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A Middle Path for Saudi Arabia: How does the War in Ukraine Affect Saudi Foreign Policy?

Saudi Arabia has maintained a neutral position toward the crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of  February 24. On March 1, Riyadh released a statement calling for a political resolution to hostilities that did not label Russia as the aggressor. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the days after the war began and offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. At the same time, Saudi Arabia backed South Africa’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) motion on March 24, which did not condemn Russia, even though it had voted to condemn the invasion on March 3.

Saudi Arabia’s neutrality toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine contrasts with its firmer responses to past Russian military interventions. This reflects Saudi Arabia’s increasing embrace of a multi-vector foreign policy and the easing of long-standing disagreements between Moscow and Riyadh over conflicts in the Middle East. Despite mounting pressure from the United States and Europe to align against Russia and help reducing oil prices, Saudi Arabia remains unlikely to drastically increase oil production or align with the Western consensus on isolating Russia.

A Muted Response

Unlike Iran, which has typically sympathized with Moscow in times of crisis, Saudi Arabia does not have a clearly defined policy toward Russian military interventions. After the 2008 Georgian War, Saudi Arabia expressed sympathy with Russia’s decision to intervene in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and then-National Security Council Secretary General Prince Bandar bin Abdulaziz al-Saud held talks with President Putin to deepen military-technical cooperation between the two states. After Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in February 2014, Saudi Arabia expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and voted in favor of UNGA Resolution 68/262, which condemned the annexation of Crimea.

Saudi Arabia’s response to Russia’s current war with Ukraine lies somewhere between these two positions, but its stated neutrality should not be equated with indifference for the Ukrainian cause or the ramifications of the conflict. Saudi media outlets expressed initial concern for the impact of Russia’s actions and Western retaliations on the international system. A March 8 Okaz article called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a destabilizing action, akin to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and claimed that Russia had “put its international reputation, prestige and even its national dignity to a severe test.” The former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, described Vladimir Putin as a “Russian Imperial Tsardom man through and through,” and warned that the invasion of Ukraine might be followed by “protracted wars on multiple frontlines fought with traditional weapons and run by nuclear powers.”

Despite these expressed concerns, Saudi Arabia remains firmly committed to a multi-vector foreign policy, whereby it seeks to balance traditional partnerships with the U.S. and Europe with closer ties to non-Western powers, such as China, Russia, and India. Saudi Arabia’s recent discussions with China about pricing oil contracts in yuan hints at its potential desire to participate in the Kremlin-backed push for a payments system outside American control. Russian state-owned defense company Rosoboron export’s advertisement of military hardware, such as the Mi-28NE attack helicopter and Karakurt-E small missile ship, at last month’s World Defense Expo in Riyadh underscores Russia’s enduring place in Saudi Arabia’s multi-vector security policy.

The easing of Russia-Saudi tensions in Syria and Yemen also played a part in Riyadh’s refusal to condemn Putin’s war with Ukraine. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s recent visit to Dubai underscores his increasingly normalized relationship with Saudi Arabia’s key regional partners and could pave the way for Syria’s return to the Arab League. These developments eliminate a key area of friction between Moscow and Riyadh that had led to Saudi Arabia’s support for Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s opposition to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and resistance to multilateral sanctions against the Houthis has also softened in recent months. On February 28, Russia supported an arms embargo against the Houthis—a break in past behavior that distanced Moscow from Saudi Arabia. Recently, however, Russia has expressed solidarity with the UAE and Saudi Arabia against Houthi drone strikes, which may have contributed to the UAE’s abstention in the United Nations Security Council vote on Ukraine and Saudi Arabia’s passive response to Moscow’s aggression toward its neighbor.

Intensifying Western Pressure

Concerned about rising oil prices and hoping to align Riyadh’s position on Ukraine with their own, Western countries have tried, but without success, to cajole Saudi Arabia into changing course. After Saudi Arabia tied its refusal to increase oil production to the threat posed by Houthi drones, the U.S. transferred Patriot anti-missile interceptors to Riyadh on March 21. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Mohammed bin Salman to publicly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and German Economy Minister Robert Habeck warned OPEC countries against profiteering from international sanctions levied against Russia.

Despite these actions, Saudi Arabia’s position on Russia has remained unchanged. The impending revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an objective of the U.S. and key European allies, explains Saudi Arabia’s intransigence in the face of Western pressure. In a March 29 op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, the ex-editor of Al-Arabiya English Mohammed al-Yahya asked “Why should America’s regional allies help Washington contain Russia in Europe when Washington is strengthening Russia and Iran in the Middle East?” Al-Yahya linked this contradiction to a broader negative trend in U.S. foreign policy toward the Gulf states and praised China’s more predictable approach to bilateral diplomacy.

As tensions with the U.S. flared, Russia’s solidarity with Mohammed bin Salman after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018 bolstered Moscow’s image as a prospective Saudi partner. Russia has exploited Saudi Arabia’s discontent with U.S. foreign policy to try to draw Riyadh closer to Moscow. Viktor Bondarev, the chairman of Russia’s Federation Council’s Committee on Defense and Security, praised Saudi Arabia as a “reactionary” country that was willing to defy the “unreliable” United States.

Because Russia views its war with Ukraine as a crusade to dismantle the unipolar order, Moscow will capitalize on friction in the U.S.-Saudi relationship to court Riyadh more aggressively. A March 21 RIA Novosti article argued that U.S. displays of weakness in Yemen and Afghanistan alarmed Saudi Arabia and that Riyadh joined Russia and China in opposing a “unipolar world with total American diktat.” On April 7, Russia’s foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin declared that “Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman refuses to increase oil production, rejects White House requests for talks, and publicly declares that he does not care about the opinion of Joe Biden.”

Despite its close partnership with the United States, Saudi Arabia has joined the Gulf monarchies, with the exceptions of Qatar and Kuwait, in refraining from criticizing Russia. While new Saudi investments in Russia and purchases of Russian military equipment could place Saudi Arabia in the crosshairs of U.S. sanctions, Riyadh remains likely to stand by Moscow as its invasion of Ukraine devolves into a protracted war of attrition.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Samuel Ramani is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum. He is also a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford. Samuel has published extensively on the Gulf region for media outlets and think tanks, such as the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Middle East Institute, and is a regular commentator on broadcast media outlets, such as CNN, the BBC World Service and Al Jazeera English. Samuel’s first book entitled Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender will be published by Hurst and Co. in June and by Oxford University Press later in the year.  

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