The United States has serious issues with its international allies, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While Russia’s attempted conquest of Ukraine increased in brutality daily, President Joe Biden also had to deal with the problem of keeping oil prices in the US manageable as Western sanctions on Russian oil took effect. And for that, he needed the support of traditional US allies like the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. Only this time, they were not taking the US president’s calls. 

 

 

The Gulf states have, over the past few decades, served as more or less reliable partners for the US, in terms of both oil supplies and strategic concerns. Given the numerous vast differences in culture, values, and ideas about human rights and the rule of law, the economic and security ties between the American democracy and these ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim kingdoms have proven remarkably resilient. 

 

 

However, in the first week of March 2022, the White House admitted that the Saudis and the Emiratis had refused to schedule calls with Biden to discuss the American president’s desire to see them step up their pumping of oil. According to the Wall Street Journal, multiple sources in both the US and the Mideast report that the leaders of the two Persian Gulf nations have not made themselves available to Biden as they likely would have in the past.  

 

 

The oil superpowers can certainly fill the gap that was left when the West put the brakes on Russian supplies. Yet OPEC+, of which Russia is a member, elected not to boost production in the face of the Ukraine-Russia crisis and Biden’s decision to ban all Russian oil imports. Thanks to both the ban and the oil producers’ intransigence, in early March oil prices in the US soared higher than they had in the previous 14 years. 

 

 

Bones of contention – Yemen and Iran 

 

 

This seems to indicate that, unless Washington does more to support them in finding palatable solutions to both the war in Yemen and their security concerns amid Western attempts to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear program, these Gulf monarchies are tired of playing the same old game. US officials, on the other hand, said they are continuing to work with the Saudis and the Emiratis in solving security concerns and disagreements on the Iran negotiations. 

 

 

However, Biden has received harsh international criticism for his approach in Yemen.  

Supported by Iran and Hezbollah, for the past seven years Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been taking over increasing swaths of territory in the already crisis-beset small nation, expelling its internationally recognized official government. The Saudis lead the coalition battling the Houthis to maintain both regional stability and their own security. The fact that the UAE also backs foreign militias operating in its interest in Yemen further complicates matters, as has its pursuit of policies in contrast with those of its allies. In early 2022, the Houthis launched missile and drone attacks across the border with the UAE and made incursions into Saudi territory.  

 

 

In the first foreign policy speech of his presidency, Biden promised to backtrack some of his immediate predecessors’ decisions on Yemen, stressing a more diplomacy-focused approach. Yet, while continuing US support of the Saudi blockade of Yemen and other Gulf state-driven measures, he has tended toward less active US engagement on the issue.  

 

 

That approach, and Biden’s withdrawal of a prior foreign terror designation for the Houthis, have so far borne little productive fruit. It’s small wonder if the Saudis and the Emiratis feel unsupported by their ally.  

 

 

Strained friendships 

 

 

Ever since the official founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, and the discovery of oil from a well owned by the American company Standard Oil in 1938, the country has maintained ties with the US. The relationship was cemented the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with the dynasty’s founder, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, on board a US Navy destroyer in 1945. During the Second World War, the officially neutral kingdom elected to permit Allied forces to fly over its airspace. 

 

 

The American interest in keeping up those ties has weathered major crises, such as the Saudis’ 1973 oil embargo against the US due to American support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War and the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 (15 out of the 19 hijackers of the US aircraft that struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon that day were Saudi nationals).  

 

 

The US has built a strong presence as a military advisor in the kingdom over the decades, and the Saudis remain the Americans’ largest customer for foreign arms sales. The UAE, prompted by the US, signed onto the historic Abraham Accords in 2020, formally recognizing Israel and beginning an open and robust relationship with the Jewish State. 

 

 

During the Obama Administration, tensions between the US and its Saudi allies soured over the Kingdom’s refusal to do what the Americans felt was its part in creating a deal with Iran. And then, as now, the Saudis’ lack of response to humanitarian concerns in their own country and Yemen roil the bilateral relationship. Today, the one issue around which Saudi Arabia and the US likely agree upon is the need to contain Iran and conclude a nuclear agreement that can curb its ambitions.  

 

 

The US has maintained friendly relations with the UAE since 1971 when several sheikhdoms formed a common government as they achieved independence from the United Kingdom. Both the Saudis and the UAE allied with the US-led multi-national coalition in the First Persian Gulf War against the forces invading Kuwait from Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. Additionally, the Saudis provided a refuge for the Kuwaiti government and a base for close to a quarter-million US troops.  

 

 

So not agreeing to talk to Biden is a serious sign of an issue, possibly symptomatic of the present reshuffling of diplomatic and strategic relationships across the Middle East and the globe. This was already going on before Russia’s full-on invasion of Ukraine, but it seems like the dominoes have begun falling faster and faster since. 

Both the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia have had a decided influence on the political landscape of the Middle East. Here’s what you need to know: 

Russia’s Historic Great Game in the Mideast 

 Russia spent the 17th through the 19th centuries as a foe of the Ottoman Empire, grabbing up territories in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions—and access to vital ports—as the Turks’ grip on power crumbled. Imperial Russia also historically had a strong interest in protecting the rights of Orthodox Christians living in Ottoman lands.  

 In the 20th century, the Soviet Union was a strong backer of multiple Arab client states, partly as a means of countering American influence. The Soviets broke ties with Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967. 

In the decades immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s footprint in the region diminished due to its focus on urgent needs at home. For example, Russia tended to take a backseat during the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations’ work at Mideast statecraft for much of the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century.  

However, in the last few years, a resurgent Russian Middle East presence has rendered the already complex affairs of the region even more so.   

 

Filling the Power Vacuum in the Region 

In many ways, Russia is seeking to fill a vacuum. The deteriorating Western presence and influence in the region is perhaps most obviously illustrated by the chaos accompanying the Biden Administration’s and NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in Summer 2021.  

The turning point came in 2015, when Vladimir Putin’s Russia became a major player in the Syrian civil war. Russian air strikes were the crucial factor in helping President Bashar al-Assad hold on to power.  

This intervention became the defining event that re-established Russia as one of the outside powers to be reckoned with in the region. Russia’s changing governments over the past five decades have stood as a major source of support for the Assad dynasty—first for President Hafez al-Assad (in power 1971 – 2000), and now for his son. 

 Building Regional Partnerships 

Since 2015, Russia has participated in major arms sales to Middle Eastern states that include Turkey and Egypt. It has worked to build up relationships with Middle Eastern governments, and to pursue a variety of investments.  

It has additionally strengthened its long-standing partnership with Iran, which is the other major supporter of the Assad regime in Syria. It is this relationship with Iran, alongside its military success in Syria, that has provided Russia with a major foothold as it seeks to reestablish itself in the region.  

Additionally, in 2017, King Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia made a historic first visit to Moscow to discuss with Putin their shared interest in preventing the US from limiting their respective interests as the world’s two top oil producers. The Russians and the Saudis finalized more than a dozen high-value agreements spanning not only energy interests, but also military cooperation, space exploration, and arms sales.  

The visit served as a high point along the two nations’ still often rocky, up-and-down relationship. The Saudis notably expressed strong opposition to the Assad regime and to Iran’s entanglement in its neighbors’ affairs. 

But Russia doesn’t seem to be playing the intense-involvement game that has been the bread-and-butter of American policy in the region for generations. Instead, the Russians today, like the Soviets in the past, maintain a limited but noticeable presence. The goal here seems to be to avoid over-extending Russia’s resources while gaining the most ground as a rival to the Americans as a regional power broker. 

Russia has sent only a relatively small military contingent to Syria. The manner in which it has conducted operations—the emphasis on air strikes, for example—indicates a clear focus on minimizing risks of incurring Russian casualties.  

Unlike the US, Russia has not been interested in promoting democracy—or any other particular type of political system—in the Mideast, but rather in maintaining stability. Russia continues to view US policy, including the Americans’ belligerent approach to Iran, as a destabilizing factor. 

Rapprochement with Israel 

The historically complicated relationship between Russia/the Soviet Union and Israel has also taken a recent turn toward cooperation. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia re-started diplomatic relations with Israel after three decades of estrangement. There are cultural ties as well. About one-fifth of Israel’s citizens today trace their backgrounds to Russia or the Soviet Union, and the nations maintain a visa-free travel arrangement. 

As the most sophisticated Middle Eastern country in terms of its military capabilities and its technological development, Israel is drawing increasing Russian interest. After the fall of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who assiduously cultivated a positive relationship with Putin—earlier in 2021, experts were uncertain how the new coalition government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett would be received in Moscow. 

However, in October, a meeting between Bennett and Putin provoked extensive media commentary for its warmth and cordiality. Both governments appeared to focus on continuity and stability. 

It’s also important to note that Russia has become Israel’s de facto neighbor due to its presence in Syria. That situation offers both complications and opportunities, as Russia develops as a significant factor for Israel’s to weigh as it tries to offset Iran’s influence in Syria.