What does Putin want from the UAE and Saudi Arabia?
11 Dec 2023|

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin visited the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia last week in a bid to expand relations with the two oil-rich states and show that he isn’t as isolated as he has been portrayed by the West.

The Russian dictator’s visit to the two Gulf states was only the second time he had ventured outside Russia in the eight months since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest for the alleged war crime of unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children.

Like Russia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are not members of the ICC and Putin therefore found it safe to be in these countries, just as he had when he visited China in October. His venture came against the backdrop of two consequential regional developments.

One is the Arab countries’ growing displeasure with the US for not doing enough to stop the Gaza war and a desire to rebalance relations with Washington under President Joe Biden, whom they have not found to be as receptive to them as his immediate predecessors. Putin has been keen to show that he is still a leader of substance on the world stage, despite all his domestic and foreign policy problems due to his Ukraine war of aggression and attrition and US-led sanctions against Russia.

To help expand ties with the Arab domain vis-à-vis America’s traditional influence in the region, he has expediently echoed the position of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 57 Muslim countries (including Russia’s de facto ally, Iran), by calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and establishment of an independent sovereign Palestinian state.

This is despite his past good relations with Israel and an informal understanding to allow Israel to operate freely in the skies of Syria, where Russia has joined forces with Iran in saving the Bashar al-Assad regime, to target Iranian and Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah bases.

The other development is sagging oil prices. Since July, the coalition of Arab oil-producing states and Russia, known as OPEC Plus, has tried hard to boost the price of Brent crude to about US$100 per barrel. Saudi Arabia and Russia have played key roles in this effort, cutting their oil production by 1 million and 600,000 barrels a day, respectively.

Yet the price of Brent crude today hovers around US$75 per barrel, largely because of a slowdown in China’s economic growth and an increased emphasis on sources of renewable energy in most of the developed world.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE can cope with the lower price, given their respective sovereign wealth funds of some US$776 billion and US$853 billion. But Putin is badly in need of more revenue to fund his Ukraine war and stave off serious domestic backlashes resulting from the growing cost of the war and internal economic decline. He was very keen to strike oil and trade deals during his Saudi and UAE visits for revenue-raising purposes.

UAE president Mohammad bin Zaid and Saudi de facto leader Mohammad bin Salman have been as interested as Putin in cooperating within OPEC Plus to maintain a level of oil production that is commensurate with higher prices. They also will have wished to use Putin’s visit to send a strong message of dismay to Washington over its handling of the Gaza crisis.

However, Putin’s efforts are unlikely to bear fruit in terms of enticing the UAE and Saudi Arabia to drift towards Russia. The UAE and Saudi governments, like many of their Arab counterparts in the region, enjoy deeply entrenched financial, technological, economic, trade, investment and, more significantly, security relations with the US. Russia is by no means in a position to act as a credible substitute. Despite their displeasure, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have not so far given any practical expression to their discontent with Washington. Their objections have been largely at the rhetorical level.

The UAE has done nothing to affect its normalisation of relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia has simply postponed any further moves towards formal recognition of Israel. Yet this doesn’t mean that they are unwilling to play their Russia or, for that matter, China card from time to time to deflect Washington’s pressure on human rights issues or anti-Israeli sentiments.