The wave of protests that, since the tragic killing of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the moral police are shaking the Iranian regime at a critical juncture, is overshadowing the emerging of strategic political development. Recent decisions by regional heavyweight are indeed highlighting the traction that the new non-aligned movement is gaining since the start of conflict in Ukraine.
This trend came out already from the abstention of the UAE over a UN Security Council resolution vote condemning Russia’s aggression in the early days of the war. The move, which came as a shock for Western partners and allies that are still investing significant resources to provide security to the Gulf countries, was an early indication of the hedging strategy adopted by local leaders not necessarily reassured by the foreign policy choices of the USA, unfortunately prone to change substantially after every election cycle and in-between.
The case of Saudi Arabia indicates a political and diplomatic decoupling between Washington and the region, accelerating after the start of the war in Ukraine. The conflict has so far been considered by regional leaders as an opportunity to shore up support and consolidate legitimacy at home and abroad in times of impelling energy needs, no matter foreign critiques concerning human rights.
Consequently, US President Joe Biden had to revise his previous positionsabout its Saudi policy, despite the fact that this effort did not prevented Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MbS) to align more closely with Russia in the OPEC +. The decision to cut oil output by 2 million b/d (barrels per day) announced by the energy cartel on the 5th of October does certainly not reflect the interests of both the USA and its European allies, already facing an economic recession due to the global energy and inflation crisis.
Just recently appointed Prime Minister in an unusual concentration of power, now de jure ruler, MbS is certainly aware of the risks of being perceived as siding too closely with Moscow. Nervous energy markets and Saudi national interests are so far giving him a political and diplomatic leeway, as well as this new non-alignment 2.0, that comes with the promise of extending Riyadh’s neutralism beyond carbon emission.
At the same time, it is worth noting that the balanced stance adopted by Saudi Arabia is also benefitting Western interests as well. The key role played by MbS himself, alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, in the exchange of more than 250 prisoners of war, including American and British captives, between Russia and Ukraine in late September gives a taste of the diplomatic skills of the Crown Prince, able to exert influence and leverage over both warring sides.
Moreover, the visit in Riyadh of the German chancellor Olaf Scholz, who also called at Abu Dhabi and Doha, highlights the transactional aspect of the new Saudi course, as a reinforced energy partnership between Berlin and Riyadh would likely come at the expanses of an arms ban imposed by Germany in 2018 after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate of Istanbul. Scrapping the ban would likely pave the way for a US$34 million deal in weapons and equipment for Eurofighter and Tornado jets, part of a European cooperation agreement including Italy, Spain and the UK.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region