The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a contestation of the liberal script? - № 12: The Saudi reaction to the Ukraine war as indicator of shifting alliances
by Ulrike Freitag
№ 49/2022 from Apr 14, 2022
The reactions to Russia’s war in Ukraine sheds a light on the global alliance of authoritarian regimes. Saudi Arabia’s reaction, as described by Ulrike Freitag, illustrates the re-orientation of the foreign policy of the Gulf states. Its refusal to stabilise energy prices in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine serves as a reminder that the West cannot rely on its partnership for gas and oil supplies.
It was two weeks into the war in Ukraine when a number of news outlets reported that the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE had refused to take calls by US President Joe Biden, instead choosing to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the veracity of the claim was quickly rejected, it is indicative of the steep deterioration in Gulf-US relations and a re-orientation of the foreign policy of the Gulf states. Why is it that Saudi Arabia, on which this blog entry focuses, is abandoning an alliance that had served it well for over seventy years?
In April 2018, the young Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman reciprocated the visit of then-US President Donald Trump. MbS, as he is commonly known, spent a triumphant three weeks touring the United States, meeting its current and some former presidents as well as influential politicians, business people and students. Just as President Trump had sealed a major arms’ deal during his visit to Saudi Arabia, so did MbS conclude a wide range of business deals.
The glamour of these two visits, and indeed the period of the Trump presidency, glossed over a rift which became visible during the Obama administration (2009-2017) and had arguably already started after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The shift of focus in American foreign policy from the Middle to the Far East and in particular the attempt to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran did not go down well with Saudi Arabia which had, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, come to consider Shi’ite-led Iran as a major political and religious rival.
From a Saudi perspective, Iran is not only a regional rival and a potential influence on the Saudi Shi’ites living mostly in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern province. It is also seen as the main supporter for a major faction in the Yemen Civil War, the Shi’ite Houthi movement. Although the relations between the Houthis and Iran are less than straightforward, Saudi Arabia, together with the UAE, launched a war in March 2015. Seven years later, this war is still continuing. Beyond causing massive civilian and military losses, wide-scale destruction and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, the Houthis have managed repeated drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the UAE.
The latest attacks by Houthis on Saudi Arabia in March 2022 which hit, among others, oil and gas installations in different parts of the country, prompted Saudi Arabia to declare that “it would not bear responsibility for any global oil supply shortages”. This rang a warning bell with Western politicians at a time when they were desperately trying to woo the Gulf states into increasing supplies of oil and gas in order to stabilise world energy prices and compensate for lower imports from Russia. This dependence became recently visible again during the visit of Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action in Qatar. The declaration which was issued by a state that prides itself as “the world’s most reliable oil supplier” with a “unique oil infrastructure …to meet fluctuations in market demand”, expressed Saudi exasperation at what they see as Western support for a militia causing major damage to Saudi infrastructure. Given the Saudi perception of the Houthis as an Iranian vassal, this is interpreted as another sign of support for Iran. The brutality of the Saudi attack on Yemen, ostensibly in support for the UN-recognised Yemeni government had indeed led to very public debates about Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Beyond Western concerns about Saudi war crimes in Yemen, repeated Western criticism of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia itself against opposition figures is anathema in Saudi Arabia. The most blatant case was the assassination of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashogghi in Istanbul, which, according to declassified US intelligence, was approved by the Saudi crown prince himself. In a country in which power is highly centralised and personalised, any critique, let alone when it comes from the most important international ally, is taken very personally.
In the light of these and further grievances it is not surprising that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are urgently seeking to diversify their foreign policy options. In the summer of 2021, the Saudi and Russian Defence Ministers met and agreed on the development of military cooperation. This alliance builds on an earlier (failed) attempt by OPEC to hinder the US development of cheaper shale oil production, which had decreased significantly US dependency on Gulf oil. Between 2014 and 2016, OPEC cooperated closely with Russia, and following the failure of the so-called Oil Price War, Russia and Saudi Arabia intensified their cooperation notably in the gas sector.
Further afield, China in particular offers what, from a Gulf perspective, is an attractive alternative of governance to that of the United States. Its authoritarian model, based on rapid material progress and tight securitisation, seems a better and more reliable fit to the Gulf visions of unrestrained monarchic rule than the democratic systems that seem to change their mind on Middle East policy every few years. Furthermore, China is seen as a rising economic and political power, quite in contrast to the perception of a West declining economically and politically, offering cooperation in the fields of infrastructure, technology and security (Wakefield & Levenstein, 2011). It is a cooperation that is based on strict political non-interference in internal affairs. Thus, Saudi Arabia, long known as a champion of Muslim rights, has joined other Arab states in deporting (Muslim) Uyghurs to China.
Saudi Arabia’s refusal to stabilise energy prices in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine serves as a reminder of its weakening links with the United States and its (and the Gulf’s) re-orientation towards other powers. One of the attractions of Russia (as well as of China) is their reluctance to interfere in Saudi affairs, for example by criticising Saudi Arabia for its Human Rights Record, its authoritarian government or its involvement in Yemen. Critical debates in parliaments and newspapers about Saudi Arabia do not go down well with the rulers in Riyadh, and are considered to be a very irritating feature of liberal democracies, even if Western governments decide to cooperate closely. Hence, the Ukraine war and the re-positioning of Saudi Arabia (and the UAE) as independent from their former foremost allies is also an indication of the attraction of the authoritarian model found in Russia.
Bryce Wakefield, Susan L. Levenstein (eds.), China and the Persian Gulf. Implications for the United States, Washington D.C., Woodrow Wilson Center 2011
Last edits for this blog entry were on 14 April 2022, 03:47 p.m. CEST.
Prof. Dr. Ulrike Freitag is Principal Investigator at SCRIPTS, director of Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) and Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Freie Universität Berlin.