March 21, 2022 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1630

Saudi Arabia, UAE Refuse To Side With U.S. Against Russia Due To U.S. Refusal To Side With Them Against Iran

March 21, 2022 | By H. Varulkar*
Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1630

Since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have avoided taking a clear stance on the conflict and endorsing the position of the U.S., their major ally, as they might have been expected to do. The official statements issued by the two countries were diplomatically worded and called on both sides in the conflict to resolve their differences through dialogue.[1] This reserved position was also apparent in editorials of these countries' state dailies, which refrained from denouncing Russia and its actions. As the days passed, it became clearer and clearer that the two countries refused to condemn Russia, due to their growing political, military and economic ties with it, and also due to their assessment that Russia is likely to become a prominent power in the new world order that is currently taking shape. Saudi Arabia and the UAE did vote in favor of condemning Russia at the UN General Assembly on March 2, 2022, but the UAE abstained from a similar vote on February 25 at the Security Council, which was seen as an act of refusing to side with the U.S.

Another reason for these countries' position is that their relations with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden have been strained from the start, just like their relations with the Obama administration at the time. This is due to Biden's attitude towards Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, and especially due to his lenient stance vis-à-vis Iran and his efforts to sign a nuclear agreement with it, similar to the one formulated by the Obama administration in 2015. As the nuclear talks between Iran and the U.S. in Vienna progressed and the sides reportedly drew closer to a deal, the tension between the U.S. and the Gulf states steadily mounted. In fact, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are increasingly disappointed with the U.S., which they feel has abandoned its allies and is disregarding the growing threat posed to them by Iran.

A conspicuous sign of these Gulf states' strained relations with the U.S. is their insistence on maintaining the agreement between the OPEC+ countries (which include Russia)[2] and refrain from increasing oil production. This displeases the U.S. administration, which wants them to increase production in the coming period in order to halt the rise in the price of oil, which is hurting the economies of the U.S. and Europe.[3] Saudi Arabia and the UAE's anger at the U.S. was revealed on March 3, 2022, when Emirati Ambassador to Washington Yousef Al-Otaiba said, in an unusually blunt statement, that the relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were "going through a stress test."[4] The same day, the American magazine The Atlantic published an interview with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, in which he spoke very bluntly about his country's relations with the U.S. He said, for example, that he is not interested in Biden's opinion of him and that nobody has the right to interfere in Saudi Arabia's internal affairs or dictate to it. He also hinted that Saudi Arabia is prepared to reduce its ties with the U.S. and boost its relations with China instead.[5] The tension increased on March 8, when it was reported that bin Salman and Emirati Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed had both refused to accept phone calls from Biden about increasing oil production.[6]

Reports in the following days indicated a further deterioration in the relations. On March 15, the Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia was considering accepting yuan instead of dollars for some of its oil sales, which could strengthen the Chinese currency and undermine the dominance of the U.S. dollar in the global oil market.[7] On March 16, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a bid to persuade them to increase the production of oil in order to lower its price. However, many reports state that the visit was not a success and that both countries clarified that they would maintain the OPEC+ agreement.[8] Two days later, on March 18, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made an official visit to the UAE, and received a warm welcome. The visit was regarded as an Emirati act of defiance against the U.S., which opposes restoring Assad's legitimacy.[9] The Emirati daily Al-Arab stated that the message conveyed to the U.S. by this visit is that the UAE formulates its positions based on its own interests without considering America's opinion, just as America adopts positions based on its own interests without considering the opinion of the UAE.[10]

Arab media figure and political analyst 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor of the online daily, wrote that the UAE and Saudi Arabia, America's main allies in the Gulf, have started to rebel against its hegemony and are gradually joining the Russian-Chinese axis, whose influence is on the rise. Their refusal to accept the phone calls from Biden, he said, was no less than "a slap in the face" that indicates that these countries "have begun to shake off the American cloak and base their relations with the superpowers, and especially with the U.S., on equality and mutual respect, rather than on subordination and surrender," as has been the case until now.[11]

The two countries' strained relations with the U.S. were also reflected in their press. Articles claimed that, for a year now, America has been hostile towards Saudi Arabia and the UAE and treating them with arrogance and spite, and that these countries were no longer willing to tolerate this. The main reasons for the strained relations, and for the two countries' refusal to side with the U.S. in the Ukraine crisis, they said, was its disregard of the growing threat posed by Iran to their security and its insistence on continuing the talks to renew the nuclear agreement with it despite their concerns. The articles claimed further that, since Biden became president, the U.S. has been hesitant and appeasing in its relations with Iran. As examples of this they mentioned the decision to revoke the Houthis' terrorist designation, the disregard of the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the cancelling of the deal to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE promoted by the former U.S. administration.

In light of all this, the articles added, Saudi Arabia and the UAE feel that they can no longer count on the U.S. and place their interests and security in its hands, and have started cultivating their relations with Russia and China instead. The U.S. cannot expect them to support it and even take part in its economic and diplomatic war against Russia, they argued, when it refuses to side with them against the threat posed by "the Russia of the region," namely Iran. "[Allies' defense of each other's] interests must be mutual, or should not exist at all," they said.

The following are translated excerpts from some of these articles.

Haitham Al-Zubaidi, Editor Of Emirati Daily Al-Arab: U.S. Expects Us To Support It When It Abandons Us And Is Hostile To Us

In a scathingly critical article published March 7, 2022, Haitham Al-Zubaidi, chief editor and board chairman of the London-based Emirati daily Al-Arab, stated that, after a year in which the U.S. pursued a hostile and arrogant policy towards Saudi Arabia and the UAE, these countries have now realized that the correct option is to ignore it. He wrote:

"Abu Dhabi abstained from the [UN Security Council] vote on condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine… We do not know exactly how America reacted to the UAE's position, but on Thursday morning [March 3], the statements of the Emirati ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba, were more than clear when he expressed the UAE's displeasure with the Biden administration's stance...

"At [this] fateful historic juncture, the U.S. administration has decided to largely relinquish its responsibility in the Gulf… It not only took this position on Gulf security, but displayed hostility towards the influential Gulf countries, hostility that is a free [gift to] Iran and plays into its hands of this country, of the political Islam organizations and of their well-known supporters.

"Later that day, the Saudi news agency published the transcript of the interview with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman… [It was] an honest interview with The Atlantic magazine, [in which he] settled scores with the Biden administration…

"[The UAE and Saudi Arabia] are America's two main allies in the region. A year ago the Biden administration launched a media attack against them, yet they remained silent. We all remember the show of force made by the administration in its early days when it published the intelligence report on the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"With unusual naivete, the [U.S.] administration started to differentiate between two Saudi leaderships, maintaining contacts with King Salman bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz while ignoring Crown Prince Muhamad bin Salman. The Biden administration's hostility towards the UAE was subtler, but what can it mean [when the U.S.]  torpedoes a strategic deal like the F-35 jets deal, or removes the Houthis of the list of terrorist organizations? The UAE, [in response,] took measures and changed some of the parameters of its regional and international policy, adopting a 'zero problems' [policy], with focus on a broad [perception of] Middle East security, in which Israel plays a role. Abu Dhabi [also] increased its openness towards China and Russia. When the U.S. went even further [in its hostility], we saw the UAE's abstention [in the Security Council vote] and  the blunt statements made by Ambassador Al-'Otaiba, one of the people most versed in the ins and outs of U.S.-Emirati relations.   

"The scathing tone taken by the Americans for a year, their irresponsible arrogance towards their allies, their unjustified rapprochement with Iran [in an effort] to renew the nuclear agreement [with it] [all] indicate a cooling of the relations. But the scathing tone was also accompanied by the feeble American position that the world is witnessing, [evident in] the Taliban's entry into Kabul [last] summer even before the Americans left it. What we saw [there] was reminiscent of the humiliating [American] withdrawal from Saigon in the 1970s. And in the autumn, the crisis with Ukraine began to emerge…

"America's weakness [in the Ukraine crisis] was reflected in its inability to present a military option to deter [Russia], but a more serious aspect of its helplessness was the loss of control over global energy prices. After the pathetic attempt to propose the fairytale of the Qatari alternative and claim that the gas provided by Doha would make up for [the loss of] the Russian gas, the market reacted to the war with a significant rise in the price of oil.

"The American helplessness was [also] manifested in the inability to persuade OPEC+ to increase [oil] production. OPEC+ has become a coalition [of countries] that are furious with America's policy and reject [its] pressures and extortion. It is a coalition that understands how weak the U.S. has become and that it would be a mistake to count on Washington as a deterrent power with effective influence in the Gulf or as a power that can scare the Russians in Europe.

"The interview given by Prince Muhammad bin Salman to the Atlantic magazine [caused] a furor because of the character and the implications of his statements. But the storm [it sparked] on the ground was simple and straightforward: [the price of] oil now stands at $120 [a barrel]…

"[Now] the scathing Washington is [suddenly] at a loss for words. It promised to release at least half of its Strategic Petroleum Reserves,[12] yet prices went up rather than down. The intelligence report on the Khashoggi affair and the plans for expanding NATO into Ukraine carry a serious lesson for the U.S., namely that it cannot take a hostile position towards a country [i.e., Saudi Arabia] and then expect this country to bail it out by increasing its oil production. [Ensuring] the security of the Gulf is not compatible with appeasing Iran. The [2019] attack on Abqaiq [in Saudi Arabia] and the drone [attacks] on the UAE are examples [of this]…

"Biden served many years in Congress and eight years as vice president to Barack Obama. He has no shortage of experience and knowledge. Therefore, his position on the security of the Gulf, on Iran and on [matters of] energy cannot be explained as anything but a deliberate policy. This impression is what motivates the positions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE towards the present [U.S.] administration. This administration understands only the language of being ignored, a language [that says], 'I don't care what Biden wants to know about me.'[13] What the U.S. President needs to know is now conveyed to him through diplomatic messages in the Security Council and through indications like the amount of oil in the market, and its price. All other details are up to Moscow in Ukraine."[14]

The West refuses to hear about "the crimes of the Iranian militias" (Al-Iqtisadiyya, Saudi Arabia, March 21, 2022)

Emirati Daily Al-Khaleej: U.S. Accuses Russia Of The Crimes It Commits Itself

An editorial of the Emirati state daily Al-Khaleej accused the U.S. and the West of hypocrisy, saying that they denounce Russia for violating the sovereignty of Ukraine, while they themselves have often violated the sovereignty of other countries: "When the war broke out in Ukraine there was much talk about the violation of international law. Voices in the West spoke of this violation by Russia and of the need to punish it because its actions threatened global peace and security… These accusations are based on the claim that Russia violated the sovereignty of another country and declared war on it in contravention of the principles governing international relations…

"If sovereignty is a sacred right that constitutes the accepted foundation of international relations, and countries regard it as the basis for their mutual relations, as required by international law – and also by the UN Charter, which likewise emphasizes the principle of sovereign equality – then the [Western] superpowers [also] violate this principle, for their perception of international law is selective and arbitrary, and is determined by the interests of whichever country has the power…

"Even assuming that Russia did violate international law – despite the justifications it provided, which pertain to defending its national security, and despite the West's disregard of its demands – [it must be said that] these [Western] countries have themselves violated and continue to violate international law and the sovereignty of other countries. They also keep silent about violations perpetrated by their friends and allies, and so the principle of sovereign equality collapses.

"In this context we have the right to wonder: Where were international law and the principle of sovereign equality when the U.S. invaded Iraq and occupied it in 1993, destroyed its infrastructure, killed over a million Iraqis, sowed terror in the Arab region with no legal justification or international mandate, on the basis of false and misleading pretexts? Why did [the U.S.] occupy Afghanistan and ignite a war there that lasted 20 years? And before that, why did the war in Vietnam break out? Why was there an attempt to invade Cuba and why did [the U.S.] impose an embargo on it that continues to this day? Why were an embargo and sanctions imposed on Venezuela and other [countries]? Why was there a series of coups in many South American countries just because successive American administrations didn't approve of their regimes? There are hundreds of other examples but no time or space to list them all.

"The truth is that violations of international law are not limited to Russia, which, [moreover], explained its reasons [for invading Ukraine]. There are [additional] countries that do not feel obligated to respect the principles [of international law] in their international relations and believe they are entitled to impose their specific laws in accordance with their interests, however mistaken and baseless their excuses may be."[15]

Biden tries to stop oil prices from soaring (Al-Arab, London, March 7, 2022)

Saudi Journalist: "When That Senile [President] Leaves The White House, The U.S. Will Rush To Restore Its Ties With Saudi Arabia"; We Are Strengthening Our Relations With Russia And China

In a March 11, 2022 column in the Saudi state daily 'Okaz, journalist Sa'ad Al-Sowayan referred to the blunt statements made by Crown Prince bin Salman about American-Saudi relations in his interview with The Atlantic. Al-Sowayan said that the message clearly conveyed in the interview was that Saudi Arabia would no longer tolerate American arrogance, and that there are alternatives to the kingdom's relations with the U.S. He wrote: "What grabbed my attention [in bin Salman's interview with The Atlantic] was his answers regarding Saudi Arabia's relations with the U.S. and his own relationship with [President] Biden. These were forceful [statements], which clarified that Saudi Arabia has matured. It is no longer hostage to the Democrats' arrogance and is not interested in relations with the U.S. if the latter is not prepared to treat it as an equal. Thanks to Vision 2030 and its implications, we are in a position to act freely in the international arena. Everyone has started courting us and wishes to strengthen relations with us. This interview will cause the Democrats to wring their hands in regret over the opportunities they missed [in the relations] with us. Saudi Arabia is no longer cowed by [the American] hostility…

"Biden must not be elected for another term in office, for he has simply neglected America's interests. In fact, his foolish policy may prevent the Democrats from winning the presidency for decades to come. When that senile [president] leaves the White House, the U.S. will rush to restore its relations with Saudi Arabia, and at that point Saudi Arabia will be in a stronger position to determine the character of these relations.

"Anyone who has been following the situation in the international arena in the last few years has noticed Saudi Arabia's rapidly warming relations with Russia and China. The best thing about the relations with these two prominent countries is that their power is on the rise, and their relations with other [countries] are pragmatic, balanced and equal, based on shared interests. They do not try to impose their values and moral principles on others. Prince Muhammad [bin Salman] has hinted more than once that strengthening and developing the relations with these two powers, as alternative to the relations with the U.S., is certainly a viable option.

"Saudi Arabia's economic power, and the unity of the Saudi [people] around [bin Salman's] leadership, widen [Saudi Arabia's] options in the international arena, so much so that every country will be happy to form ties with it. The rapid development of culture and social openness in Saudi Arabia will stop anyone who from boasting about their values and behaviors and presenting them as proof of their social and cultural superiority over us.

"I do not presume to set out Saudi Arabia's foreign policy in this article; I leave this to the relevant authorities. But Saudi Arabia's independent decision-making is important to me and to every Saudi citizen. I regard the Crown Prince's latest interview as a strong indication that Saudi Arabia of the [2030] Vision refuses to be dictated to and that, from now on, we will not tolerate any kind of treatment but the treatment we deserve…"[16]

Russian bear causes "Western influence" to erode (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, March 16, 2022)

Lebanese Journalist In Saudi Daily: The Real Cold War Is Between U.S. And Its Allies; Allies' Defense Of Each Other's Interests Must Be Mutual, Or Should Not Exist At All

In two recent articles, Lebanese journalist Nadim Koteich, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, explained that the UAE and Saudi Arabia feel the U.S. has abandoned them and cannot be relied upon, and have therefore turned to China and Russia. He even described the relations with the U.S. as a new cold war, and added that the U.S. cannot now expect these Gulf countries to support it in the Ukraine crisis. He wrote:

"America's traditional allies feel that [their] interests are being systematically ignored, and this makes them less willing to stand up as one and defend the interests of the U.S. There is no need to mention the security incidents and the strategic attacks on the interests of these countries, which were met with no more than condemnations on America's part, or with cosmetic measures. This is where the real new cold war lies: between America and its allies, which are [now] ready and more willing to diversify their alliances and relations [with the powers] in the spheres of trade, economy and armament.

"If the U.S. wants the Arab countries and Israel to firmly stand beside it and support its priorities and interests, it too must stand with them and support their priorities and interests. The main shared priority of these countries is a judicious handling of [the issue of] Iran's nuclear program. As far as these countries are concerned, Iran is the Russia of the region, and it represents everything Russia represents for Europe and the U.S….

"The Middle East has its own Russia. As long as the West is not party to [the efforts] to make Iran more rational, restrain its behavior and raise the price it must pay for its aggression, those who can now play a strategic role in resolving the West's problems [i.e., Saudi Arabia and the UAE] will not stand by its side. That is the truth that emerges from the Ukraine crisis, which is reshaping the world, including the Middle East and its [foreign] relations…"[17]

In another article, published on the Lebanese website, Koteich wrote in a similar vein: "'Simply, I do not care.' This was Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's blunt response when The Atlantic Editor[-in-Chief] Jeffrey Goldberg asked him whether Biden misunderstands something about him. [18] Regarding U.S.-Saudi relations, the Prince said, 'It's a subject that depends on him [Biden]… It’s up to him to think about the interests of America...Where is the potential in the world today? It's in Saudi Arabia. And if you want to miss it, I believe other people in the East are going to be super happy.' That's what he said, clearly referring to the development of Saudi Arabia's relations with China…

"The crisis of Russia's invasion of Ukraine shed additional light on the deep changes taking place in the region. The UAE, which has assumed the rotating presidency of the Security Council, chose to abstain from the vote rather than support the decision to condemn Russia… Saudi Arabia conveyed signals in its own way. Following a phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi King Salman bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz on February 10, 2022, the official Saudi news agency SPA released a statement which deliberately clarified that King Salman had stressed [to Biden] 'the importance of maintaining the equilibrium and stability of the oil market,' and noted the role of the agreement between OPEC+ and Russia, which he described as 'historic,' while reemphasizing the need to preserve it. The meaning of this is that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to increase [oil] production in order to lower prices.

"If there really is a [new] cold war, then it is between the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East, whose trust in the U.S. is eroding. In 1994, in accordance with the so-called Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal of 1,800 warheads, in exchange for security assurances agreed upon by the U.S., Britain and Russia. What has happened to Ukraine proves… that whoever tries to cover himself in an American blanket remains naked, as the late Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak allegedly said once.

"The countries of the region have already experienced what is happening in Ukraine. The administration of the previous president, Donald Trump, didn't lift a finger after the Iranian attack on the Saudi Aramco [oil] facilities in Abqaiq. The U.S. believed that the attack was directed [solely] against Saudi Arabia, and not against the U.S. and its interests, while discarding all the principles of Western defense of the kingdom [that have been established] since the Quincy Agreement between [Saudi Arabia's] founder, king 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Sa'ud and American president Franklin Roosevelt in 1945.[19] The U.S. also met almost none of the demands [for security assistance] made by the UAE following the Houthi attack on it, but sufficed with almost symbolic gestures, for the [American] missile destroyer [USS Cole, which Biden deployed to the UAE], was in the area anyway, and the [American] F-22 jets were supposed to land in each of America's ally countries in the region, such as Jordan and Israel, so diverting them to Al-Dhafra air base in Abu Dhabi was [just] a gesture…

"The decision-makers in Israel stress that the U.S. treats them like children when it comes to the issue of Iran's nuclear [program], and tells them what it thinks Israel's interest should be, in contradiction to their own opinion. The Emirati and Saudi position on the nuclear agreement that is about to be signed [with Iran] is no different from Israel's, and the gist of that position is that Iran's role in undermining [the stability of] the region and cultivating militias that are unrestrained by the sovereign [authorities] in the countries where they operate, is just as dangerous as the nuclear [issue], if not more so. Moreover, this position regarding the nuclear agreement intensified following Russia's nuclear brinkmanship since its invasion of Ukraine…

"Since [the time of] the Obama administration, America's relations with the Middle East have been suffering from a severe erosion of trust…, which is likely to continue after Biden's [term in office], for reasons having to do with the perception of the status and importance of the region for U.S. interests…

"The Ukraine crisis has presented the U.S. with the challenge of changing its attitude towards the region and has revealed how significant China and Russia have become in the considerations of [America's] traditional allies… The region is saying out loud that the U.S. has no moral status that entitles it to make decisions on behalf of its allies, and no economic status that entitles it to drag the economies of its allies after its lead, beyond the fair rules of mutual [trade]. The region is also saying that, the moment the U.S. rashly withdrew from the Middle East, Russia and China became Middle Eastern countries on the military, security, technology and infrastructure levels. Saudi Arabia is saying loud and clear: [allies' defense of each other's] interests must be mutual, or should not exist at all."[20]


* H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI.


[1] February 27, 2022; Al-Khaleej (UAE), February 26, 2022; Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), March 2, 2022; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 3, 2022.

[2] OPEC+ is an entity comprising the OPEC countries plus ten other oil-exporting countries, among them Russia.

[3] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 28, 2022; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 1, 3, 2022;, February 28, 2022, March 1, 2022;, March 10, 2022.

[4], March 3, 2022.

[6] The Wall Street Journal (U.S.), March 8, 2022.

[7] The Wall Street Journal (U.S.), March 15, 2022. It should be noted that the website claimed the same day, citing a knowledgeable Saudi source, that the Wall Street Journal report was false and that this option was never discussed.

[8], March 15, 2022; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 16, 2022; Al-Arab (London), March 16, 17, 2022;, March 17, 19, 2022.

[9] U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington was “profoundly disappointed and troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar al-Assad, who remains responsible and accountable for the death and suffering of countless Syrians, the displacement of more than half of the prewar Syrian population and the arbitrary detention and disappearance of over 150,000 Syrian men, women and children” (The New York Times, U.S., March 18, 2022). He added that the U.S. did not support attempts to re-legitimize Assad or attempts by others to normalize relations with him., March 19, 2022.

[10] Al-Arab (UAE), Al-Watan (UAE), March 20, 2021.

[11], March 9, 2022.

[12] Apparently a reference to statements made by U.S. President Joe Biden in a February 24, 2022 press conference, in which he announced that the U.S. was "actively working with countries around the world to evaluate a collective release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves of major energy-consuming countries." See, February 24, 2022.

[13] A reference to a comment made by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in his March 3, 2022 interview with The Atlantic. Asked whether Biden misunderstands something about him, he answered that he did not care.

[14] Al-Arab (London), March 7, 2022.

[15] Al-Khaleej (UAE), March 10, 2022.

[16] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), March 9, 2022.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 8, 2022.

[18] The Atlantic (U.S.), March 3, 2022.

[19] A memorandum of understandings signed by the two leaders on board the USS Quincy in February 1945.

[20], March 7, 2022.

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