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10 Dec, 2023 13:42

Political polygamy: Why Arab monarchies won’t isolate Russia despite American demands

Washington has been ignoring Gulf nations’ aspirations, so now they are looking for more mutually beneficial partnerships
Political polygamy: Why Arab monarchies won’t isolate Russia despite American demands

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a one-day working visit to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which surprised many with its unexpectedness and led to a heated discussion about the myth of Moscow’s isolation after the start of the special military operation in Ukraine. Although it was of a “working” nature, the trip was met with a ceremonial reception appropriate for a state visit.

President Putin met with Emirati President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi. The two countries’ leaders discussed economic cooperation between Russia and the UAE, including in the oil and gas sector. They exchanged views on the situation in hot spots worldwide, notably the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At the meeting with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, the parties agreed to expand cooperation in several areas, from the oil and gas industry and energy to geoscience and environmental research. The parties also touched on food security, technology, justice, tourism, sports, education, and more.

After returning to Moscow, President Putin also met with Omani Crown Prince Theyazin bin Haitham Al Said to discuss the prospects of cooperation on energy, tourism, and investment. The Crown Prince noted Oman’s interest in investing in the Russian economy and spoke about “the need to end the existing unjust world order and the dominance of the West, as well as to build a new, just, world order, economic relations without double standards.”

Later the same week, on December 8 and 9, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took part in the work of the 14th International Forum on Peace and Security ‘Sir Bani Yas’ in Abu Dhabi, and on December 10, the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar took place, which further confirmed the interest of the countries of the region in alternative opinions and positions to the West.

The visits of President Putin to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were a clear sign of the growing rapprochement between Russia and the Arab monarchies. These countries, which have long been close allies of the United States, are increasingly looking to Russia for a counterweight to American hegemony in the Middle East. They indicate that the world is becoming increasingly multipolar, with Russia playing a more prominent role in the Middle East.

The US turns a deaf ear to the aspirations of Arab monarchies

The Arab monarchies have traditionally been considered allies of the US in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, but their relationship is now rapidly cooling. The reason for this systemic discord lies in Washington’s foreign policy and the aggressive manner of the hegemony of the fading superpower.

Even during the Arab Spring, the administration of ex-President Barack Obama supported the revolutionary movements in the Middle East, ignoring the fears of its allies, who, for the most part, except for Qatar, saw a threat in the protest movements. The elites of the monarchies realized for the first time the destructiveness of American policy, which did not consider the interests of its allies. Washington viewed these countries as a means to achieve its own selfish goals, treating them as banana republics rather than equal members of the international community.

The situation was helped by the anti-Iranian rhetoric and focus on cooperation with Arab countries in the economic and defense spheres under the Republican administration of Donald Trump. President Trump made his first post-election visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met with leaders of the Gulf monarchies and not only agreed on mutually beneficial economic agreements but also proposed creating a unified security system, dubbed the ‘Arab NATO.’ By the end of his term, he brought Israel and several Arab countries closer together within the framework of the Abraham Accords, demonstrating diplomatic success and scoring significant political points.

US relations with its allies in the region seemed to be back on track, but the victory of Joe Biden and the arrival of Democrats shattered these dreams. Washington began to exert intense pressure on the Gulf monarchies, freezing arms sales contracts reached under Trump and publicly criticizing these countries for “human rights abuses” and “lack of democracy.” American politicians did not understand or did not want to consider the aspirations of regional elites, trying to dictate to them conditions favorable to the US, both in terms of oil supplies and arms sales.

At the same time, the six Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain – are the most economically prosperous countries in the entire Middle East region. They have accumulated significant financial resources thanks to energy exports and pragmatic policies. Today, a new elite has formed in these countries – the closest circle of monarchs. These “new decision-makers” are focused on developing their countries and defending national interests.

The new reality is that the Arab monarchies are no longer unquestioning allies of the US. They are ready to defend their interests, even if it means cooperating with other powers, including Russia. Of course, these relations will not be ideal. Russia and the monarchies have different interests and views of the world. However, cooperation between them is possible, and it could create a new balance of power in the Middle East.

The Russian military operation in Ukraine: Triggering the collapse of the old world order

The start of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine was a turning point. The US intensified pressure on the countries of the region, urging them to join anti-Russian sanctions to their own detriment. However, the Arab monarchies did not listen, as they understood that the roots of the conflict in Ukraine lay in Washington’s desire to strengthen its hegemony by harming Russia. Moscow, furthermore, was able to offer the attractive idea of forming a new, just world order that would satisfy the desires of the world’s majority, including the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

The US’ traditional allies in the region not only did not join the anti-Russian sanctions but also chose a position of “positive neutrality.” For example, Saudi Arabia and the UAE continued coordinating efforts with Russia within the framework of the OPEC+ agreements to stabilize world oil prices. Although Washington repeatedly demanded in an ultimatum that Saudi Arabia and the UAE increase oil production to lower prices, other states in the region have also maintained political and economic contacts with Moscow, not opposing the US but rather protecting their national interests.

This policy of the Gulf monarchies is deeply irritating to Washington, but the strategic mistakes of the US do not allow it to rectify the situation. Recent years have been a period of total failure for US policy in the Middle East. For example, thanks to Moscow’s active diplomatic efforts, Syria returned to the League of Arab States. It normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other key regional countries. Later, with China’s mediation, a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran began. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, disliked by the Democrats, normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and Egypt.

The Arab monarchies have come mainly to the idea of “regionalization,” which implies the need to harmonize relations between regional players and engage in dialogue to eliminate contradictions between different actors. In 2023, on the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, which continues to burn due to the impossibility of forming a stable state, discussions gained popularity about the need to reintegrate Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other war-torn and crisis-ridden countries into the Arab family.

This topic was addressed in an article on the Arab News platform by Baria Alamuddin, an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East. The author notes that “the catastrophic invasion of Iraq was built on lies and fraudulent motives, disrupting the balance in the region in such a way that the consequences are still being felt today, especially after the subsequent destruction of neighboring Syria. For centuries, Iraq has embodied the beating heart of Arab civilization and culture. However, 20 years after the invasion and after the deaths of some 500,000 Iraqis, this cornerstone Arab nation remains in ruins, despite its vast natural resources.”

Alamuddin also pointed out that Arab leaders repeatedly warned the administration of former President George W. Bush about the negative consequences of invading Iraq, which remain unresolved to this day. In her article, the author quoted the words of the late Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who said that anyone who thinks they can control Iraq is mistaken. The Arab countries themselves also made a mistake by leaving Iraq and tearing the nation away from its Arab center.

It can be said that the Russian military operation in Ukraine has been a powerful catalyst for the processes that have long been underway in the world. In this context, the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf occupy an essential position. They are major players in the Middle East and have the potential to become one of the centers of the new world order. However, to do so, they need to unite and develop a common strategy for their development.

The war in Gaza is an additional US headache in the MENA

Another blow to American positions in the region was the latest escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On October 7, Hamas carried out a harsh attack on Israel, breaking through the IDF’s fortifications on the border with Gaza and taking civilians and soldiers hostage. In response to the actions of the Palestinian group, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the start of an offensive on Gaza, the official goal of which is to eliminate Hamas.

Even before these events, the Biden administration intensified its diplomatic activity in the region before the upcoming presidential elections. Washington facilitated closed-door negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the media reported that Riyadh was dissatisfied with the US’ position on expanding defense cooperation. A minor event was the achievement of an agreement on expanding US defense and economic ties with Bahrain, but it could not produce any significant effect. But all these achievements ceased with the start of the conflict in Gaza. Saudi Arabia withdrew from negotiations on normalizing relations with Israel, and Bahrain recalled its ambassador and announced the suspension of trade and economic cooperation with the Jewish state.

The US could not stay on the sidelines of the conflict involving its main regional ally, Israel. But all attempts to resolve the conflict were in vain. From the first days of the conflict, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to the region, on the one hand seeking to prevent the involvement of regional players and, on the other, demonstrated a desire to avoid a full-fledged start of the Israeli ground operation. The US sent a significant military force to the region to strengthen its position. However, the problem was that Washington could not see the desire of the states of the region themselves not to get involved in an all-out conflict, and the buildup of US forces only caused additional irritation with American policy in the Middle East. 

Since it was impossible to persuade PM Netanyahu's administration, the ground operation was launched. Washington was left only to resign itself to this and increase military support for Israel, thereby strengthening anti-American sentiment among the “Arab street” against the backdrop of the aggressive actions of the IDF in Gaza, which are creating a humanitarian catastrophe and colossal casualties among the civilian population.

The conflict continues, and discontent with Israel’s actions against the Palestinians is growing, which has led to public pressure on Arab leaders. The US cannot offer anything practical, while Moscow is actively discussing with Arab leaders a draft of its plan for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement with the participation of regional powers.

The old world order is collapsing, and this is understood in the Arab monarchies. Regional countries are waiting for the process of forming new rules of international relations that will help protect the interests of these states on the world stage. Arab countries do not want to choose sides; they wish to establish diversified relations with all power centers and conduct a mutually beneficial dialogue. Such a policy has been inherent in Arab countries since they gained their independence, and now it is only gaining momentum. The strict policy of the US is forcing these countries to reconsider their strong dependence on Washington regarding economics, security, and technology.

Back in the early 2000s, in one of his interviews, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal compared the ideology of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy to the attitude towards marriage in Islam. He said that a devout Muslim has the right to marry four wives under Sharia, but at the same time, treating each of them equally. Thus, he spoke about the trend toward diversification of external ties, which does not imply a complete break in relations between Riyadh and any of its partners.

Relations between Arab monarchies and Washington are going through a “difficult period” that can be overcome through open dialogue on an equal footing. The idea of a new world order, which is appealing to the countries of the region, implies strengthening relations with some partners without harming others for the benefit of the national interests of each nation involved.

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