The Gulf – where petrostates and psychodrama hold sway – is a critical field for jockeying in the global shift to multipolarity, and the Ukraine war is recasting what each player wants, and thinks it can get.
To wit: The Biden Administration wants to extend the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia, so it can point to a key foreign-policy win before next year’s presidential election while moving Riyadh back inside the U.S.-Israel tent.
Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Bin Salman (Crown Prince MBS) wants instead to distance Riyadh from Washington so he can lead non-aligned talks and take the credit for resolving Ukraine’s war with Russia — though, as an aside, he has demanded a nuclear enrichment plant and a fleet of F-35 fighter jets to consider Washington’s request in return.
Iran, which came in from the cold after the past year’s “Women, Life Freedom” protests by signing a China-brokered normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, wants to stymie any Abraham Accords expansion beyond Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates and is working hard on becoming everyone’s best friend outside the West — read: Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia.
Israel wants to expand the Accords to include Riyadh, seeing it as a rare foreign policy opportunity to both balance Netanyahu’s domestic woes triggered by his controversial far-right government and to promote the anti-Iran U.S. alliance in the Gulf.
The Gulf’s oil and staggering wealth, its divide down the middle between Iran and pro-Western states, and its unwieldy balance of two global energy producers facing each other across the absurdly narrow and strategic Strait of Hormuz all make the region one of the highest-stakes playing fields in the world.
And the Ukraine war is shifting the goalposts. The Russians have arrived; China is quietly offering prizes, like nuclear plants, to regional actors; and the Gulf Cooperation Council states are flexing new muscle in the ongoing geo-strategic realignment.
Russians are flooding the Gulf. They are buying up everything from lampshades to heavy equipment in Iran’s bazaars and avoiding sanctions by shipping them over land and across the Caspian Sea. Saudi Arabia is in talks with Russian weapons manufacturers sanctioned by the U.S. Meanwhile, the hotels in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and down the Omani coast have seen a 200-percent jump in Russian bookings this year (376,000 guests a month in Abu Dhabi alone, triple last year’s average) despite the weakening ruble.
Both MBS and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s Emir, have entered the field to negotiate a peace accord between Moscow and Kyiv. MBZ, as he is called, visited Russia in June presenting his mediation skills to President Putin, while MBS hosted a round of peace talks in Jeddah in early August, while voluntarily cutting oil output in July to boost prices, upsetting Washington (yet again) as the move will likely shore up Russian oil revenues.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s attempt during his trip to Riyadh in July to promote the Abraham Accords and convince MBS not to move the goalposts, as well as to join the sanctions regime against Russia fell well short of success.
MBS, touting ties to both Ukraine and Russia, instead drew his own line in the turf, gathering 42 countries to his “peace” summit, including the U.S. and China while excluding Iran and Russia. Western critics dismissed it as a soapbox for MBS to parade his new-found role as peace broker (and Moscow blasted it as pointless). But, with China floating a revised 10-point peace formula at the meeting, it established the kingdom’s credentials as an emerging power offering new avenues for global conflict mediation, creating more daylight between Riyadh and Washington.
With a new round of protests to mark the anniversary of the women’s demonstrations that began last September, the clerical leadership marks a year of surprising rehabilitation in the Gulf as well as wider afield.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have reestablished embassies in their respective capitals, offering a green light to warmer (and more substantive) relationships between Tehran and capitals up and down the Gulf’s western littoral. For Riyadh, Tehran’s warming relations with Moscow and its military support to Russia’s war effort have not posed major hurdles, as its own diplomatic proximity to Russia has grown.
Both states recognize that their relations with Moscow are pragmatic, if not entirely problem-free, and, as with much in their own ongoing detente, are more focused at the moment on compartmentalizing points of contention to build, rather than damage, goodwill.
Despite their respective reputational black marks for human rights, the two oil heavyweights were just warmly welcomed into the BRICS (along with the UAE). This signals the Global South’s growing clout and diversity, as well as a clear willingness to challenge established great power rules, prompting White House National’s Security Advisor Jake Sullivan seemingly to dismiss the BRICS after the meeting as geopolitically inconsequential.
Israel and the U.S. seeking purchase
Although U.S. military engagement and financial commitments remain dominant in the Gulf, Washington is no longer leading the action, and is often caught up short these days by Beijing moving the goal posts behind its back. Following its diplomatic coup with the surprise Iran-Saudi normalization deal, China just last week offered to build a nuclear plant on the Saudi border with Qatar and the UAE without including the same conditions demanded by the U.S. to prevent enrichment and possible nuclear weaponization.
This comes hard on the heels of Blinken’s trip to Riyadh to promote the Abraham Accords, which he described as the “cornerstone” of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy on the basis that “Israel’s further integration into the region contributes to a more stable, a more secure and more prosperous region.”
But with tensions still rising between Netanyahu’s far-right government and the Palestinians, Riyadh is unconvinced that a public declaration of amity with Israel is politically wise or would contribute to stability in the Gulf, especially as trade, trust and diplomacy between the two countries have grown steadily without the fanfare of normalization. For MBS, the risks of joining the Accords include not only outraging the kingdom's own population and the wider Muslim community if it is seen as downgrading the Palestinian issue. But it could also stymie progress with Tehran, which would view such a move as Riyadh buckling to U.S. pressure and rejoining the anti-Iran camp. As the kingdom spreads its wings, it is clearly prioritizing Gulf neighborliness and détente over U.S. chumminess.
Where Washington has made progress, albeit without Israel’s support, is in backroom arrangements with Iran to tone down its nuclear enrichment in exchange for access to $6 billion of its frozen reserves held by South Korea.
Under the umbrella of a prisoner swap, which Washington hopes to finalize in two or three weeks, bank transfers have been prepared and Iran has quietly slowed its uranium enrichment to 60 percent and is in the process of diluting its stockpile. It’s the first breakthrough on the nuclear front since Donald Trump withdrew from the six-party JCPOA in 2018.
And, although it means negotiating with a sworn enemy — and only then through intermediaries, notably Oman and Qatar — it shows that Washington can maneuver adeptly even when the Gulf’s goal posts are shifting.
What’s less clear is whether the U.S. can be as flexible in expanding the Abraham Accords, with both China and Israel nipping at its heels, its hopes for a Libya-Israel rapprochement now dashed, and its erstwhile Team USA — aka the GCC states — heading off in different directions.
Though the Ukraine war is playing out in the European arena, its repercussions in the Gulf are striking. It has opened new horizons for Russia and China to engage meaningfully in the region’s security and energy, while giving new impetus to the region’s mid-level powers to pursue not only their own expanding agendas, but to find common cause in a Gulf-centered community that can sidestep the vicissitudes of Great Power competition.
Dr Roxane Farmanfarmaian is Director of International Studies and Global Politics at the University of Cambridge Institute for Continuing Education and a Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London. She is also a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Tehran, Iran June 23, 2022. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.