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The Middle East — read ‘energy’ — complicates Ukraine crisis

Associated Press
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in this 2018 file photo.

If you only watch television news to keep up with the Ukraine crisis, you are missing an important, perhaps crucial, dimension: the Middle East. This aspect is mainly about energy — undermining Russia’s dominance in oil and gas supplies — so it is about numbers, which usually don’t lend themselves to visuals. In the short term, the story is indeed about advances of armored columns or heroic defiance of the odds, mixed with dreadful reports of casualties and refugees. But in the longer term, it’s nearly all about energy.

On Sunday came news that Germany — currently hugely dependent on imports of Russian natural gas — has agreed to a long-term gas supply deal with the Gulf state of Qatar, which sits on the world’s third largest reserves. “We might still need Russian gas this year, but not in the future,” Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in Doha. Germany is fast-tracking the construction of two liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals so it can import ship-loads that Qatar will make available.

Arguably less helpful was Saudi Arabia, which, after three drone attacks on oil installations by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, announced that it will not be held responsible for shortages in the global energy market. But, at least as reported, the Houthi attacks did not hit the kingdom’s production or export capacity. So, the statement was interpreted as Riyadh once again siding with Russia in the OPEC+ oil cartel. This stubbornness has continued to push up prices. After slipping back from record highs last week, oil prices on Monday were up again by around 7 percent

Additionally, Riyadh’s relations with Washington are vexed by the personal enmity of President Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, who runs the show while his father King Salman copes with ill health. Last week, the king had a new battery installed in his pacemaker.

In terms of being squeezed diplomatically on energy, Moscow is still laughing. Exports have slipped back because business regards Russian energy as a reputation destroyer, but overall revenues are probably up because of the high prices. Western governments seem to be hoping that military setbacks will constrain Russia and resolve the crisis quickly. The alternative is unpalatable — asking (voting) populations to accept gasoline price increases and perhaps a range of energy restrictions to blunt Russia’s militancy. 

Last week the Paris-based International Energy Agency, the grouping of industrialized nations of which the U.S. is a member, suggested a 10-point plan to cut oil consumption — including lower speed limits, carpooling, curtailing business air travel, and car-free Sundays. It sounds sensible enough in theory, but it’s a hard sell in practice. 

The Middle East angle has been given another spin with the three-way summit in Egypt of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, the effective leader of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This comes just three days after MbZ, as he is known, welcomed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to Abu Dhabi, an event that prompted the U.S. State Department to say it was “profoundly disappointed and troubled.”

For those who find it confusing that a U.S. ally (the UAE) could warmly greet an Iranian-supported dictatorship (Syria) while complaining vocally about the lack of U.S. support to cope with the threat of Iran, welcome to the Middle East. It is explicable, but the logic is not necessarily persuasive to ordinary mortals. Supposedly Egypt, Israel and the UAE want to peel Assad away from Tehran. Whether the Israeli prime minister agreed with MbZ’s tactics is not known, but any discomfort was not enough to stop the meeting.

The target of Middle East diplomacy appears to be the Biden administration, which seems close to agreeing to a revived Iran nuclear agreement (from which former President Trump walked away). This diplomatic strategy is, at best, high-risk and could be a distraction to resolving the Ukraine crisis. Washington’s Middle East allies have decided what their priorities are. Unfortunately, they appear to be largely at odds with those of Washington.

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 Donald Trump Houthi insurgency in Yemen Joe Biden Mohammed bin Salman OPEC+ Price of oil Russian invasion of Ukraine Saudi Arabia Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Vladimir Putin

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