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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), supporting Russia by agreeing with it to cut oil production in the OPEC+ format? The U.S. and other Western governments have asked the Saudis and Emiratis — the only OPEC oil producers believed to have spare capacity — to increase their oil production in order to tamp down oil prices that rose following Western sanctions on Russian petroleum. Their refusal to do so will likely raise prices — which benefits Vladimir Putin by allowing him to continue selling Russian oil to China and India at a higher (albeit discounted) price than would prevail if America’s Gulf Arab allies increased their production.  

Further, while the Saudis and Emiratis also benefit from higher oil prices as exporters, their cooperation with Russia to increase oil prices risks triggering a recession in the West that will result in both lower demand for oil and lower prices that will hurt them.

So why take this economic risk? It may be that the Saudis and the Emiratis fear what they consider would be 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 UAE, or any other Middle Eastern state actually wanted to see Russia invade Ukraine, much less defeat it. And their reluctance to criticize the Russian intervention when it first began may have been due to the widespread belief that Moscow would quickly prevail, and so there was no point in antagonizing a soon-to-be victorious Putin. But the specter that has now arisen of Russian forces being ignominiously driven back by Ukraine and instability rising in Russia itself does not bode well for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

If Putin is not able to keep hold of Ukrainian territory that Russian forces recently occupied, and if he must devote more attention just to retaining control over Russia, then Moscow is likely to become less able than it has been to operate in the Middle East. The Saudis, Emiratis and many other Middle Eastern states allied to the U.S. do not have happy memories of what happened the last time this occurred — when Moscow pulled back from the Middle East after the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

For the two decades following, the U.S. was the main great power operating in the region. During this period, Arab states could not obtain meaningful support from other great powers in countering U.S. policies they did not like. These included the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq; calls for democratization and respect for human rights in the Middle East; lack of support for longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring uprising that overthrew him; and insufficient U.S. pushback against Iran in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as in general.

Especially after the beginning of Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015, Moscow’s return to the Middle East gave the Saudis, Emiratis and other U.S. allies an opportunity to avoid Washington’s demands about democratization and human rights. If the U.S. would not sell them arms because of its concerns about these issues, Putin would. If nothing else, just the possibility that Moscow would work with them when Washington might not want to was something they valued. Even Moscow’s military presence in Syria served to check Iranian and Turkish ambitions that the Gulf Arabs and Israel feared. Putin might not always be easy to work with, but unlike the Soviets, who often sought the downfall of pro-Western regimes, Putin has been willing both to work with America’s Middle East allies and even to compete with the U.S. for influence with them.

If Russia is defeated in Ukraine and experiences domestic political turmoil, Moscow no longer may be able to play an active role in the Middle East and provide the benefits that the Saudis and Emiratis in particular see it as providing now. There may not be a complete return to the post-Cold War era of American dominance, since China is playing a more active role in the region than it did before. But so far, China has not become militarily active in the Middle East the way that Russia has been. China, then, cannot be depended upon to keep Iran or Turkey in check in Syria the way that Russia has if Moscow draws down its presence there. And unlike Russia, which, as an oil exporter, shares the Saudi and Emirati preference for higher oil prices, oil-importing China (like the West) prefers lower oil prices.

A weakened Russia, then, may result in the Saudis and the Emiratis having less external support in deflecting policies that they do not like, which are being pursued by the U.S., Iran or Turkey. Staving off this possibility by keeping oil prices high, and thereby propping Russia up, makes geopolitical sense in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. They may see playing external great powers against each other as more advantageous than relying mainly on one. This is the unfortunate reality that America, Europe and Ukraine all face.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Tags Oil prices OPEC+ Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Saudi Arabia United Arab Emirates Vladimir Putin
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