Putin has shaken up West Asia realpolitik once more. Convergence of interests has brought in an unlikely friendship like UAE-Israel and Saudi-Russia. As the war in Ukraine drags on, ententes are likely to emerge across the world. We can see a remarkable shift in West Asia dynamics because of security, economic and strategic concerns.
Russia in the recent past has made good headways with the Gulf States in tourism, infrastructure, and food exports. Saudis and Emiratis have been very cautious in the Ukrainian war.
Saudis, Emiratis, and Israelis
Testing time lies ahead for Saudis and UAE. They have enjoyed a warm multi-faceted relationship with the US, NATO, and Russia over the last few years. Russia in the recent past has made good headways with the Gulf States in tourism, infrastructure, and food exports. Saudis and Emiratis have been very cautious in the Ukrainian war.
Even before the invasion began, the new US president Joe Biden failed to impress Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) – something that the Trump administration was very successful. First, Biden irritated Saudis by calling the kingdom a global pariah, then dragged MBS into Jamal Khashoggis’ murder. Second, he withdrew its support for the Gulf States in the Yemen war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels and began fervently backing a new nuclear deal with Iran- something that has brought Israel, Saudi Arabia, and UAE close.
Post-1979, West Asia has always been at the helm of the civilizational conflict between faith and control of the Ummah. These trends do mire in the strategic calculus of rivals in the region. In the post-pandemic, West Asia is blurring the lines of traditional alliances and enmity- one such friendship is Israel-UAE, both want to contain sanction-free Iran. Iran mounts a grave threat to Saudi and UAE in Yemen and Israel in Syria.
Russia is leveraging its position in JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) as a bargaining chip in exchange for indirect support from Riyadh and Abu Dubai. Putin wants OPEC+ not to endorse the US’s demands of increasing oil production- a move that would impede Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine. With Saudis unfazed by Biden’s diplomatic pressure, it seems Russians are beholden.
A Last-minute Russian demand for written guarantees from the United States that Western sanctions on Russia over its ‘Special Operation’ in Ukraine should not affect its economic and military cooperation with Iran. What’s more interesting is the strategic preference given to Qatar as a major non-NATO ally by the Biden administration and finally the most barbed bit- holding back F35 jet sale.
For long, the West Asia was never subject to taking a stance in European conflicts and affairs.
Ever since Biden sought to revise the F-35 jet deal, UAE has bought 80 Rafales from France, Light trainer jets from China, and disruptive tech from Israel. Saudis are also looking to diversify their missile defense systems. Stonewalling Joe Biden is a clear signal from the Sheikhdoms that the Gulf States want to diversify their economic and defense interests with all major powers- China, Russia, France, and India and not get dictated by any superpower.
For Israel, this conflict is a double-edged sword- the future of Israeli exports to Ukraine now stands uncertain. Israel does not want to antagonize Russia for many reasons, the prominent being its security concerns emerging from the pro-Iranian groups in Syria.
For long, the West Asia was never subject to taking a stance in European conflicts and affairs. ‘Innenpolitik’ based on security and economics is now driving the politics in the West Asia. What is clear is that the Ukrainian war has brought dimension to the balance of power in the region.
With inflation at 54percent, Turkey has a lot to lose from what’s happening in Ukraine. Turkey sees the Ukraine crisis as a fresh opportunity to regain its prominence in West Asia politics. Turkey and Ukraine are natural allies- besides the economic benefits, the main driver of their friendship is technology transfer in the defense industry by Ukraine, which has given a boost to Turkish defence industries which have been subjected to Washington’s crippling sanctions and FATA grey listing of Turkey for the second time.
Turkey’s unique location provides some leverage for international influence. Western sanctions on Russia hit the Turkish economy hard…
Despite being slightly leaning towards Ukraine, Turkey has shown eagerness to host peace talks and is engaging with both sides to restrain and is working tirelessly with Israel to fill up the diplomatic vacuum in Europe.
There are several reasons why Turkey does not seek confrontation with Russia and wants shuttle diplomacy to prevail. First, Russian gas; Turkey is the second-largest importer of Russian natural gas after Germany. With economic woes persisting, Turkey is heavily dependent on Russia. Turkey has recently purchased its fourth drilling ship from South Korea, but it may not be enough to power Turkish energy needs.
Second, Russia is also constructing the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, which can fulfill 30 percent of Turkey’s energy requirements by 2030. Third, tourism and trade; both Russian and Ukrainian tourists as a vital source of income which corresponds to 4 percent of the GDP of Turkey. Fourth, the Russian involvement in Syria; after the hasty pull out of the US from Syria, Russians are at the helm of affairs in Damascus, and Turkey wants to maintain a working relationship with Syria to expand its interests in the large spectrum of Middle Eastern Politics.
Turkey is also a NATO member, with NATO missiles on its soil. Turkey is also a part of western coalition forces that play a significant role in many conflict-ridden zones in West Asia, from Syria to Libya. Turkey has been trying to join the EU for a long time- perhaps if Ankara plays a vital role in the Ukrainian war, it might get into the EU’s good books.
Turkey’s unique location provides some leverage for international influence. Western sanctions on Russia hit the Turkish economy hard, and fully knowing the EU’s need to wean out Russian oil imports, Turkey is mending fences with Israel. Turkey is central to any pipeline deal from Israel or Azerbaijan, but Turkey knows any such project will be a short-lived affair as the EU will be hesitant to sign long-term contracts.
UAE and Israel are cognizant of the new realities in the region. Both have tried to normalize their relationship with Turkey as they know Turkey is the only state with a local partner that can contain Iranian proxies. Erdogan is a Turkish wolf in the sheep’s clothing, and he will likely try to follow rapprochement intertwined with propaganda that runs counter to his stated foreign policy directives.
Tehran has 80 million barrels of oil in stock now, which can stabilize the energy market given the hesitancy shown by the Saudis and UAE to increase its production- A win-win situation for both Iran and the US.
Despite engaging with everyone, Turkey is likely to emphasize two things; Improving a Precarious Economic Situation and Procuring Vital Military Technologies (Revising the F-35 deal or procuring an engine for its 5th gen aircraft from UK or Ukraine). Turkey has difficult choices to make, and the moves it can make Erdogan flounder in the future.
Qatar and Iran
Rhetorical Qatar is standing in with the Ukrainians and the Americans. There is no love lost between the Russians and Qataris. Russians have always been counterintuitive to the Qataris and have sided with UAE’s security concerns that further undermine Qatari foreign policy directives. Doha will have significant gains if the Ukrainian war drags on. Doha knows it cannot replace all the Russian LPG imports but can give a good alternative along with US and Azerbaijan to the EU. Qatar is circumspect in sanctioning Russian companies.
Tehran is betting on the resumption of oil exports as Russian action has brought the US much closer to Tehran. Tehran has 80 million barrels of oil in stock now, which can stabilize the energy market given the hesitancy shown by the Saudis and UAE to increase its production- A win-win situation for both Iran and the US. However, Tehran seems to be toeingthe Russian line and blaming the provocative actions of NATO headed by the US.
Some experts suggest because of the destabilization of the energy market, Tehran and the US are likely to gain additional arguments to reinstate the nuclear deal. If Russia stalls down the JCPOA talks, the Biden administration is also looking to lift sanctions on oil exports without Iran complying with JCPOA demands. India and China will be the biggest beneficiary of the resumption of Iranian oil exports.
Putin’s special operation has set the tone for diplomatic parlays, proxies, and regional peace and cooperation in West Asia.
With America’s pivot to Asia, regional dynamics have changed. Rivals are expediting reconciliations and are adjusting their policies to new realities. Iran is anticipating an opportunity to consolidate its gains in Yemen and beyond. Turkey is aspirational in winning some hearts in Europe through diplomatic outreach to Russia. Saudi and UAE are hedging their bets on Israel’s influence in US and EU to contain Iran.
Putin’s special operation has set the tone for diplomatic parlays, proxies, and regional peace and cooperation in West Asia. Balance of power is shifting, and now countries are opting for Machiavellian principles in their economic and security dilemmas.