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The Ukraine conflict has Persian Gulf monarchies hedging their bets

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates haven’t been aligning with the U.S. — or Russia

- March 14, 2022

When the United Arab Emirates abstained from the Feb. 25 U.N. Security Council vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was much consternation, as many observers expected the United States’ partners in the Middle East to unequivocally side with Washington and Europe.

Why did one of the United States’ closest partners in the Middle East decline to vote against Russia? The UAE was probably hedging its bets, a path that seems popular elsewhere in the region, too.

Hedging to the extreme

Russia is not a strategic partner for the Persian Gulf monarchies. Given its production capabilities, Russia has become an important interlocutor for Saudi Arabia in the OPEC-plus oil bloc that controls close to 40 percent of global production, but Moscow also competes with gulf countries as an energy producer.

Russia has forged strategic partnerships or military cooperation agreements with Saudi Arabia and the UAE — but its capabilities remain incomparable to those of the United States. Russia’s regional trade and investment volumes are dwarfed by those involving the United States and, especially, Europe. Despite recent attempts to take the nuclear deal with Iran hostage as leverage against Western sanctions, Russia has for years resisted Saudi and Emirati inputs to contain Iran geopolitically.

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The gulf monarchies’ ambiguity over Ukraine is more about their relations with the United States than their interests in Russia. As other global and regional powers seek to fill the vacuum left by American retrenching from the region, extreme hedging has become appealing. If two global powers are in conflict — in this case, the United States and Russia — aligning with neither of them, or with the third global power, China, may seem wise.

This idea is based on the assumption that multipolarity will open space for regional powers to maneuver and hedge, forgoing the costs of strategic alignment for the benefits of tactical, interests-driven and context-specific posturing. The invasion of Ukraine is providing a trial run for this strategy. It may also prove to regional leaders that this hypothetical hedging space is as narrow and as uncomfortable as it gets.

The UAE sat on the fence at the U.N.

The decision to abstain from voting on the U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion brought the UAE’s hedging strategy into sharp relief.

The resolution had 80 co-sponsors, highlighting the international consensus against Russia. The UAE claimed the resolution was doomed to fail in any event, given the Russian veto in the Security Council. And the UAE made an unconvincing statement about preserving neutrality to “support efforts towards a peaceful resolution.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield declared that abstaining was akin to supporting Russia, but the UAE was also supporting China’s position by abstaining, rather than taking a stance for Russia.

The Emiratis were no doubt pleased that Russia did not veto a Feb. 28 U.N. resolution renewing an arms embargo against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who recently began aiming attacks directly toward the UAE. But this resolution, while important, is not a game-changer for the Yemen war or Abu Dhabi’s security from Houthi attacks.

On the same day, the UAE’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, was scheduled to meet his counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow — but canceled.

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Pressed by the United States to pump more oil in order to help drive down skyrocketing energy prices — a consequence of the Russian invasion — the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, hinted that Abu Dhabi would be available to do so, only to be contradicted by Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazrouei shortly afterward.

This strategic ambiguity is the essence of the new hedging course, and it is clearer than ever in the energy geopolitics of the crisis.

Oiling the crisis

Alongside the UAE, Saudi Arabia is even more prominently involved in the oil dimension of the crisis, as Russia’s ability to finance military operations relies heavily on export revenue.

The energy market outlook appears dire. Before the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, oil and gas prices were rising, as demand from post-covid economies grew faster than available supply — and producers remained cautious about returning too quickly to pre-pandemic output levels. A U.S. ban on Russian oil and potential disruptions to Moscow’s export capabilities pushed prices even higher, to around $130 a barrel last week.

Higher prices are welcome news for Saudi Arabia after the all-time lows in 2020 — but far less welcome for Saudi Arabia’s Western partners. Thus far, Saudi Arabia has resisted strong calls by Washington and Paris to increase output to help push oil prices down. Saudi claims that they don’t want to politicize oil or disrupt OPEC-plus cooperation are, at best, a sign of myopia over the depth of the Ukraine crisis and the inevitability of its implications.

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Western leaders also remember that in March 2020, Saudi Arabia crushed Russia in an oil price war, even directly targeting Russia’s market shares in Eastern Europe. Having this kind of capability means Saudi Arabia cannot escape pressures to take a stance.

Saudi Arabia may believe this is a good opportunity to show its support should not be taken for granted, when it sees the United States less interested in preserving the partnership. But this could trigger a new push for further decoupling between Washington and Riyadh.

Can gulf monarchies continue to hedge their bets?

The gulf monarchies so far failed to see that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not a regional European war, but an event of global significance. In their first attempt at navigating a multipolar world order, they claimed they shouldn’t be forced to take sides and chose extreme hedging. Hedging might be a way to thrive in a multipolar world, but it is also a risky, delicate approach. In the face of Russia’s violent attempts to redraw the international rules-based order, hedging may have already reached its limits.

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Cinzia Bianco (@Cinzia_Bianco) is the Gulf Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.