Analysis: The Russia-Ukraine war and the view from Saudi Arabia

Since Russia invaded Ukraine eight months ago, Western governments supportive of Kyiv tend to speak about the war in black-and-white terms with little sympathy for countries hovering between the West and Moscow.

The leadership of the United States frames support for Ukraine as a matter of defending a “rules-based international order” that is under attack by rogue authoritarians.

In Arab countries, however, this Manichean narrative is largely rejected. Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) basically view the conflict in Ukraine as a complicated European conflict, which does not require Arab states to stand against Vladimir Putin’s government.

Although no Arab government – save Syria – has been outrightly supportive of Russia’s invasion, occupation and annexation of Ukrainian land, Arab statesmen do not believe their governments should burn bridges with Moscow because of this conflict.

Saudi Arabia”s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin [Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo]

Thus, while the GCC states have largely supported UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, none have joined Western powers in implementing sanctions against Moscow or other policies aimed at squeezing Russia.

“Most of the developing world in Asia and Africa, including the Middle East, has not viewed the Ukraine war as the kind of definitive, transformational moment in international relations that the West does,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, wrote this month.

As the war in Ukraine enters its ninth month, some analysts believe the Saudis will likely remain defiant of Western pressure to align against Moscow. They say that, for the leadership in Riyadh, maintaining relatively neutrality serves Saudi interests and the kingdom is using this war – and its reaction to it – to send a message to the US that Saudi Arabia is not Washington’s vassal state.

“The Saudis have emphasised in recent years that they seek to avoid entanglement in what is referred to in the US as ‘great power competition’,” Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen and the Middle East Institute’s senior vice president, told Al Jazeera. “Their interests, the Saudis have made clear, have focused on maintaining strong relations with their main security partner, the US; their number one economic partner, China; and their key partner in OPEC+, Russia.”

Saudi-Russian partnership remains strong

Riyadh has maintained its cooperative relationship with Russia since Putin sent troops into neighbouring Ukraine in late February. In fact, at the start of the war, Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Co invested at least $500m in Gazprom, Rosneft and Lukoil, just as the West was punishing these Russian energy giants with sanctions.

More recently, on October 5, the Saudi- and Russian-led OPEC+ cartel announced its plans to reduce oil production. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, maintains the decision was strictly about its financial and commercial interests, as well as market stability.

The announcement, however, infuriated officials in Washington, who believe the OPEC+ decision will help Russia withstand US and European sanctions and undermine Western efforts to isolate Putin’s government.

“There was no doubt that Riyadh perceived a need to maintain cordial ties with Moscow, both to coordinate oil production as well as maintain a solid dialogue with Russia over its Iran initiatives,” Joseph A Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre in Riyadh, told Al Jazeera, referring to Moscow’s relationship with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran.

“In 2022, Saudi officials were anxious to keep the price of oil steady at about $100 per barrel – essentially to finance a variety of development investments at home – that could only be achieved through unified OPEC+ agreements, but also to keep communication channels open to discuss various issues.”

Oil pumping jacks, also known as "nodding donkeys", operate in an oilfield near Almetyevsk, Tatarstan, Russia, on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Saudi Aramco plans to boost its oil-output capacity for the
Earlier this month the Saudi- and Russian-led OPEC Plus cartel announced its plans to reduce oil production [File: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg]

The continuation of Saudi Arabia’s strengthening relationship with Russia – even if based on convenience and opportunism – will heighten tensions between Riyadh and Washington, analysts say. Heated rhetoric from US lawmakers about downgrading Washington’s security relationship with Riyadh and support for the so-called “NOPEC” legislation illustrate how Saudi Arabia’s image and reputation in Washington have suffered this year, particularly following the latest development at OPEC+.

“The Russian attack in Ukraine has put [Riyadh’s] policy under a spotlight and pressured them to choose sides, which they don’t want to do,” said Feierstein, adding that Saudi Arabia’s recent OPEC+ decision “reflects the reality that all of their decisions will be perceived in the US from the optic of: ‘Are you with us or against us?’”

David Roberts, an associate professor at King’s College London, also said the OPEC+ decision went down “extremely poorly” in the US.

“That’s all that matters. That has essentially exacerbated a long expanding cleavage in Saudi-US relations that goes back to 2019 and the attack on Abqaiq,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the 2019 attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities that were claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. “So, the elastic that keeps Saudi and the US together has long been stretched near to breaking point,” added Roberts.

Assistance to Ukraine

As East-West bifurcation accelerates with great power competition heating up, maintaining closeness to both the US and Russia will prove challenging for Saudi Arabia. However, Riyadh has clearly signalled that it will continue pursuing this difficult goal that requires carefully navigating the world’s shifting geopolitical landscape. Although the kingdom’s cooperation with the Russians in energy, investment, and other domains has continued since February 24, Saudi Arabia has shown degrees of support for Ukraine as the kingdom tries to position itself as a useful mediator.

In September, Saudi Arabia and Turkey played a critical role in facilitating a prisoner swap between Kyiv and Moscow, which resulted in some Western nationals (including two US citizens) being freed after they were captured on the battlefield while fighting for Ukraine. This move helped Saudi Arabia present its stance in the conflict to the US and Europe as beneficial, rather than harmful, to Western interests.

Earlier this month, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. MBS pledged to provide the war-torn country with $400m in non-lethal aid – a move many analysts saw as a Saudi effort to create a stronger perception in the West of Riyadh being neutral in the conflict.

“It is hard to see the Saudi humanitarian aid as more than a gesture made after US anger at the OPEC+ decision became felt. Riyadh had said that it always supports peaceful resolutions to conflicts, but stopped short of outright condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine,” Imad Harb, the director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC, told Al Jazeera. “Now, the aid declaration is definitely appreciated by Ukraine, but it is hard to separate it from the acrimony of the oil cut decision.”

Nuclear weapons drastically raise stakes

Looking ahead, there are no signs of an immediate resolution to the war in Ukraine. The global implications are terrifying, especially given food security risks and the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in the conflict.

Kechichian said it was important to consider whether a prolongation of the could result in a foreign policy shift for Riyadh.

“Still, what will not occur is a direct involvement in the conflict, as the kingdom has called for its end, provided humanitarian assistance to the hapless Ukrainian population, voted for the country’s territorial integrity in various United Nations resolutions, and worked to persuade President Vladimir Putin to end Russian attacks on Ukrainians,” he added.

“The primary evolution would most likely occur after ongoing battles heightened confrontations, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which would compel Riyadh to distance itself from Moscow. Such an escalation will most likely trigger various consequences,” continued Kechichian.

He argued that in the Gulf region, the logic behind such an outlook would be based on the potential acquisition and usage of nuclear weapons by Iran, even as Tehran maintains its nuclear programme is strictly peaceful.

“Under the circumstances, Riyadh would inevitably pursue a similar objective – to embark on a nuclear programme with the specific purpose of acquiring such weapons – to defend itself and its regional allies,” said Kechichian. “This was why Saudi officials were cautious about the war for Ukraine and remained wary of prolonged confrontations that emasculated both belligerents, one of which could, in a moment of folly or utter frustration, resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

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