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For the first time in twenty-five years, China, India, and Pakistan took a similar position on a global issue, choosing to abstain from voting on Ukraine, like so many others, including Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Even solid American allies like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been found “sitting on the fence” on Ukraine. Given this context, instead of rushing headlong into confronting and containing China, wisdom gleaned from past experience and contemporary geopolitical realities demand a review and reset in the U.S. approach to China.

https://nationalinterest.org/feature/us-china-policy-heading-towards-disaster-203510

Is Saudi Arabia sitting on the fence on Ukraine, because it's fearing military retaliation from Russia, or do they have something to gain from Russia invading Ukraine? How is Saudi Arabia benefiting from not making a choice in this situation if Saudi Arabia might make it European and American allies mad? What are the geopolitical and political considerations being made by the leadership in Saudi Arabia?

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    That would be from the Center for National Interest, the currently pro-Trump group that was founded by Richard Nixon after Watergate? Well, in any case, I believe that Saudi Arabia and the UAE actually voted in favor of the resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so that text is somewhat misleading.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 0:52
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    @Obie2.0: more importantly the article is penned by "Senator Mushahid Hussain [who] is Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan’s Defence Committee, a longtime visitor to China [...]". And yeah, he also studied in the US. But here he is trying to portray Pakistan as less isolated diplomatically (in re Russia) vis-a-vis other Sunni Islamic countries, so you're correct that he is being somewhat deliberately misleading. Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 1:08
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    Is Ukraine any more of a global issue than Yemen? This is a good comparison when it comes to KSA.
    – Morisco
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 7:01
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    @RogerVadim: By a reasonable number of measures, yes. The war in Ukraine involves a permanent member of the UNSC, a country that not only own nuclear weapons but also brandishes them. In addition, the economic sanctions in response to the Ukraine war have a far greater effect on the global economy, and is causing shifts in major global power blocs - NATO has welcomed two new members in reaction to Russia's threats.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 23:03
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    @MSalters Everything you counted is only because "West" (which owns all international institutions) decided to treat it that way. Had "West" decided to treat it like Yemen (where more than 60000 children died and nobody even batted an eye) we would now be living more or less normally, without fear and uncertainty for the future (except consequences of lockdowns - another questionable strategy), conflict would be over pretty quickly (compared to now) and there would be a lot less casualties. And really nothing would change for "West".
    – dosvarog
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 8:12

5 Answers 5

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Here is a frame challenge to the question: it isn't, necessarily.

The linked article moves smoothly from talking about countries that actually abstained from "voting on Ukraine," by which I take the author to mean at minimum the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to talking about Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates being "on the fence," giving the impression that this has something to do with that resolution. However, both countries, including Saudi Arabia, actually voted in favor of that resolution, rather than abstaining. It is perhaps worth noting that the author also seems to mistakenly claim that Indonesia abstained from that resolution: in reality, it also voted in favor. As such, Saudi Arabia does not seem to be adopting an equivocal position (unlike, say, India or China, both of which did abstain).

In fairness, it is worth noting that Saudi Arabia did abstain from another UN resolution, one that sought to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. One might consider that to qualify as "being on the fence" about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but in light of Saudi Arabia's vote to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this might be seen as more concern about the potential consequences for their own spotty human rights record in recent years. And, well, considering that Russia circulated a letter telling other countries that abstaining from the resolution would be treated similarly to voting in favor, this interpretation does seem more likely.

So, in short, Saudi Arabia is not really on the fence. In two separate votes, it took a position that it knew would alienate Russia. It would seem that the Saudi government may agree with the reasoning in the question, that it would have more to lose from alienating the United States, Europe, and other countries opposed to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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The quote may somewhat incorrectly lead someone to believe that KSA might have voted against the resolution (condemning Russia for invading Ukraine) when the KSA didn't do that. (KSA doing that would have been quite a shocker given how they and the US joined to liberate Kuwait after Saddam invaded, etc.)

The quote comes from a Pakistani Senator, who doesn't like the growing rift between China and the US, as that's forcing Pakistan into a hard choice. (One can only imagine how things would turn out in Pakistan without perennial bailouts from the IMF. On the other hand, Pakistan votes mostly with China at the UN and there is significant China-Pakistan economic cooperation.)

Besides that, in the subtext, the quote is also trying to defend Pakistan as in "look, other Sunni Islamic countries are acting [almost] like us" in re Russia-Ukraine. Which to some extent is true. KSA has been flirting with diversification of their arms suppliers. Particularly since the US has been less and less keen on supporting the KSA war efforts in Yemen.

And "the West" has generally given KSA a head shake on the human rights etc. (See KSA spats with Canada, the Khashoggi issue etc.) So the KSA are also looking for "no moralizing story, please" kind of arms suppliers. (For now, the KSA-China arm deals are much more certain (ballistic missiles, including tech transfer), while the KSA-Russia deals remain more clouded in mystery.)

On the other hand, KSA and Russia are competitors in the sale of oil, but this is actually a blessing in disguise, as the war in Ukraine is good for the Saudis in this regard, i.e. economically. One could jokingly ask: where are the high-minded European going to buy their oil from, since almost every country that's a seller thereof... KSA, Iran, Venezuela, and now Russia is morally problematic for them in some regards. And while the US is less dependent on foreign oil themselves, they are trying to convince the KSA to help out the Europeans, beside wanting to continue to sell arms there themselves. So this puts the KSA in a good position to drive a hard bargain with the West, while indeed keeping their other options open to some extent. As some (FT) have commented, expressions like "don't take us for granted" and "injured pride" can describe the KSA position here to some extent.

The recent Biden visit to KSA was also enabled by the truce in Yemen this spring, for which the US has praised the KSA. Yeah, Putin and MBS have shaken hands not so long ago, but Putin also announced a visit to Iran (the "other side" in the proxy war in Yemen) for July 19, so the KSA probably doesn't see relations with Russia as anything more than transactional. (KSA is generally insistent on having production lines on its soil, especially when it comes to Russian or Chinese equipment, and his appears to have stalled some of the deals, which looked impressive in principle, from Kornet anti-tank missiles, TOS-1A thermobaric rockets, or even S-400 SAM.)

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Saudi Arabia's opposition to side with the West in its opposition to Russia is caused by these 3 main reasons:

  • The Russian invasion of Ukraine led to higher oil prices, which benefits Saudi Arabia.
  • Russia and Saudi Arabia are both members of OPEC+, an organization that regulates oil prices, which are critical to the oil-based Saudi economy.
  • Saudi Arabian leadership came under international fire, including that from the West, over the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Meanwhile, Russian President Putin warmly greeted the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

REFERENCES:

Yesterday (15 May) Saudi Aramco, the state-owned company that is the world’s biggest oil exporter, reported its highest quarterly profits since listing its shares in 2019. Last week it overtook Apple as the world’s most valuable company. BP, ExxonMobil and Shell have likewise benefited significantly from the high oil prices aggravated by the war in Ukraine. After reaching a 14-year high of $139 a barrel in March, Brent crude oil is now trading at about $110 a barrel, roughly two thirds higher than a year ago.
...
The main beneficiary of Saudi Aramco’s profits is the Saudi Arabian government, which owns 94 per cent of the company’s stock. As countries and companies pat themselves on the back for their efforts to reduce their dependence on Russian fossil fuels, it is worth keeping in mind what’s happening in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is the biggest beneficiary of the war in Ukraine. By Philippa Nuttall, The New Statesman, 16 May 2022: https://www.newstatesman.com/environment/climate/2022/05/saudi-arabia-is-the-biggest-beneficiary-of-the-war-in-ukraine


Security, trade and oil ties make it hard for states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to openly condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Instead, they're hedging their bets.
...
At first, it seemed they couldn't decide whose side they were on. Earlier this week, a number of Middle Eastern nations, who are traditionally friendly with the United States and the European Union, didn't want to immediately or overtly condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But over the past few days this has changed. After initially appearing reluctant to join a United Nations resolution condemning the invasion and calling on Russia to withdraw all forces from Ukraine, almost all countries in the Middle East signed the resolution on Wednesday.

Of 193 UN member countries, 141 voted to support the motion. Another 35 nations abstained. Only five voted against the resolution.
...
All other Middle Eastern nations joined the rest of the world in condemning the Russian invasion. But why did it take so long for these alleged friends and allies of the West to make that decision?
...
Experts argue this balancing act has been going on for some time in the Middle East and is due to the slow US pivot away from the region, which started under former US President Barack Obama. Middle Eastern nations have realized they need a larger foreign policy friendship group.

That's also why, at least at first, a lot of Middle Eastern countries simply didn't see this as their fight.

They saw "the crisis as primarily engaging the interests of the US, EU and NATO, allowing them to remain safely on the sidelines," Gerald M. Feierstein, a senior vice president at the Washington-based think tank, the Middle East Institute, wrote in a briefing this week. They don't want to be "pressured to choose sides between their historic partnership with the US and their growing economic and political ties to Russia."

Guns, oil, money

There are three main areas in which ties have developed between Russia and the Middle East recently.
...
And finally, Russia and the Middle East share energy interests. In 2016, Russia joined an organization called OPEC+, which expanded the original Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries and added more members. In OPEC+, Russia collaborates with major players like Saudi Arabia to regulate oil supply, and thereby oil prices.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, it might even be a little personal.

In 2018, Saudi Arabian leadership was under fire for the gruesome murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Just two months later, at the G20 summit in Argentina, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a media storm by greeting the increasingly isolated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a peculiarly casual high-five and a huge smile.

Russia, Ukraine: Whose side are Middle Eastern countries really on? By Cathrin Schaer. DW, March 3, 2022: https://www.dw.com/en/russia-ukraine-whose-side-are-middle-eastern-countries-really-on/a-61003595

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The post asked:

Is Saudi Arabia sitting on the fence on Ukraine, because it's fearing military retaliation from Russia, or do they have something to gain from Russia invading Ukraine?

There are no retaliatory measures that Russia can possibly take against Saudi Arabia. There are however retaliatory measures that the US and EU can take against Saudi Arabia if they do not comply with the US imposed sanctions on Russia.

Saudi Arabia is undergoing momentous domestic reform and this is creating substantial investment opportunities in the Saudi economy for European companies. The Kingdom is looking to work with partners from Europe’s public and private sectors to create a modern Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government aims to significantly increase the €61 billion of annual trade with Europe. Currently, 28% of all imports to Saudi Arabia come from European countries, while a little under 10% of non-hydrocarbon-based Saudi exports go to EU countries. It sees partnerships with European companies as a rich source of economic diversification and is therefore making it much easier for European companies to come to invest in Saudi Arabia.

The above quote is about Saudi Arabia Vision 2030 a new National Investment Strategy (NIS)

The post also asked:

What are the geopolitical and political considerations being made by the leadership in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia has geopolitical tensions against Iran. The latter is an ally with Russia in a partnership with the Syrian regime. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni gulf states are in geopolitical opposition with Iran and consequently they do not appreciate the Russian support to Iran and Syria. Saudi Arabia relies on the US for arming its war against the houthies which is a Shiite militia in Yemen armed by Iran. Therefore, Saudi Arabia geopolitical interests are totally aligned with the US.

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    What's the EU going to do, boycott the import of Saudi oil? Stop the sale of French champagne? The US does have a much stronger negotiating position, I'll agree with that.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 23:15
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The Russian Federation is not like Iran or Syria. They have a permanent seat in the UNSC, are a defense technology vendor, and are a self-reliant country. Geopolitics and international relation can change at any moment. Therefore, KSA doesn't want to piss off Russia.

Secondly, the USA has a steady track record of somersaulting, scrapping allies, and changing positions.

Therefore, I believe, like other countries, KSA learned its lessons and is trying to diversify its relationships. As a result, they imported missiles from China and are in talks with the Russian Federation to purchase advanced weapons.

Finally, the Saudi case is not a unique one. India, a strategic ally of the USA, is purchasing oil from Russia and is aiding Russia in developing a new reserve currency that will compete with the USD.

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    – CDJB
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 7:54

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