By M. K. Bhadrakumar
The fact that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states held a joint ministerial meeting with their Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Saudi capital of Riyadh at this point in time in global politics conveys a powerful message in itself. To drive home the message in no uncertain terms, the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said at a press conference following the ministerial on Wednesday that the GCC member-countries share a common stance with respect to the crisis in Ukraine.
“The countries of the Persian Gulf share a common stance regarding the Ukrainian crisis and its negative consequences, especially with regard to the food security of other countries,” Al Saud said. For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the media that “the GCC countries understand the nature of the conflict between Russia and the West.”
Earlier, during a bilateral with Lavrov who was on a 2-day visit, Al Saud said the “the kingdom’s position regarding the crisis in Ukraine is based on the principles of international law and support for efforts aimed at achieving a political solution to the crisis.” After the meeting, Lavrov said the GCC countries will not join the West in imposing sanctions on Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine.
In his words, “Aspects of the international situation, which are connected with the events unfolded by the West around Ukraine, are well understood by our partners from the Gulf Cooperation Council states.” Lavrov added, “We appreciate and reaffirmed today once again the balanced position that they take towards this issue at international forums, and in practice, refusing to join the illegitimate, unilateral Western sanctions that were introduced against Russia.”
Lavrov said Moscow and Gulf countries intended to further develop their partnership in sharp contrast with the growing tensions between Russia and the US and its European allies. After meeting with the top diplomats of the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman in Riyadh, Lavrov said, “We reaffirmed our focus on the comprehensive development of our partnership, including in the new conditions that are emerging in the world economy in the context of the policies of our Western colleagues.”
Looking ahead, Lavrov expressed satisfaction that “We reaffirmed our focus on the comprehensive development of our partnership, including in the new conditions that are emerging in the world economy in the context of the policies of our Western colleagues.”
The timing of the GCC-Russia ministerial and Lavrov’s visit to Riyadh is highly significant at a juncture when the Biden Administration is pulling out all the stops to repair the US’ fractured relationship with Saudi Arabia ever since Candidate Biden famously christened the Kingdom as a “Pariah state” and the Washington establishment launched a concerted campaign to defame the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally over the killing of the ex-CIA consultant Jamal Khashoggi. The latest reports in the US media have spoken of Biden’s interest to personally make amends with the Saudi Prince by visiting Riyadh and meeting with him. This is after Biden’s refusal to speak with the Prince so far or to have any dealings with the latter in any form! The volte-face in Biden’s approach to Saudi Arabia is to be attributed to the realisation in Washington that to isolate Russia and weaken that country permanently, there is imperative need to gain control of the world oil market, which in turn necessitates the break-up of the Russian-Saudi concord regulating world oil output in the recent years. In a nutshell, Saudi Arabia has overnight become a “swing state” in the US’ strategic calculus whose stance on the Ukraine conflict is going to be of momentous consequence to the Biden administration’s agenda to weaken Russia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s potential as a “swing state” has been in the making ever since 2006 when late King Abdullah used his first trip outside the Middle East since becoming the Saudi ruler to visit China and India. It was the first visit by a Saudi king to China since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1990, and the first such visit to India since 1955. Perceptive observers saw the Saudi monarch’s tour presaging an era of reduced influence for the United States in Riyadh and of Saudi friendship with a widening spectrum of nations in Asia. That shift, emanating from the desire to move away from a mono-cultural situation having one big friend America, one big product (oil), and based on one big idea, the Islamic idea was proceeding at glacial pace through the next decade until Prince Mohammed bin Salman was appointed as the Crown Prince in June 2017, making him heir presumptive to the throne.Under Prince Mohammed’s leadership, the KIngdom’s transformation began accelerating, and acquired an ideological mooring of Saudi nationalism. The strengthening of relations with Russia and the signing of an agreement in 2016 to cooperate with Russia in global oil markets in a matrix that subsequently came to be known as OPEC+ was an early manifestation of that shift. It coincided with launch of the Vision 2030 carrying the Crown Prince’s imprimatur, embodying the country’s strategic orientation for the next 15 years. From a historical perspective, Vision 2030 can be regarded as marking the abandonment of the Saudi reliance on a rentier economy. In the foreign policy sphere, its impact came to be felt in a steady assertion of the Kingdom’s strategic autonomy.
Against such a tumultuous geopolitical backdrop, it comes as no surprise that the US’ confrontation with Russia finds Saudi Arabia in the eye of the storm. Lavrov’s trip to Saudi Arabia rang alarm bells in Washington. On the eve of Lavrov’s arrival in Riyadh, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a call with Al Saud ostensibly to discuss Yemen and other regional issues. The state department readout said inter alia, “The Secretary (Blinken) underscored the importance of international support for Ukraine as it defends its sovereignty and territorial integrity and emphasised the need for a global response to the food security crisis resulting from President Putin’s brutal war.” Plainly put, Blinken canvassed for the support of the Gulf states to the US-led “global response” to the temporary food crisis, which aims to put the blame on Russia’s doorstep for creating the current shortage of wheat. Evidently, the Saudi leadership hasn’t fallen for the trap. At any rate, under the UN auspices, Russia and Turkey have begun work on arranging humanitarian corridors through the waters of the Black Sea, which have been mined by Ukraine. The UN Secretary-General has appealed to the US to ease sanctions to allow Russian exports of food grain to the world market. To deflect attention from Lavrov’s successful trip to Riyadh, the US-led “information war” has concocted the fake news that Saudi Arabia is “reportedly considering” Russia’s removal from the OPEC+. Lavrov’s talks in Riyadh underscore that on the contrary, Russia and Saudi Arabia are signalling that OPEC+ is indeed going strong. The message cannot be lost on Washington.