America’s Middle East Allies Are Not Yet Playing Ball on Ukraine 

Israel, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the region are not fully supporting U.S. efforts against Russia

So happy together. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires in 2018. Image Credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP

European Union member states are taking a unified stance and condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But countries in the Middle East are adopting more diverse positions on the conflict. This is true even among longtime U.S. allies. Their reactions, at least so far, have been dictated more by domestic and regional issues as well as geopolitical dependence on Russia, rather than concern for the Ukrainian people or some loyalty to the United States.

Until recently, the United States was the region’s main power broker and its biggest arms supplier. But in recent years, some states in the Middle East have drifted away from Washington—and to Russia—because Arab leaders believe good relations with Moscow offer more political and economic benefits. Moreover, a growing alliance of autocratic Arab strongmen has united against the United States and Europe, even though some of these same leaders, such as Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, have long been supported by Washington.

A number of countries in the region, such as Syria, were expected to snub the West because they are either Russian allies or longtime enemies of the U.S. or both. Syrian President Bashar al Assad would unlikely be in power today if Russia had not militarily intervened in that country’s civil war, which began in 2011 and continues today.

What is surprising are the actions of some longtime American allies, which in some cases appear to be both defying and bargaining with the U.S. at the same time. Washington’s two most important allies in the Gulf—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—as well as its longtime friend, Israel, when forced to choose sides, have often either supported Russia or sat on the fence.

For instance, longtime U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, has rebuffed repeated American pleas to increase oil production, which has caused energy prices to rise and has helped energy-rich Russia better deal with crippling international sanctions. It also abstained from voting to condemn Russia at the United Nation’s Security Council. That’s largely because Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), has had chilly relations with U.S. President Joseph Biden over the latter’s condemnation of the prince’s involvement in the brutal murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Meanwhile, the UAE, another longtime American ally and home to one of the region’s most Western-oriented cities, Dubai, refused to criticize Russia at the United Nations Security

Council, abstaining (like Saudi Arabia) during the February 25 vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This may be because, as the Economist magazine recently reported, Dubai is a business hub for Russian oligarchs and other shadowy figures from the country who take advantage of the city’s lax financial regulations to engage in money laundering. In fact, the Economist reported: “Two years ago the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the world’s main anti-money-laundering body, urged the UAE to make ‘fundamental and major reforms’ to crack down on financial crime.” FAFT decided March 5 to place the UAE on a “grey list” of countries for deficiencies in countering money laundering.

The UAE’s position on the war is not only tied to Russian money, but to a desire to patch things up with Russia’s ally, Syria. Indeed, after opposing Assad for years and condemning him for killing hundreds of thousands of his own people, the UAE has recently reestablished diplomatic and economic ties with Syria with one Emirati official even praising Assad’s “wise leadership.” The reasons for this rapprochement range from the desire to take a share of the contracts to rebuild war-torn Syria to a wish to move the country away from Iran’s orbit and closer to its fellow Arab states.

Even Israel, Washington’s main ally in the region for decades, surprisingly seems to be sitting on the fence. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett refused a U.S. request to support the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion. Like the Saudis and Emiratis, the Israelis abstained. Bennet also became the first Western leader to meet with Putin since the invasion began.

Dennis Ross, a former U.S. diplomat who knows Israel well, summed up Israel’s argument for its position at a recent meeting of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People’s Policy Institute. Israel, he said, fears alienating Russia because it is an important actor in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Israel’s northeastern neighbor and enemy. If Russia turns against Israel, the Jewish state may no longer have the unrestricted access to Syrian airspace. Currently, the Russians don’t try to stop the Israeli planes when they strike Iranian and Lebanese military targets in Syria in an attempt to stem the arms flow to Hezbollah, Israel’s enemy in Lebanon.

Changing Course

At the same time, there have been signs in recent days that the Saudis, Israelis and Emiratis are becoming concerned that failure to criticize Russia’s actions may harm their reputations on the world stage. Indeed, at the United Nations General Assembly on March 2, leaders of all three nations reversed their earlier positions at the Security Council and joined most other countries by voting for a consensus resolution condemning Russian actions.

Some journalists and regional experts have interpreted the March 2 vote as a permanent shift in position. They argue that as Russia kills more Ukrainian citizens and destroys more civilian infrastructure throughout the country, growing global outrage against Putin will help solidify the position of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Middle Eastern states against the Russians. Other analysts, however, caution that it is too early to determine the longer-term position of these countries on the war.

Still, for now, the leaders of these states certainly are calling out Russia for attacks on innocent Ukrainian civilians. The UAE sees the war in Ukraine as having reached “a dangerous inflection point,” explained its ambassador to the U.N. Lana Nusseibeh. “The international community is alarmed by developments on the ground,” she said. “The humanitarian situation is worsening by the day.” This was the first time the UAE acknowledged that the conflict is an international crisis.

And yet, it appears the UAE and Saudis are also focused on using their public stance on the Ukraine crisis as a bargaining chip with the U.S. Well-placed sources in the Gulf said in interviews by phone that UAE and Saudi leaders believe the United States has not done enough to punish Houthi rebels in Yemen and their primary backer, Iran, for recent missile attacks on Saudi and Emirati soil. The civil war in Yemen has pitted the Houthis against various opponents, including the Yemeni government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition that includes the UAE.

The Saudis and UAE are involved in the Yemen war to try to prevent the Houthis from controlling the country, which would turn the nation at the bottom of Arabian peninsula into an Iranian client state. During the conflict, the Houthis have launched missiles on Saudi Arabia and the UAE in retaliation for attacks against them inside Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia want Washington to designate the Houthis a Foreign Terrorist Organization, which would lead to economic and political sanctions against the group. The Biden administration so far has refused to do so. The two Gulf states also demand that Washington pressure Iran to control the Houthis and other militias in the region, which are Iranian proxies.

As a result of dissatisfaction with U.S. policy on Yemen, it appears the two Gulf states are waiting to increase oil production, in order first to extract promises from the White House on Yemen and other issues. On March 8, oil prices briefly exceeded $130 per barrel for the first time in nearly 14 years. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the only two major oil producers that can pump millions more barrels of oil on short notice, which would help tame the soaring energy prices in the U.S.

As Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine grow worse, there will be increasing pressure on all the countries of the Middle East, but especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to do what they can to deprive Putin of oil revenue and to take other measures to punish him. The question is how long the Saudis and Emiratis will hold out while waiting for concessions from the Biden administration.

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