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Gulf states’ neutrality towards Ukraine reflects Russia’s deeper ties

The day before the United Nations Security Council voted on a US resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Washington reached out to one of its most important Arab partners as it sought to gather rally support against President Vladimir Putin.

The United Arab Emirates got a temporary seat on the council this year and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken phoned his Emirati counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, to reiterate “the importance of building a strong international response to support Ukraine’s sovereignty”.

But when it came to the vote on Friday, the UAE ignored Washington’s pleas and instead joined China and India in abstaining to Abu Dhabi’s frustration with US policies.

For decades, the two Gulf powers, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have caught up with the US, but Friday’s decision underscores how they are pursuing more independent foreign policies while deepening relations with Washington’s rivals in Moscow and Beijing.

“We no longer need the green light from the US or any other Western capital to decide our national interests,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political science professor. “We are not for or against – that is the position. If the US is upset, they will have to level that off.”

The response of most Gulf states, which for decades saw the United States as their guarantor of security, was muted as they tried to adopt a neutral stance to maintain cooperation with Moscow on political issues. issues of geopolitics and energy, while rejecting Western accusations of refusing to condemn the amount of Russian support for the invasion.

Anwar Gargash, an adviser to the President of the UAE, said on Sunday that the Gulf nation “believes that taking sides will only lead to more violence”. He affirmed that Abu Dhabi’s priority is to “encourage all parties to use diplomatic action and negotiation to find a political solution”.

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the UAE’s abstention “at a time of Western consensus has surprised some Western officials”. But he added that the UAE’s “hedging behavior has been going on for a while”.

Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia believe that successive US administrations have withdrawn from the Middle East. They have privately expressed their displeasure with American policies since former president Barack Obama allegedly ignored the interests of his long-term Arab partners during the 2011 uprising and when he signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Abu Dhabi’s concerns surfaced in December when the country suspended talks with the Biden administration over the UAE’s effort to buy US-made F-35 jets, angered by restrictions on the United States. Washington for their use. This year, they decried what they saw as the Biden administration’s cautious response to attacks on Abu Dhabi by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. The United States has deployed additional military assets to the UAE, part of a Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting the Iran-allied Houthis since their intervention in the civil war. in Yemen 2015. But Abu Dhabi wants Washington to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization and impose tougher sanctions on the Yemeni group.

The Biden administration appears reluctant to do so as it holds indirect talks with Iran about resurrecting the nuclear accord, while warning that such a move would exacerbate the nuclear crisis. religion of Yemen.

President Joe Biden has also annoyed Riyadh by criticizing human rights abuses and refusing to speak to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s daily ruler.

By contrast, Putin is one of the few world leaders to hug Crown Prince Mohammed after the royal family was widely blamed for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. The Russian president publicly praised the crown prince at the G20 meeting a few weeks later.

Saudi Arabia, which has not yet made a statement about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, also shares energy interests with Moscow as they are major players in the Opec+ that Russia joined in 2016.

Despite oil prices soaring above $100 a barrel, Riyadh has resisted US pressure to pump more oil, with analysts saying they believe an increase in supply will make little difference. In a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Crown Prince Mohammed said the kingdom was committed to Opec+, according to a Saudi statement on Monday.

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator, said the US has “send many signals and actions” that its alliance with the kingdom is no longer a relationship Riyadh can rely on.

“Therefore, the Saudi leaders decided that they must build more alliances and relationships with other powers, mainly China and Russia.

He added that Riyadh has invested heavily in building relations with Moscow and considers Opec+ as an important strategic relationship for the “lifeblood” of the kingdom’s economy – oil.

“This is not something the kingdom is going to flush down the toilet now,” he said. “Russia has proven that it always remembers its friends and enemies, and the Opec+ agreement signed by the kingdom is one of those agreements that the Saudi leadership will strictly adhere to. . Western politicians have a short memory. Saudi leaders are not.”

Saudi and Emirati officials still insist that the US is their main foreign partner. However, as the US has talked about pivoting to Asia, Moscow is increasing its presence in the Middle East.

Russia turned the tide of the Syrian civil war by intervening militarily in 2015 to support the Assad regime; it deployed mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group to Libya to fight alongside a UAE-backed Libyan warlord; and it has cultivated political links with regional powers including Iran.

“Russia, like China and others, is trying to fill the void left by the US. and Russia is well positioned to play a bigger role,” said Mr. “They are winning. Putin has calculated very carefully.”

However, cautioning caution, Hokayem said “Western determination and possible success in Ukraine could change Emirati’s calculus, revealing the limitations of Russia’s soft and hard power”.

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