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The arrival of strategic autonomy in the Gulf

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought to the forefront crevasses in the international order amid a larger unfolding of great-power competition. While the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) have acted in concert to isolate Russia on the world stage, others, such as India and the Gulf states are looking to try and maintain a level of neutrality. 

The idea of “strategic autonomy” is one that has resonated in India’s foreign policy for a long time and is seen as a newer incarnation of non-alignment by some. India’s former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, speaking in 2019, described strategic autonomy as issue-based alignment, rather than ideological based, with partner states. Managing this design of diplomacy by New Delhi was always tricky amid growing strategic ties with Washington DC, a historical relationship with Moscow, and a much more fractious bilateral with neighbouring Beijing.

However, it was the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s abstention from the United Nations (UN) Security Council vote against Russia along with India and China that caught attention recently, considering Abu Dhabi’s close partnership with the US. Saudi Arabia, moreover, refused to abandon its Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)-Plus agreement with Russia by ramping up oil production to lower prices, citing OPEC’s longstanding policy of not adjusting production in response to geopolitical shocks. Although all six Gulf states voted against Russia at the UN General Assembly, their refusal to take an overt stance against Moscow considering their historical security partnerships with the US has caught many observers by surprise. 

Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s ambivalent responses to the Ukraine war are partly driven by their perception that the parameters of their security partnership with the US have shifted. Having withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has largely turned the leaf on the Global War on Terror and is now focused on its great-power rivals in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia.

Although the US continues to maintain a robust military presence in the Gulf, it has become less inclined to play the role of security guarantor for the Gulf states. This became obvious when the US failed to retaliate against Iran for attacking Saudi Aramco in September 2019. Washington’s slow response, from the UAE’s perspective at least, to the January 2022 attacks that the Houthis claimed on Abu Dhabi has cast further doubt on the US’s reliability as a strategic partner. Although Washington has helped its Gulf partners bolster their air and missile defences, it no longer aims to deter Iran from launching attacks against them in the first place.

In addition to a receding security partnership, the gap separating Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s core security interests in West Asia from US priorities in the region has also widened. 

On Iran, the US has prioritised reaching an agreement with Iran on its nuclear programme without doing much to address the concerns of the Arab Gulf states over Tehran’s short-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or its support for armed groups in the region. 

In Yemen, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE are focused on pushing back against the Houthi offensive in the energy-rich provinces of Marib and Shabwa to prevent them from winning the war, the US has curtailed its support to the Saudi-led coalition and, along with Europe, views Yemen through a humanitarian lens, ignoring the security interests of its Gulf partners.

With the US no longer willing to play the role of security guarantor to the Arab Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to find ways to address the military imbalances they face against Iran. Although both Gulf states outspend Iran and boast of advanced air forces, they nevertheless are at a disadvantage when it comes to cyber, combat UAVs, and missiles. 

While Western partners have been reluctant to transfer combat UAVs or missiles to the Gulf states, China has been more willing to share these capabilities and know-how with the Saudis and Emiratis. Like India, the Gulf states have also announced ambitious targets for indigenous defence industrial development, with Saudi Arabia aiming to spend 50% of its military expenditure locally by 2030. Nevertheless, the Gulf states remain heavily dependent on imports of Western arms.

Some Western states and analysts are trying to impose a zero-sum frame on the Gulf states as the competition with Russia and, potentially China, escalates into confrontation. However, the Cold War-era vocabulary of blocs, alignments, and hedging are inadequate to make sense of the Gulf states’ choices. Today, regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE can act with greater agency than during the Cold War when many Third World nations were still under colonial rule. 

Contrary to US or Eurocentric analyses, the Gulf states are not hedging by cultivating Russia or China as alternative security partners to the US. Rather, the Gulf states have built networks of partnerships involving China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Israel, etc in a bid to diversify their foreign relations and acquire greater autonomy. Crucially, the Gulf states have grown weary of being dragged into great-power confrontations. While they may not be economically or militarily dependent on Russia, they are worried about setting precedents that they would ill-afford to uphold if China invades Taiwan one day.

While sharing a preoccupation with strategic self-determination, India’s and the Gulf states’ conceptions of strategic autonomy are shaped by their respective positions and historical trajectories. Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and the West’s unprecedented weaponisation of globalisation are imposing difficult choices on regional powers that are keen on preserving their freedom to manoeuvre in an increasingly polarised world.

Kabir Taneja is fellow, Observer Research Foundation and visiting fellow, International Institute for Strategic Studies. Hasan Alhasan is research fellow for Middle East Policy, International Institute for Strategic Studies

The views expressed are personal



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