Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, many political analysts, especially in the Arab world, have predicted the demise of the unipolar world and the beginning of a multipolar political environment at the heart of which the US will be joined by Russia, China and India. I believe that this analysis is too hasty before the war itself has ended.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain do not want to lose Russia, and so try to keep a foot in each camp, Washington and Moscow. The UAE refrained from condemning the Russian invasion in the UN Security Council but agreed to do so in the General Assembly following US and Western pressure.
Saudi Arabia has refused to increase its oil production at America’s request as an alternative to Russian gas and oil. The de facto ruler of the Kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, further defied Washington when he reportedly refused to accept a call from US President Joe Biden when the White House tried to arrange phone discussions between Biden and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Wall Street Journal reported that Bin Salman yelled at US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during a meeting because he did not want to discuss the case of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi any longer; instead he called on the US to forget its request to double Saudi oil production.
The Saudi and UAE media are aligning with Russian media completely; their reports do not refer an invasion, but “military operations”, following Moscow’s lead. The reality, though, is that the crisis between Saudi Arabia and the US did not start with the invasion of Ukraine. It stems from US criticism of the war in Yemen and the Khashoggi killing. President Biden vowed during his election campaign to punish Bin Salman, who US intelligence agencies accused of being involved in the murder by giving orders to his aides to assassinate the Washington Post journalist. Once in the White House, Biden deliberately avoided contact with the prince, apart from a call when Biden stipulated that there will no contact between them and that he would remove the Houthi group from the US terrorist list, which angered Bin Salman.
British Prime Minister Borsi Johnson visited Saudi Arabia after the Russian invasion in an effort to improve relations with the US and to try to get Riyadh to back down from its refusal to increase oil production and put pressure on OPEC not to raise prices, not least because European countries rely heavily on Russian fuel supplies. This effort failed, apparently; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went to Saudi Arabia to thank Bin Salman for supporting the Russian position.
I think that Lavrov’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with the prince as well as his meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers was intended to pre-empt Biden’s upcoming tour of the region, in light of what they consider to be the confrontation between Russia and the West reaching the Middle East. We could call this the “oil resistance axis”, led by Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, created in Abu Dhabi and Moscow in a fragile, open relationship. The UAE cannot leave its Western allies, nor does it want to. The West is impressed by the UAE and praises it for its normalisation with Israel, dragging Saudi Arabia in its wake. This was clear when Egypt transferred sovereignty of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, which must have been approved by Israel, and to replace the peacekeeping forces on the strategically important islands with joint Saudi and Israeli forces. Moreover, Russia is no longer able to return to the capitalist system under which it was revived.
As such, I think that the policy of having a foot in both camps employed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE will not continue for long. They may have managed to outmanoeuvre the US to some extent, but they no longer have the stamina or power to play this game. They will return to the American embrace; Joe Biden’s proposed visit to Saudi Arabia next month and his meeting with the Gulf leaders, along with the King of Jordan and Egyptian president, prove this. All of the countries in the region remain under Washington’s thumb, no matter how much they rebel from time to time. It is inevitable that they will be with the US because, realistically, they have nowhere else to go; the Russian house is weaker than a spider’s web and can offer neither life nor security.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.