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
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East will be to get Iran — the real culprit. And the only way to start building a state for Palestine ith the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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