How are the Gulf States Adapting to Multipolarity?


Fri, 27-08-2021 12:58 AM, Aden Time

Andrew Korybko | south24

The emerging Multipolar World Order was brought about by the decline of the US' unipolar hegemony. America remains the indisputable military superpower because of its global power projection capabilities but its economic influence has been challenged by China's rise while its political influence has receded as a result of that country's and Russia's growing international roles. Other actors such as the EU (primarily Germany and France in this case), India, Japan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE are becoming more prominent players too, which makes the gradual transition from unipolarity to multpolarity all the more complex. All of this presents challenges and opportunities for the Gulf States. 

America's abandonment of its Afghan allies in the face of the Taliban's rapid takeover of that country earlier this month has raised serious questions in the region about the US' reliability as an ally. Concerns were already swirling after the Biden Administration restarted nuclear negotiations with Iran in parallel with pressuring Saudi Arabia over the Yemeni War. Riyadh remains committed to that campaign mostly out of inertia and the desire to “save face” though Abu Dhabi realized a few years ago that a military solution was unlikely and hence withdrew most of its combat support for that mission. All of this placed the de facto leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in a tricky position from which it's been struggling to extricate itself. 

Saudi Arabia started reaching out to Russia and China a few years ago even before everything that it previously took for granted – namely the US' general military support and the UAE's assistance in Yemen – suddenly became more uncertain. This directly led to the Kingdom's latest military deal with Moscow which came several years after King Salman's visit to the Russian capital in 2017, which was the first for a Saudi leader. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has also cultivated close relations with Russian President Putin as evidenced by the famous footage of them casually high-fiving one another at the G20 Summit in 2018. Riyadh regards Russia as a more reliable military partner than the US since the Kremlin doesn't attach political strings to its deals. 

Even so, it's improbable that the Kingdom will ever significantly diversify from its dependence on American military equipment so its newfound ties with Russia in this sphere likely have more of a political edge to them than anything else. The Kremlin has become the kingmaker in the Syrian War, which directly affects all regional stakeholders' interests, including Saudi Arabia's. The two countries also cooperate very closely on the global energy market through the OPEC+ deal so there are many reasons for them to continue to comprehensively expand their relations, including in the military dimension. The signal being sent by Riyadh is that Washington mustn't take it for granted since the Kingdom has other options, even if it doesn't intend to ever replace the US. 

To add credibility to its emerging balancing act, Saudi Arabia also started cultivating very close economic ties with China, including in the energy sphere. Saudi King Salman visited the People's Republic in 2017 before traveling to Russia later that year. While in the East Asian nation, the two sides signed tens of billions of dollars worth of deals. China's Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) perfectly complements Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 for diversifying the country's economy from its present disproportionate dependence on resource exports. The combination of Russian and Chinese outreaches in recent years shows that Saudi Arabia is serious about protecting its strategic interests in the face of increasing American unpredictability as multipolarity emerges. 

That country isn't the only Gulf one that's doing this though since the UAE arguably was the first to seriously start balancing its strategic priorities. Abu Dhabi has also cultivated more military ties with Russia and economic ones with China. In addition, it's also in the midst of an ongoing rapprochement with Turkey which could reshape regional geopolitics if it results in a so-called “New Detente” between the two whereby Ankara stops supporting the Muslim Brotherhood together with its Qatari ally in exchange for much-needed investment into its struggling economy. Such an outcome could lead to a breakthrough in Libya where the two are engaged in a fierce proxy war and thus allow all sides to focus on rebuilding their economies after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some observers have also rightly noted that Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem to be engaged in a so-called “friendly competition” with one another for de facto leadership over the GCC. The first-mentioned was regarded as the “big brother” of the second, but the personal dynamics flipped ever since Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ) began mentoring MBS. Furthermore, the UAE's decision to largely withdraw from the Yemeni War suddenly left Saudi Arabia with less support to fight the Houthis, which might not have been appreciated much by Riyadh. While all of this was happening, the UAE was already far ahead of Saudi Arabia when it came to diversifying its economy as proven by its global port and logistics deals. 

Qatar also deserves to be mentioned when discussing the Gulf States' multipolar futures. The official thaw between it and its GCC partners earlier this year was a positive development though ties between both sides still appear to be tense. Saudi Arabia and the UAE won't forget how Qatar allegedly supported the Muslim Brotherhood through Al Jazeera and then teamed up with Turkey and Iran to survive their crippling "blockade" against it. Qatar might soon be in an even more awkward position if its Turkish ally successful clinches a deal with the UAE even though it's unlikely that it would include Ankara withdrawing its troops from the peninsular country. This will require Doha to deftly leverage its diplomatic capabilities in order to better adapt to this. 

On the topic of rapprochements, there was earlier some talk about Saudi Arabia and Iran exploring the possibility of improving their ties. This development would complement the ongoing Emirati-Turkish talks and could also be a regional strategic game-changer if successful though it's still too early to make any predictions since the process remains opaque to most observers. It's unclear whether the Islamic Republic's ongoing negotiations with the US might be connected to this or if it's being pursued separately, but what's known thus far is that three pairs of rapprochements are reportedly in the works: US-Iran, UAE-Turkey, and Saudi Arabia-Iran, all of which with the exception of the US have decent, if not excellent, ties with Russia and China too. 

Taken together, two trends can be discerned. Firstly, the GCC's dual leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE (described as such because of how they're practically of near-equal strategic standing at this point) are attempting to diversify their economic and political ties by balancing between their traditional Western partner (US) and their new Eastern ones (Russia and China). The UAE seems to be more successful in this respect while Saudi Arabia is somewhat lagging behind and trying to make up for lost time. The Saudis also remain mired in the Yemeni War with no end in sight thus far despite ongoing talks to resolve it unlike the UAE, which gives the latter more of an edge by freeing it up to focus on other matters instead. 

The second trend is that there are three pairs of possible rapprochements in the works that described above in this analysis. The very fact that this many are being seriously discussed at the moment speaks to the intent of each party to relieve some of the pressure upon them brought about by these costly regional competitions. Ultimately, all sides are becoming exhausted and are looking for some relief, especially since they have the shared interest of rebuilding their economies after they took such a drastic hit due to the international community's uncoordinated efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months. Nevertheless, the diplomatic dynamics are such that some of these talks have provoked distrust. 

This mostly relates to Saudi Arabia fearing the consequences of any successful US-Iranian negotiations. The Kingdom has already come under pressure from America for its ongoing Yemeni War, which in turn is accelerating its strategic diversification away from the West and closer towards the East even though it's a work in progress and Riyadh is unlikely to ever fully replace Washington's military and political roles. This observation goes to show that even decades-long allies like those two can suddenly come to distrust one another if there isn't proper communication between them over very sensitive issues like the revived Iranian nuclear negotiations. It's expected that more pairs of partners will experience this in the future, and not just in the Gulf.

a Moscow-based American political analyst 

- Photo: Russian Deputy Defense Minister and Saudi Deputy Defense Minister sign on August 24 a military cooperation deal between the two countries (official - Twitter)

Gulf StatesSaudi ArabiaUAEQatarRussiaUSA