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The Ukraine Crisis and the Gulf: A Saudi Perspective

Interview with Abdulaziz Al Sager

The Ukraine Crisis and the Gulf: A Saudi Perspective
 Abdulaziz Sager
Founder and Chair of the Gulf Research Center

The Ukraine war is transforming the international order. We cannot understand this new global equilibrium without including non-Western voices, and the Saudi perspective is undoubtedly key to this new balance of geopolitical power. Dr. Abdulaziz Al Sager, Chairman and Founder of the Gulf Research Center, shares some takes on the Saudi perception of the conflict for Ukraine Shifting the World Order.

A war has been waged by Russia against Ukraine. What is the perception in the Gulf of this major event?

From the Gulf’s perspective, the war in Ukraine was first and foremost perceived as a European crisis. Europe will pay a heavy price as a result of this conflict, especially due to its heavy dependence on energy supplies.

The Gulf tried to maintain a "balanced" position towards Russia's invasion - not to be confused with neutrality. Similar reactions were seen in Turkey, India, and to a certain extent, China. Two reasons explain this posture. First, officials throughout the Arab Gulf have expressed support for a diplomatic solution that ends the war. This was made explicit by their March 2 vote at the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates voted to pass a resolution denouncing the invasion and demanding that Moscow withdraw its military presence. The UNGA resolution was cosponsored by four countries from the region: Israel, Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey. Later, on March 24, almost three-quarters of the UNGA demanded aid access and civilian protection in Ukraine and criticized Moscow for creating a "dire" humanitarian situation.

Second, while Gulf countries do not entirely adhere to the Russian narrative, they do understand the national security concerns behind Moscow's move. What is striking from a Saudi point of view is the similarity between Ukraine and Yemen. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been advocating for a safe border, a friendly government free from hostile influence, and no extended military threats. Russia has somewhat the same problem with Ukraine, if, for example, NATO was stationed in the country. Given the fact that our part of the world has faced similar situations, Russian security concerns are heard in the Gulf, and beyond, in many Arab countries.

The crisis has re-imposed the concept of energy "as a political weapon", and added great strategic value to oil and gas markets in the region.

On another front, the crisis has re-imposed the concept of energy "as a political weapon", and added great strategic value to oil and gas markets in the region. In times of higher oil and gas prices, the Gulf would usually reinvest its financial gains with Western countries. In the current period, however, the income will instead fuel local development initiatives. Here, it must be understood that despite the commonalities of interest when it comes to energy between the Gulf and Russia, the two also differ on a myriad of issues. 

The resulting disturbances in the supply chain for goods and services and the free movement of ships in the Black Sea are largely manageable issues for Gulf countries. While Ukraine was a major wheat supplier, under the present circumstances, alternatives for that wheat supply can come from either Europe or Canada. It is different for a country like Egypt, where the impact will be greater due to issues such as the price ratio and provided subsidies. Egypt will certainly find it more difficult to adapt. 

Where does the Gulf stand today? There is no significant military or aid support to Ukraine, nor is there endorsement of Russia's actions. Russia has tried to improve its relations with the Gulf in the past ten years and, like us, it is a producer of raw materials (i.e. oil, gas, uranium, nickel and minerals). We pay close attention to this factor. However, Russia does not produce consumer goods as China does, so the Chinese position in this crisis has to also be on our radar. In September of 2022, over one-third of Chinese oil imports come from the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia being the largest supplier at 2.2 million barrels a day.

Some will argue, that the Gulf countries need better oil prices due to the many ongoing development projects. When prices dropped down to $8 or $10 per barrel, there was no concern for the producing states. Maybe the time is ripe to have a more competitive oil price that can be used to spur further economic development. Consumers in the West ultimately will also benefit from increased prices and this will lead to higher investment and additional purchases from the West.

How were Western responses perceived in the Gulf? What does the Ukrainian-Russian crisis mean in terms of power relations?

One immediate reaction was that the United States, in terms of its reaction, underlined its determination to maintain its existing hegemony. The US does not mind having great powers on the world stage like France, the UK, Russia, or China, but it wants to retain its "superpower status exclusivity". Europe, in the meantime, would like to avoid seeing a total or humiliating defeat by Russia since, ultimately, it will have to live with Russia. Of course, Europe cannot allow Russia to succeed but the goal is to reduce Russian ambitions and military capabilities in Europe (to what they were back in 1991). Europe also wants to avoid a return to the Cold War as Europe would find itself in the first line of confrontation with its economic prosperity and political stability at risk. As a result, Europe is at a critical point in its foreign policy formulation and outlook. It means the need for an independent Europe that does not fall under US dominance as it previously did. 

The Gulf must also consider how long "defenders of the West" - i.e. countries that share the West's concerns - will maintain their current balanced position. While EU countries currently stand firm with Ukraine, continuing to economically, militarily, and financially support it, the question for the Gulf is how long can Europe maintain this position. Similarly on Turkey, the Europeans must maintain good relations with Ankara because of the numerous geopolitical issues involved, Turkey's proximity to the Black Sea, and the significant mediation role that Turkey could potentially play. It is doubtful that the Gulf could play a similar mediating role. 

When we look at the US position, the problem lies in the fact that the Gulf States understand the US agenda, while the US has little regard for theirs. 

When we look at the US position, the problem lies in the fact that the Gulf States understand the US agenda, while the US has little regard for theirs. President Biden said he expected "further steps" from the Saudis to cool oil prices and safeguard the global economy. This means the US wants the Gulf to opt out of OPEC+, increase their energy supply for more accessible oil and gas prices, and reduce Saudi-China trade relations. Yet at the same time, the US is not seriously considering the requirements for a lasting security architecture in the region. There are many questions at the moment. Is the United States withdrawing from the Middle East or sticking to its historical commitments in the region? We hear a stated public commitment on the one hand, but then we see something else in terms of implementation, for example when one looks at their recent policy towards Iraq. The US used to be a security guarantor for the GCC states, but today, especially in light of the current negotiations in Vienna and JCPOA talks, this is no longer the case. In the meantime, the US is not allowing the region to build the capacity and capability to defend itself. This is why the Crown Prince’s visit to France in August 2022 was an indirect message to the US. France is a reliable partner with excellent military capabilities; it showed previous commitments to the region by supplying Saudi Arabia with long-range missiles, and it deployed a radar system on the eastern coast of the kingdom after Iranian missile attacks damaged an oil processing facility

Domestically, the US is also in a precarious position, leaving many to worryingly observe and follow the current political situation in Washington. The November 8 midterms are around the corner and commitments made on the political campaign trail are both short-term and volatile. Gulf countries question whether US foreign policy towards the region will follow a similar path, initiated under Obama’s administration, and later by President Trump and President Biden, or whether there will be a change towards a renewed commitment. We have heard Biden’s claims stating that the region will not "be left as a vacuum to be filled by Russia or China" however in reality, the vacuum has already been created, as was evidenced by the previously-mentioned attack on the critical oil facility.

What steps can Saudi Arabia take to strengthen the Gulf countries’ security?

Saudi Arabia needs to protect itself and rely on a more comprehensive security arrangement, which requires three preconditions:

  • First, resolving regional problems is a prerequisite for stability. These include dealing with the Iranian policy of intervention and expansionism and with Hezbollah, the situation in Syria, the war in Yemen, political instability in Iraq, and the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, a source of continued tension;
  • Second, it is important to have an inclusive framework by including Turkey, Iran and Israel, as part of this security arrangement or framework;
  • Third, there is a pressing need for a guarantor, which cannot be the UN alone since it lacks the muscle and the means to achieve stable security in the region. A guarantor could be the P5 + the UN, along with a mechanism that can prevent any party from overreaching in the region.

On the oil market, the Gulf has an ambivalent relationship with Russia, it sees it as a competitor yet they also share common interests. Is that correct?

It is. One example is that Russia is already trying to supply more oil to China at the expense of Gulf countries. How the Gulf will continue to manage this relationship is yet to be seen. Saudi Arabia’s commitment indicated that the kingdom would like to continue at OPEC+, stating the organization had the means and flexibility to deal with challenges. Ultimately, energy security needs to be viewed from both the producer's and the consumer’s viewpoint.

How do you assess Biden’s trip to the Middle East in mid-July?

If the goal of the Biden administration was to reassure the region about the US commitment to the region, the visit was, to a certain extent, positive. It was a useful opportunity to exchange views and perspectives. Yet, if one looks at precise outcomes or concessions provided by the Gulf countries to US requests, the outcome of the trip was less fruitful. There is a persisting trust problem between the GCC countries and the US. This applies to the supply of military support and equipment to Saudi Arabia where, for example, when it comes to Yemen, the kingdom is still at war and is not receiving all they require (and this also goes for supporting the current ceasefire). Equally, President Biden failed to secure commitments to higher oil production. What is not understood on this issue is that Saudi Arabia is unable to increase oil production as this requires time, and investment, and cannot be done overnight. In a way, the West will therefore not be able to use the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a means to reorder international energy markets.

In terms of regional security, it appears the US approach vis-à-vis the Middle Eastern order pushed Saudi Arabia into an agreement with Israel as if withdrawing itself but still maintaining an offshore balancing strategy. How do you assess this?

Saudi Arabia has gone above and beyond in doing what it could with Israel. But it cannot normalize relations under the current situation. Saudi Arabia maintains that normalization with Israel can only take place after the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved. The Palestinians and Israelis need to get to an agreement before Saudi Arabia can seriously consider the Abraham Accords.

The Palestinians and Israelis need to get to an agreement before Saudi Arabia can seriously consider the Abraham Accords.

The Israelis benefit a lot from US foreign assistance (in the form of weapons grants and US loan guarantees) and Israel also gets a lot of support from Europe. This situation gives them great leverage over negotiations. Israel keeps putting forth the argument that due to the current crisis situation, the continued attacks, and the absence of peace, they are not in a position to settle their issues with the Palestinians. The Palestinians, on the other hand, need to justify their presence and their leadership. 

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia cannot normalize relations with Israel before seeing what kind of relationship would emerge from any agreement. In March 2002, with the Arab Peace initiative put forth by the Arab League, there was a chance to come to an understanding. Will it work a second time around? And will the Europeans make effort? The Palestinians as well as the Arabs countries will be flexible. But can we say the same about the Israelis who have repeatedly dismissed initiatives?

Saudi Arabia accepted the Emirati line of argument that normalization could bring security and stability to the region, and could generate pressure on Israeli decision-makers. Bahrain or the UAE would have never agreed to the Abraham Accords without also having reached a consensus with Saudi Arabia. One also needs to be clear that Israel will of course protect its national interest but it will not come to the defense of any third country.

What is the impact of Ukraine on the Middle East?

First, as mentioned earlier, the war impacted the global energy market. 

Second, it interfered with the negotiation on the Iran nuclear deal. The war in Ukraine allowed Iran to bring issues to the JCPOA negotiating table not directly related to the nuclear issues, for example, the Iranian demands that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be removed from the US foreign terrorist organization blacklist. Iran knew that China and Russia would back them on that matter, so they used it against the EU and the US. Is the current European compromise on that issue going to be accepted? This would imply the EU acknowledges the Revolutionary Guard as part of Iran's state and paramilitary institutions. Or will the EU boycott Individuals and organizations linked to the IRGC? Overall, it is in Iran's best interest to keep the agreement and to use the current crisis in order to gain as many benefits and concessions as possible. In that context, Iran's position is to both never withdraw from the JCPOA, and not to bring negotiations to an end. 

Third, whatever the scenario in Ukraine, it is clear Russia lacks sufficient military capacities and capabilities to achieve its stated end goals, and win the bigger confrontation with the West. The West stood behind Ukraine sending a significant amount of ammunition, weapons, and equipment. To regional observers, the pattern is reminiscent of what happened in Syria, with people massively fleeing their country and great suffering. When Russia decided to go to Syria, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice underlined how Russia’s GDP was actually inferior to Spain, and that therefore, Moscow lacked the "economic muscle" to support ground operations over a prolonged period.

It is clear Russia lacks sufficient military capacities and capabilities to achieve its stated end goals, and win the bigger confrontation with the West.

Russia does have long-range missiles, submarines and nuclear capacities, but to what end? Using such weapons would imply destroying the world and themselves first. In the meantime, the Israelis have undertaken hundreds of attacks on Iranian sites and capabilities inside Syria. This shows the clear limitations in place as far as Russia is concerned. 

The Russian elite did not support Moscow's position on the invasion of Kuwait at that time, as this ultimately resulted in their loss of influence over Iraq. With the pressures as a result of Ukraine increasing inside Russia, the splits in Moscow could increase. Therefore, it would not be surprising to see a military coup in Russia one day. 

To what extent is this war changing the balance of forces in the world? According to the Russian narrative, the "new order" is a multipolar one, implying US hegemony has been shaken. Another interpretation however is to argue that through this crisis, the West demonstrated it was not as weak as some thought.

In the global picture around the new world order, the US (supported by the West) remains the sole superpower. If Beijing challenged Washington too much, the situation could lead to real economic warfare.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Saudi Arabia remained committed to the US and the West. First, it never priced its commodities in another currency other than the dollar. Second, it kept all its capital investments in the US. Third, Riyadh kept investing in its own development, using US and Western equipment and material to do so. Saudi Arabia also stayed engaged with developing countries, by providing donations to fill the vacuum left by declining US aid programs. Finally, Riyadh also refrained from joining the wave in terms of undermining existing international institutions or joining with places such as Russia, India, China or African countries in planning new institutions or switching to a new currency order. 

On strategic issues, Gulf countries rely solely on security guarantees from the West. All the projects with China are slowing down. 

Despite talks about a Xi Jinping visit to Saudi Arabia in November, no significant move is to be expected from it. The Gulf’s relationship with China is one of a "buyer-seller", where the Gulf sells oil and in return buys Chinese consumer goods. However, on strategic issues, Gulf countries rely solely on security guarantees from the West. All the projects with China are slowing down. Riyadh understands that in the eyes of China, Iran is more important to them than the entire Gulf.

For example, the Chinese never condemned any Iranian attacks on Riyadh and have no serious intentions to bring the Yemen issue to a resolution either. This situation puts Europe in a decisive position. And this is a chance that they should not miss. A better, stronger and faster move from its side is needed in order to build its ties and relations with the Gulf and avoid having the region consider other alternatives. The message to France has to be that a real effort is not only expected but also still holds great potential to succeed. 

Thus, the turn of events will depend a lot on the conclusions that the Chinese draw from the present situation?

It is very likely that China understands the situation. Back in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese were cautious when it came to a domino effect that could lead to a potential downfall of their regime. They were conscious of the fact that they had to change before being compelled to do so. At the same time, the key measures of China’s security agenda, economically speaking, are very much linked to the US and EU. The US can still exert tremendous pressure on the Chinese rate of exchange. Therefore, most of the protectionist measures are carried out between Washington and Beijing.

There is a dimension of what is called the strong men. That is to say, the personal impulse of the leader. On that matter, Putin was very much the only decision-maker. As you said, part of the Russian elite was not so supportive. In China, however, the organization is much more collective and should therefore be more rational.

China’s officials should be considered pragmatic and not overly ideological. Once exposed to a level of luxury brought about by globalization, they will tend not to stay so committed to the ideology they defended in the first place.

So there is no turning back from globalization?

People are willing to make adjustments sometimes, for ideological purposes and national interests. But for how long? The Chinese, ultimately, cannot afford to lose what globalization has brought them. Every product bought from China can be manufactured and replaced in the US. Likewise, it is also possible to do without the Ukrainian wheat and get supplies from Australia. Political leaders believe they are supposed to be here forever, without thinking that the situation could take another turn. The last word at the moment still remains with the West.



Copyright: MANDEL NGAN / AFP

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