With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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At the United Nations General Assembly March 2, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates joined most of the rest of the world in voting for a consensus resolution strongly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What’s noteworthy about this development is precisely that it is noteworthy at all. One of the most striking features of the global diplomatic crisis created by Russia’s aggression is that the most long-standing and strategically important U.S. Middle Eastern partners had been quietly but noticeably hedging their bets.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – arguably the three most important and active partners of Washington in the region – all sought to say as little as possible, temper criticism of Russia, and, insofar as possible, stay out of the controversy. This powerful impulse, shared by three very different governments, and the U.S. pressure that was pivotal in inducing them to vote yes at the General Assembly, tell a complex and important story about the evolving U.S. role in the Middle East.
All three U.S. partners limited or avoided criticism of Russia in the early days of the assault. Saudi Arabia said virtually nothing. Israel issued statements of concern about events in Ukraine but without saying who was doing what. And the UAE continued diplomatic outreach and friendly gestures to Russia while calling for a political solution – implying that Russia has legitimate grievances, and that Ukraine ought to compromise. The UAE position sought to balance that with affirmations of the basic principles of the United Nations, international law, state sovereignty, and a rejection of military solutions. Washington was plainly dissatisfied with all these responses. But why did these countries find it so difficult to unequivocally side with the United States and a united front of its Western allies?
The common motivation can be summed up in two words: strategic diversification. The story of how Washington lost the absolute trust of its most significant Middle Eastern friends is long and complex but has key inflection points. The 2003 invasion of Iraq; the refusal of President Barack Obama’s administration to hold Syria accountable for violating its “redline” against the use of chemical weapons; doubts centered around nuclear negotiations and agreement with Iran; and the lack of a military response by President Donald J. Trump’s administration to Iran’s September 2019 missile attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities were all key moments in which misgivings about Washington’s reliability as a primary security guarantor grew among some Arab governments and in Israel.
The 1980 Carter Doctrine pledged that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region … will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force” by the United States. The doctrine is almost certainly still operative – if any foreign military rolled into the capital cities or oil fields of the Gulf Arab states, the United States would surely act. Yet in an era of missile strikes, rampaging nonstate militias, terrorist plots, cyber warfare, and a vast range of next-generation techniques of disruption and sabotage, that unlikely scenario is hardly the substance of Gulf Arab security nightmares. The practical meaning of this doctrine – despite the huge regional U.S. military presence inherited from the era of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions – in terms of the actual threats to Gulf security are unclear. The 1981 Reagan Corollary, which suggested that the United States would militarily intervene to protect the governments of Gulf countries from internal threats (referring to upheavals analogous to the 1979 Iranian Revolution), can probably be considered an anachronistic dead letter.
Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE and, for similar reasons, Israel as well, are no longer willing to rely on the United States as the ultimate guarantor of security. This impression was solidified during Obama’s second term and the Trump presidency. Emirati commentators have been most forthright in expressing concerns these countries broadly share: Many of them argue that the legacy U.S.-led “rules-based” international order of the post-World War II and post-Cold War eras is in irreversible decline; that, while the United States remains a primary strategic partner, these small and vulnerable states with much to lose have no choice but to diversify their diplomatic options and strategic toolkits; and that the rise of a multipolar world involving much greater global power and influence, mainly by Russia and China, is inevitable.
Therefore, all three of these countries have been conducting significant outreach to Russia and China while trying to minimize any damage to relations with Washington. For over a year, Saudi and Emirati officials have been blunt that one of their biggest concerns is the potential rise of a new cold war between the United States and China in which they are forced to choose sides. The Ukraine crisis unexpectedly presented them with an analogous dilemma involving Washington and Moscow.
But what does Russia have to offer them? Ironically, one of Moscow’s most important roles is simply that it is not the United States, that it offers an alternative source of arms, intelligence, and diplomatic support, among other functions, while allowing frustrated U.S. partners to use the threat of a Russian option to incentivize more cooperation from Washington. In addition, over the past decade Russia has successfully maneuvered to become, in many cases, the global interlocutor of choice between contesting Middle Eastern forces.
In Syria, the Astana de-confliction process, which effectively shaped the post-conflict reality in strategic parts of the country, has been led by Russia, Iran, and Turkey with no U.S. input. Israel relies on daily military coordination with Russia to help contain security threats in Syria. And Russia is the obvious choice to serve as a repository for prohibited Iranian nuclear materials if the Vienna negotiations produce an agreement to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.
Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the UAE are relying on a hard-fought OPEC+ oil production agreement with Russia as the basis for their national development and economic transition planning. They are extremely hesitant to help create conditions whereby they could be compelled to increase production to stabilize the price of oil because of sanctions against Russia, which would disrupt such long-term planning and effectively mean selling at a discount.
It’s telling that the two traditionally pro-U.S. Middle Eastern states with the most well-developed and mature relationships with Russia are also the two that, in another expression of strategic diversification, made common cause with each other through the 2020 Abraham Accords: the UAE and Israel. Seeking meaningful outreach to new global partners, and to each other regionally, is for both states significantly motivated by the imperative of moving beyond a simple reliance on Washington.
Yet the impulse to triangulate between Washington and Moscow may be inspired more by visions of the future than present realities. By seeking to minimize criticism of Russia and requiring significant U.S. pressure to join the global consensus against the invasion, all three countries were clearly indicating that strategic diversification is at least as important to them in the long run as careful tending of the strategic partnership with the United States.
They may have believed it would be easier than it proved. A range of well-connected commentators in all three countries have cast the Ukraine invasion as a regional European concern rather than a global crisis. They do not instinctively feel that they have anything at stake and, indeed, practically speaking they have little to lose or gain in the narrowest sense. So, a degree of neutrality understandably seemed appealing at first to avoid getting sucked into controversies and not to disrupt the development of long-term strategic diversification.
It did not prove so simple. Israel, over which the United States has the most leverage, came under sustained pressure from Washington early on, and especially after it declined to support a February 25 draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council condemning the invasion. The UAE, which presently occupies a rotating seat on the Security Council and is its president for March, notably abstained during the vote. U.S. pressure on Israel became irresistible, even though the coalition government appeared to adopt a division of labor with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett adopting a more neutral tone, while Foreign Minister Yair Lapid expressed a more pro-Western stance.
But the public pressure, let alone behind the scenes, quickly spread to the others. The State Department readout of a March 2 phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan shows Washington’s push for Saudi cooperation in the General Assembly vote. Presumably Abu Dhabi was also encouraged to vote for the March 2 resolution. It’s no surprise to see reports that, at Washington’s request, Israel urged the UAE to join it in voting for the General Assembly vote even though both had avoided supporting the earlier one in the Security Council.
The hedging is by no means completely over. Israel, although it co-sponsored the General Assembly resolution, pointedly sent its deputy ambassador, rather than its permanent representative to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, to the General Assembly meeting and vote, apparently because Erdan had sent journalists a video clip of him embracing Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, and Lapid wanted to “make sure to stick to the Israeli government’s messaging” on the crisis. The UAE has been moving in the opposite direction, on March 3 reinstating a program for free visas for Ukrainians that had been suddenly canceled March 1. The country also announced the creation of a $5 million humanitarian fund to address the crisis.
After much jostling and prodding, the three key U.S. Middle Eastern partners have, at this stage, all ended up in approximately the same place: part of the global consensus against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while at the same time trying carefully to minimize the damage to long-term relations with Moscow. Israel is somewhat protected by its domestic political clout in U.S. politics. But Gulf Arab countries may have missed an unusual opportunity to strengthen relations with Washington, which isn’t achieved by coming onside because of pressure and with noticeable reluctance. The effort to hedge and dodge by all three governments is understandable. They could not see what they had to gain and were hoping, and possibly expecting, that it would be quickly resolved before their hesitation and ambivalence became an issue with Washington. That did not happen.
Perhaps upon reflection as the full implications of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the robust reunified Western response sink in, the three governments are genuinely reassessing where their broad, long-term interests lie. All three are fundamentally status quo-oriented powers, and that is fundamentally what led them, each in their own way, to align with the United States in the Middle East for the past several decades. Arguably, a resurrection of the U.S.-led Western alliance and, therefore, a reinforcement of the international “rules-based” order it has imperfectly championed since the end of World War II and, particularly, the Cold War would be in the interests of these three states. Relatively small and potentially vulnerable states that are invested in the global and regional status quo and stability could have much to lose from a chaotic transition to a system in which the powerful assert their positions through military means, invasion, and intimidation, with the U.N. Charter tossed in the scrapheap.
How this affects U.S. relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will now be determined by how the conflict in Ukraine plays out on the ground and how strong the revival of Western unity and resolve in the face of Russia’s aggression in Europe proves. But having finally joined most of the world in an unequivocal condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine, all three are now better positioned to protect a broad range of their interests and not just relations with Moscow or a narrow, and even speculative, push for strategic diversification. However, Washington would also be wise to take stock of how much it seems to have lost the trust and allegiance of key long-standing partners.
Brigadier General Ismail Qaani’s public remarks offer some insights into the fundamental tenets of his thinking and ability to deal with delicate political problems, however they do not reveal Suleimani-style coded messages to the United States and Israel.
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