stressed that “the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are putting their interests first. That entails keeping good relations with the West, the east, and other players around the world – no more taking sides if it will damage national interest.”

There are a lot of shared interests between the UAE and Russia that go back many years. Abu Dhabi invested in many Russian sectors and the UAE is now a main investment destination for Russia’s public and private entities, according to the Dubai-based daily Gulf News. America and the West are wary of such developments. Despite a sort of disengagement with the region, they still need Gulf cooperation if Western measures to strangle Russia are to succeed.

One of these measures is the anticipated oil price cap that Washington wants to impose on Russian oil exports to deprive Moscow of income while keeping its oil flowing into the global market. A longtime energy executive and Carnegie contributor, Sergei Vakulenko, suggested that such a measure will not work unless Gulf oil producers come on board. He noted, “if the cartel [of oil buyers led by US] succeed in forcing Russia to obey its rules, the Arab countries may be next. If Russia counters the price cap by reducing its output, Saudi Arabia may be reluctant to increase its oil exports to compensate for the reduction, whether it has sufficient available production capacity or not.”

Oil is not the only worry for Washington and its Western allies. The Arab and Gulf countries’ continued relations with Moscow could dilute all other sanctions imposed on Russia. Until now at least, it seems American and Western accusations and threats are not swaying Gulf countries to abandon Russia. This can be attributed to the fact that the level of trust for the West is no longer the same as it once was.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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