How the Gulf monarchies are playing games between the east and west

By Amélie Zaccour

Posted on Tuesday, 31 January 2023 10:49
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud greets Minister of Foreign Affairs of UAE Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan ahead of the 43rd Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 09, 2022. (Photo by Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP)

A recent summit of the Gulf states, of which Chinese leader Xi Jinping was a key attendee, marked the desire of certain Arab capitals to emancipate themselves from their American ally. But the question remains – how far are they willing to go in Beijing’s favour?

Long known for their allyship with the United States, Gulf states Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are no longer hesitating at the chance to diversify their foreign policy objectives, even if it means the forging of partnerships with Washington’s rivals.

Two recent examples have illustrated this recent shift: a summit between China and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which saw the arrival of President Xi Jinping of China to Riyadh from 7 to 9 December 2022, and OPEC’s decision to set oil quotas, interpreted by the Biden Administration as a favour to Russia.

The context of geopolitical upheaval linked to the war in Ukraine and the instability of the global energy market favours the approach of both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, but the United States remains a key partner of the two oil monarchies.

How far will the Saudis and Emiratis go in their desire for diplomatic emancipation?

We present our interview with Jean-Loup Samaan, associate researcher at the Institute Français des Relations Internationales, IFRI (French Institute of International Relations) and Gulf specialist at the Middle East Institute of Singapore.

The Africa Report: Are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates emancipating themselves from the United States? Do they intend to go about it the same way?

Jean-Loup Samaan: The two countries share a common desire to strengthen their strategic autonomy, which is to say: to free themselves from the shadow of American influence in matters of foreign policy, so that they may make their own decisions.

Partnering with China will raise the stakes with the United States, not only commercially, but also in sensitive, strategic, areas, via either technology or arms spending. The Emiratis have gone further than the Saudis on certain issues, such as scientific cooperation, artificial intelligence, and port infrastructure.

Structural differences are what define the UAE and the Saudis, in the sense that the Emirates remain a small state and Chinese relations will not have the same regional impact that they would with the Saudis. These actions could have significant consequences in the region, and Saudi Arabia’s size has a major part to play in that.

Does this policy date back to Joe Biden’s rise to the presidency, considering his complicated, at times tense, relations with the two petrol monarchies?

No. If we had to trace this policy, we would trace it back to the Arab Spring, when Riyadh and Abu Dhabi made decisions without waiting for Washington’s approval. In Bahrain in 2011, Saudis and Emiratis sent in forces to support governments against demonstrators, placing the Americans in a very delicate position.

The two countries supported [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi’s coup d’état in 2013. The Saudis also initiated the war in Yemen in 2015, when the Obama Administration was sceptical. Then the Emiratis supported [Khalifa] Haftar in Libya [against the UN-recognised unity government]. All these things happened before Biden was elected.

The novelty is now perhaps that their field of action now goes beyond the borders of the Gulf and the Middle East. For two to three years, we have begun to gain the impression that it is taking on a real global dimension, mainly because of how the Saudis and Emiratis are positioning themselves on China and Russia in relation to the Ukraine war and energy crisis.

For both countries, there may be both an intensification and a broadening of this distancing policy relative to the United States.

You say that China is at the heart of the Emirates’ diversification of foreign policy objectives. Is this also the case for Saudi Arabia?

Yes. The motivations of the Saudis are identical to their Emirati counterparts in terms of energy exports and the desire for Chinese capital. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and his ministers often put forward the idea that his Vision 2030 plan and Xi Jinping’s New Silk Roads project coincide harmoniously and are two projects that can establish a symbiotic relationship. This narrative is clearly aimed at the Chinese capital.

As for strategic motivations, the Saudis predate the Emiratis, being the first in the region to have engaged in Chinese weapons purchases, complete with ballistic weapons dating back to the 1980s. Then, the Reagan Administration refused to supply equipment to Saudi Arabia out of fear that it would be used to target the eastern Mediterranean. Today, the same logic applies: if the Americans do not provide equipment, they will do business with someone that will – the Chinese.

MBS scored diplomatic points by welcoming Xi Jinping. Can he become the preeminent Sino-Arab leader in the region?

I don’t think so, because there are very few multilateral consultations between the Arab countries and in particular the Gulf countries. National policies are being formulated without the use of coordination efforts.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, former President of Egypt, was the only one that could have truly taken on the role of an Arab leader, but that was swept away with haste. For those of you that have seen the film Lawrence of Arabia, you may be reminded of how disunited the Arab world is currently for there to be a designated leader of the region.

In October, OPEC and Russia set oil quotas to maintain crude prices, angering the United States. However, at the UN, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi voted for resolutions condemning the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Given how ambiguous their position vis-à-vis Moscow appears to be, how would you assess the matter?

Among the Emiratis, like the Saudis, there remains a hesitance to potentially alienating what remains a great power. As such, there exists the view that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is a western one, not theirs, so the need to condemn Russia is not a major priority, not unlike many countries in Africa and Asia.

This would have been an issue for the Emiratis on the UN Security Council (where they sit through 2023) as they abstained from the first Ukraine conflict condemnation resolution, but this was mainly because they wished to secure a vote on Yemen three days later without the threat of a Russian veto. Once the Yemen vote was secured, it was easier for them to line up behind the UN General Assembly and pass other resolutions condemning the invasion of Ukraine.

Cooperation with Russia remains modest, but the energy situation remains volatile. When Covid-19 first emerged, there was a real conflict between the Saudis and Russians over oil quotas, back when barrels were being sold at a negative price.

Russia remains present in the Gulf in terms of arms sales but much less than France or the United Kingdom. No permanent Russian military presence exists in the region as is the case for the Americans. There remain deep differences, in part due to Russia’s contribution to Iran’s nuclear programme and Russian military presence in Syria alongside [President] Bashar al-Assad. This partnership has limits.

The Emiratis have cultivated international partnerships for longer than the Saudis have, also enjoying a better image. Given that they are one step ahead of their neighbour in terms of diplomacy and economic diversity. Can Riyadh catch up?

It depends. Saudi Arabia has much more substantial financial, human, and material resources than the Emirates. The latter has great ambition, but is limited by demographics and geography – we are still talking about a country with less than a million citizens, after all.

UAE diplomats are often well-trained, but they cannot do everything. The Saudis do have a challenge before them, especially in terms of a new frontier for foreign policy.

On the other hand, should the United States be concerned about the emancipation of its Gulf allies? While Washington is now looking towards Asia, can we expect to see the Americans exercise whatever means they deem necessary to dissuade Riyadh and Abu Dhabi from getting closer to China and Russia?

This is a question that remains to be answered in Washington. Red lines have not quite yet been defined, and we are currently in a phase where those lines are on their way. An example of this circumstance would be when the Americans used the Chinese presence in the port of Abu Dhabi and the deployment of 5G as a pretence for the suspension of F-35 fighter jet sales to the Emirates in 2021.

However, other weapons were bought from the United States. Gulf countries have since chosen Huawei for 5G, and the United States have shown that it can adapt.

Could the Saudis and Emiratis someday become non-aligned powers?

Are they willing to pay the price associated with non-alignment? Consider the circumstances of other non-aligned countries, such as India or Singapore: no permanent Western military presence or agreements with security guarantees as there can be in Gulf countries.

For the time being, there exists some ambiguity on the part of the Gulf states; they’ve made their ambitions known, but risk reaching a point of no return where security matters would fall solely on them and not Western countries.

If the Emiratis and Saudis continue on this path, however, it will be increasingly difficult for American governments to justify continued military presence to this extent to their respective taxpayers and voters.

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