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As the Ukraine crisis continues, the West needs a Middle East assist

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The weekend is over, although if you were in Ukraine you probably didn’t realize it was a weekend. The “What can we do?” debate in Washington will accelerate again. That debate likely will be framed by numbers: What is the price of oil? What is happening on the stock market? How many refugees are fleeing? So far, even with higher gas prices, the crisis hasn’t become a live issue in our domestic politics. But the ingredients are all there: Is going green the solution or increasingly a dream? Do we have the time to play with ideas? More fundamentally, are current policy positions vote-winners or -losers for the November midterms?

A new, or at least increasingly influential, ingredient could be the Middle East. The breaking-the-Sabbath flights to Russia and then Germany by the religiously observant Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Saturday may or may not produce some diplomatic breakthrough. The audacity of the initiative arguably reflects Israel’s sense that it must balance its horror of what is happening while not alienating Moscow, a key player in Syria

Another aspect to consider is whether an Iran freed of sanctions by a pending new nuclear accord could perhaps provide the oil to the world, which the world does not want to buy from President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The notion seems absurd but was given life by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s comment last week when the hypothetical was posed to him and he replied that “all options are on the table.” As of writing, it is theoretical — there are no formal sanctions on Russian oil and natural gas. But informal ones are emerging and could grow substantially. Increasingly, energy companies don’t want to be associated with Russia. Hence, the rise in prices, measured last week in cents at the pump. This week, it could be much more.  

And who can ease the price pressure? Saudi Arabia is the only producer with spare capacity but even that would take weeks to crank up, although oil in floating storage is only a sea voyage away from the market. But currently the decision-making power in Riyadh is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MbS, who is hiding behind the claim that the market is balanced (between supply and demand). Two political realities are playing a crucial role: First, MbS appears to see himself as a buddy of Putin. Second, MbS wants to be asked directly by President Biden, who doesn’t want to deal with him, apparently because of the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

As much as many people want the Khashoggi murder to recede from the headlines, it keeps coming back. Last week it was given an extra push by the latest edition of The Atlantic in a long essay about MbS entitled, “Absolute Power.” The read-through runs: “Asked about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Mohammed bin Salman said, ‘If that’s the way we did things, Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list.’” One wonders which public relations adviser dreamed up that line. 

For the moment, Saudi Arabia appears to be trying to avoid the energy headlines and the hard “ask” from Washington. Oil Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, MbS’s elder half-brother, is apparently not going to be a speaker at the CERA conference in Houston this week, the industry’s preeminent talking shop. 

Challenging times call for imaginative solutions. But diplomacy is slow. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC on Sunday that there were “active discussions” with European partners about a ban on Russian oil imports. That doesn’t sound optimistic. And there was no mention of gas imports, which are much harder to replace in the short term. Qatar already has indicated willingness to divert cargoes, but demands that the U.S. do the diplomatic lifting. No one seems ready to acknowledge publicly that this crisis could last months rather than weeks.

It took several days for Washington to rally all its allies in the Arab world to display unity and support for the non-binding United Nations resolution on Ukraine but the backing still appears lukewarm. Yet the Middle East is where the oil is (focus on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran), and also the gas (Qatar and Iran).

An unexpected consequence of the Ukraine crisis has been to reactivate frayed American and European senses of shared interests. The Middle East should and could be part of that as well, but the players need to work on the notion of “shared interests.”  

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Antony Blinken Jamal Khashoggi killing Joe Biden Mohammed bin Salman oil and gas Pete Buttigieg Price of oil Russian invasion of Ukraine Saudi Arabia Vladimir Putin

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