The leading Arab oil kingdoms, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are taking a winding route between Washington and Moscow. While ties with the US come first, they are pursuing a working relationship with Moscow as a safety net in case their American ally falls short.
The UAE ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MbZ), signed a Declaration of Strategic Partnership with President Vladimir Putin during the prince’s working visit to Moscow on June 1. The World Cup’s opening soccer match, two weeks later, was the opportunity for a follow-up. Although Russia hammered Saudi Arabia 5-0 on the football field, the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MbS) and President Putin, watching from the stalls, were able to agree that OPEC and non-members should cut down on oil production through 2019 to boost prices.
Neither the Saudi ruler nor his Emirati ally are willing to give up their close ties with US President Donald Trump, or even tone them down. But knowing the US president, they have decided it is incumbent on them to take out an insurance policy in Moscow. Both keenly watched Trump and Putin gearing up for their summit next month, while also keeping track of Washington’s steps in relation to Iran and its policy in Syria. They did not miss the Trump administration’s zigzag this week against US-backed rebels groups.
While the two Arab princes are by and large in tune with the general lines of Trump’s policies, they are also aware of the yawning, often irreconcilable, gap between those policies as set out on White House drawing boards and the way they play out on the ground and are on guard for sudden upsets.
For instance, a top White House official working on Syria is rumored in Washington to be on his way out. Joel Rayburn, the National Security Council senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, was said by one source to be disappointed in his expectation of an aggressive stance by the Trump administration against the Assad regime and his Iranian allies in Syria. Yet not long ago, the president touted Rayburn as the pivotal figure for implementing his stop-Iran policy in Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf.
Closer to home, Princes MbS and Mobs are not sure how long the US will persevere in tendering partial assistance for their operation to capture the key Yemeni Hudaydah port town from Iranian-backed Houthis.
Their flirtation with Moscow is also well observed in Washington, where it meets with diverse interpretations. Some circles deduce that, with Russian influence firmly in place in the Middle East, the two Arab princes embarked on improved relations with Putin for driving a wedge between Moscow and Tehran. Another theory holds that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are playing ball with Moscow to convince the Kremlin to give their interests higher rating and show Tehran competition for influence in the Kremlin.
The Russia-UAE Declaration of Strategic Partnership, although more declarative than specific, was a step in the Gulf’s drive to cement its ties with Moscow. It covered issues of common interest, such as cooperation in the fight against terrorism and extremism, including training of manpower and more frequent consultations on security and defense. Boosting trade and economic ties was also covered in the document, including cooperation among banks, in the hydrocarbon and atomic energy fields and aluminum industry.
This last item may have been a dig at President Trump’s tariff policies. Russia and the UAE also agreed to step up their use of natural gas and clear fuel, “with a view to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement.” This was another dig for Trump, who pulled the US out of that agreement.
Saudi Arabia and Russia are rivaled only by the US in the level of their oil production. Therefore, the deal between Riyadh and Moscow on oil output overrides the OPEC and non-OPEC agreement.
Since Trump called for Putin to be readmitted to the G-7 and is clearly bent on “getting along with” the Russian president, the two Arab princes saw no reason why they should not follow the same path. Nevertheless, some Trump administration circles feel they may have gone too far and should be reined in.
On June 14, David Schenker said at the Senate hearing for his confirmation as assistant secret of state for Near East Affairs that any arms purchases from Russia by Middle East states would violate US sanctions against Russian arms manufacturers and he pledged to prevent them.
If this line is pursued by Washington, Riyadh might have to choose between abandoning its plans to buy Russian S-400 advanced air defense missiles or falling under US sanctions. The UAE, a veteran client for Russian military hardware, would find itself in the same boat. DEBKA Weekly analysts point out, however, that the choice is not as clear-cut as it looks. Turkey was given the same ultimatum by the administration and Congress; yet was not deterred from contracting a large deal with Moscow for the same S-400 missiles.