UAE-Russia ties will be in US spotlight after Saudi controversy -analysis

The overall perception is that US-Saudi relations are not doing well, which could impact the UAE and other countries.

 Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with United Arab Emirates' President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Saint Petersburg, Russia, October 11, 2022. (photo credit: Sputnik/Pavel Bednyakov/Pool via REUTERS)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with United Arab Emirates' President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Saint Petersburg, Russia, October 11, 2022.
(photo credit: Sputnik/Pavel Bednyakov/Pool via REUTERS)

Anger is growing in the US Congress over Saudi Arabia’s purported position on Russia and also its decision to decrease oil production, thus ostensibly raising prices before US mid-term elections.

It’s not clear how much of the anger at Riyadh is driven by domestic politics, or part of a longer-term process set in motion a decade ago that is merely continuing on its path. Either way, the overall perception is that US-Saudi relations are not doing well. This could also trigger greater scrutiny of the visit by the president of the UAE, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan who will pay a visit to Russia on Tuesday, during which he will meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The UAE visit was pre-scheduled, according to Al-Ain media, and that means that Abu Dhabi can argue that this is merely a normal visit; it shouldn’t be seen as linked to recent anger in Washington about OPEC cutting oil production or controversy over Saudi-Russia ties.

However, it’s unlikely that the UAE trip won’t be greeted with scrutiny. This is in part due to the fact that there are critics of the UAE, some of them linked to regional media or Qatar; and they are always prepared to try to harm US-Saudi ties and US-UAE ties. Those critical voices are not the only issue today though. 

“The ministry indicated that the bilateral talks will address the latest developments related to the crisis in Ukraine, as the [UAE] seeks to achieve positive results to reduce military escalation, reduce humanitarian repercussions and reach a political settlement to achieve global peace and security.”

UAE Foreign Ministry

UAE and Russia

According to reports in the Gulf, bin Zayed and Putin will discuss the friendly relations between the UAE and Russia along with a number of regional and international issues. The National notes that “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation said Sheikh Mohamed's visit to Russia ‘comes within the framework of the UAE's continuous endeavor to contribute to achieving security and stability in the region and the world.’”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan shake hands in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 15, 2019. (credit: SPUTNIK/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan shake hands in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 15, 2019. (credit: SPUTNIK/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)

The statement from the Ministry goes on to say “The ministry indicated that the bilateral talks will address the latest developments related to the crisis in Ukraine, as the [UAE] seeks to achieve positive results to reduce military escalation, reduce humanitarian repercussions and reach a political settlement to achieve global peace and security.” 

The UAE President is heading to Russia after meeting Serbian President Aleksander Vucic in Belgrade during an official visit to Serbia. The UAE officially supports peace, security and stability, which is important to the Gulf countries, as they are careful to make sure they have close ties to the West, while also having ties to Russia and China amid current tensions.

However, for several reasons, the US and the West have become much more critical of countries that appear to be hedging their bets on Russia. On the one hand, Russia has been carrying out attacks on civilians in Ukraine and this appears to be a major escalation. On the other hand, Moscow’s use of nuclear threats is also unprecedented. Lastly, on the issue of oil and energy prices, which help drive inflation; the West is not happy to see OPEC cutting production. Much of the blame for the OPEC decision has fallen on Saudi Arabia; because Riyadh is supposed to be a close partner of the US, while other OPEC members are not all friends of Washington.

The UAE is in a complex position here. It is not seen with the same controversial lens that Saudi Arabia now falls under but it is nevertheless facing criticism, and the visit to Moscow could put wind in the sails of the critics. At the same time, there are important issues that underpin these moves by the UAE. Abu Dhabi is buying air defenses from the US, and warplanes from France, and according to reports in September, the UAE is prepared to buy air defense systems from Israel as well. The UAE has also had a policy of normalization with Syria’s regime, something that is also controversial in the US.  

While an independent policy is natural among powerful Gulf countries, there is a chance that the recent controversy about Saudi Arabia could result in increased scrutiny of the UAE’s ties with Russia.

Russia and China appear to be throwing down a gauntlet with the West, and Western countries are shifting their rhetoric from accepting these challenges by Moscow to wanting more clarity in the world order. This is reminiscent of George W. Bush demanding countries not tolerate extremists after 9/11.

Pick a side, any side

Countries that find themselves friends with the West and also with Russia and China will be pressured to choose a side. This comes after decades of neo-liberal policies of globalization where the West encouraged more trade with China and where western experts believed that trade would lead to liberalization. However, this didn’t happen, and now there is a sense that decades in which the West outsourced economies to China and energy dependency to Russia is now shifting. As it shifts back, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others may be asked to choose sides and that will result in policy choices in the Gulf. It can also impact Israel and the Abraham Accords because Israel also found itself at a crossroads in its own ties to Russia and China. Israel’s friends in the Gulf are under more of a spotlight from Washington and this could mean closer ties to Israel, but also critique of Israel for these very ties