The spotlight is back on the burgeoning Saudi-Russia relationship, thanks to their renewed efforts to prop up oil prices and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s role in brokering a surprise deal in September to release foreign prisoners of war seized on the battlefield in Ukraine, including several U.S. and UK military veterans. The Kremlin’s ties with Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have expanded steadily following the launch of OPEC Plus’s oil production arrangement in 2016 and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s historic first visit to Moscow in October 2017.
Analysis of the drivers behind Russia’s relationships with the GCC states typically centers 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 U.S. national security interest as a result of the U.S. pivot to Asia, the drawdown of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and surging U.S. domestic oil and gas production, among other things. The GCC states and Russia also share a strong preference for authoritarian governance. Some of these drivers may be real, but 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 Persian Gulf, let alone supplant the United States.
This ambivalence about Russia helps explain why most of the Gulf Arab states chose not to align themselves with the U.S./EU push to isolate and punish Russia at the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Only Kuwait and Qatar immediately spoke out and condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. The United Arab Emirates, which holds a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council this year, abstained on a U.S.-drafted resolution submitted the day after the Russian invasion—a move that a senior UAE foreign policy aide justified by claiming that “taking sides will only lead to more violence.” Members of the GCC did vote in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion in early March, only to change course by abstaining on a vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council in early April. Such zigzags are hardly unique, as many countries around the world have been reluctant to criticize Russia for the war.
However, the consequences of the GCC states’ positions on the war have had more impact than that of many other countries. When oil prices climbed toward $130 per barrel in March, Saudi and other Gulf leaders rebuffed requests from U.S. and EU leaders to ramp up oil production in order to alleviate pressure on the global economy and to help tame inflation. Instead, they criticized Western governments for having prioritized climate and energy transition goals at the expense of investment in new fossil fuel production. (Ever pragmatic, Qatar and the UAE have since responded positively to entreaties from Germany and France to support increased liquified natural gas production and shipments to Europe.)
But, on balance, the GCC states effectively sided with the Kremlin, which enabled the Putin regime to refill its coffers and to limit the impact of U.S. and EU sanctions. The October 5 decision by OPEC Plus to cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day testified to their undiminished desire for higher oil prices, a slower energy transition, and a dampening of the outlook for U.S. shale production.
The U.S. position that Russia’s war against Ukraine is actually a war of autocracy against democracy has highlighted the overlapping interests of Russia and GCC states. For their part, the GCC states have displayed little desire to comply with demands from U.S. officials that they not flirt with Russia or China. In the meantime, they are aggressively expanding cooperation with Israel for trade, IT, infrastructure development, military technologies, surveillance systems for internal security, and defense against Iranian missile and drone strikes. Nor have they lost sight of Russia’s continued equities with Iran. [Continue reading…]