Why the Saudis and Emiratis back Russia’s call for oil production cuts

Why are America’s longtime allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) backing Russia by agreeing to cut oil production in the OPEC+ format? The US and other Western governments have asked the Saudis and Emiratis – the only OPEC oil producers believed to have spare capacity – to increase oil production in a bid to slash oil prices falling after Western sanctions on Russian oil have risen. Their refusal to do so is likely to push up prices – which benefits Vladimir Putin as he can continue to sell Russian oil to China and India at a higher (albeit reduced) price than would be the case if the allies of the Gulf Arabs of America would increase their production.

While the Saudis and Emiratis also benefit from higher oil prices as exporters, working with Russia to raise oil prices risks triggering a recession in the West that will result in both lower demand for oil and lower prices. that will harm them.

So why take this economic risk? Perhaps the Saudis and Emiratis fear what they see as an even greater geopolitical risk for them: the prospect of Russia losing its war in Ukraine.

This is not to say that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or any other Middle Eastern state actually wanted Russia to invade Ukraine, let alone defeat it. And their reluctance to criticize Russian intervention at the outset may have stemmed from a widespread belief that Moscow would prevail quickly, and so there was no point in angering an soon-to-be victorious Putin. But the specter that has now emerged of Russian forces being shamefully pushed back by Ukraine and growing instability within Russia itself does not bode well for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

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If Putin is unable to hold Ukrainian territory, which Russian forces have recently occupied, and if he has to devote more attention to maintaining control of Russia, Moscow is likely to be less able to do so in the Middle East to operate than before. The Saudis, Emiratis and many other Middle Eastern countries allied with the US do not have happy memories of what happened last time – when Moscow withdrew from the Middle East after the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

For the next two decades, the United States was the main great power operating in the region. During this period, the Arab states could not get meaningful support from other major powers to counter US policies that they did not like. These included the US-led intervention in Iraq; calls for democratization and respect for human rights in the Middle East; lack of support for longtime US ally Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring uprising that toppled him; and insufficient US pushback against Iran in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and in general.

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Especially after Russia’s military intervention in Syria began in 2015, Moscow’s return to the Middle East presented the Saudis, Emiratis and other US allies with an opportunity to dodge Washington’s demands for democratization and human rights. If the US didn’t sell them arms because of their concerns about these issues, Putin would. Last but not least, they appreciated the possibility that Moscow would cooperate with them when Washington might not want to. Even Moscow’s military presence in Syria served to thwart Iranian and Turkish ambitions feared by the Gulf Arabs and Israel. Working with Putin may not always be easy, but unlike the Soviets, who often sought to overthrow pro-Western regimes, Putin was willing to both work with America’s allies in the Middle East and compete with the US for influence.

If Russia is defeated in Ukraine and experiences domestic turmoil, Moscow may no longer be able to play an active role in the Middle East and provide the benefits that the Saudis and Emiratis in particular are now seeing. There may not be a full return to the post-Cold War era of American dominance as China plays a more active role in the region than before. But so far, China has not become as militarily active in the Middle East as Russia. So China cannot be counted on to keep Iran or Turkey in check in Syria, as Russia has done, when Moscow reduces its presence there. And unlike Russia, which, as an oil exporter, shares the Saudis and Emirates’ preference for higher oil prices, oil-importing China (like the West) prefers lower oil prices.

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So, a weakened Russia could leave the Saudis and Emiratis with less outside support if they distract from policies they don’t like being pursued by the US, Iran or Turkey. Fending off that possibility by keeping oil prices high and thereby propping up Russia makes geopolitical sense in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. They may find it more beneficial to play off external major powers against one another than to rely primarily on one. This is the unfortunate reality facing America, Europe and Ukraine.

Mark N. Katz is Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Governmentand a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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