Analysis: The Russia-Ukraine war and the view from Saudi Arabia

Since Russia invaded Ukraine eight months ago, Western governments supportive of Kyiv tend to speak about the war in black-and-white terms with little sympathy for countries hovering between the West and Moscow.

The leadership of the United States frames support for Ukraine as a matter of defending a “rules-based international order” that is under attack by rogue authoritarians.

In Arab countries, however, this Manichean narrative is largely rejected. Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) basically view the war in Ukraine as a complicated European conflict, which does not require Arab states to stand against Vladimir Putin’s government.

Although no Arab government – save Syria – has been outrightly supportive of Russia’s invasion, occupation and annexation of Ukrainian land, Arab statesmen do not believe their governments should burn bridges with Moscow because of this conflict.

Thus, while the GCC states have largely supported UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, none have joined Western powers in implementing sanctions against Moscow or other policies aimed at squeezing Russia.

“Most of the developing world in Asia and Africa, including the Middle East, has not viewed the Ukraine war as the kind of definitive, transformational moment in international relations that the West does,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, wrote this month.

As the war in Ukraine enters its ninth month, some analysts believe the Saudis will likely remain defiant of Western pressure to align against Moscow. They say that, for the leadership in Riyadh, maintaining relative neutrality serves Saudi interests and the kingdom is using this war – and its reaction to it – to send a message to the US that Saudi Arabia is not Washington’s vassal state.

“The Saudis have emphasised in recent years that they seek to avoid entanglement in what is referred to in the US as ‘great power competition’,” Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen and the Middle East Institute’s senior vice president, told Al Jazeera. “Their interests, the Saudis have made clear, have focused on maintaining strong relations with their main security partner, the US; their number one economic partner, China; and their key partner in OPEC+, Russia.”

Saudi-Russian partnership remains strong

Riyadh has maintained its cooperative relationship with Russia since Putin sent troops into neighbouring Ukraine in late February. In fact, at the start of the war, Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Co invested at least $500m in Gazprom, Rosneft and Lukoil, just as the West was punishing these Russian energy giants with sanctions.

More recently, on October 5, the Saudi- and Russian-led OPEC+ cartel announced its plans to reduce oil production. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, maintains the decision was strictly about its financial and commercial interests, as well as market stability.

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