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The war in Ukraine highlights strained relations between the U.S. and Middle East

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is exposing cracks in U.S. relationships in the Middle East. For 50 years, Saudi Arabia has accepted only the dollar for global oil sales. That helps keep U.S. currency strong internationally. But the Saudis say they could accept the yuan for Chinese oil sales. To learn more, our colleague Steve Inskeep talked to Giorgio Cafiero. He's the CEO at Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy firm based here in Washington.

GIORGIO CAFIERO: I think there's good reason to think that this is more about signaling and messaging and that it's very possible that the Saudis are not seriously considering doing this. But this is about sort of gaining leverage and letting Washington know that Saudi Arabia has other options.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Well, the United States looks at Saudi Arabia, it seems to me, and we hear about the downsides from the U.S. point of view, that they're an absolute monarchy, that they've notably killed journalists, that they have been a source of cheap oil and have helped stabilize the world oil markets, but they sometimes decline to intervene, as they seem to be doing now. What are the benefits to the United States of a continued, close relationship with the Saudis?

CAFIERO: Well, beyond oil, there's also other factors, too. The Biden administration is obviously pursuing efforts aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear accord that Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of. We don't know if the talks in Vienna will result in the JCPOA being revived or not. But in any event, the United States is going to continue to see Iran and its regional activities as a big threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East. And the United States is going to continue to see Saudi Arabia and other GCC states as bulwarks against the expansion and consolidation of Iranian influence in the Arab world. And I think that's an important factor we have to keep in mind.

INSKEEP: Were you surprised that a good number of countries in that region have not been as supportive of the United States as the U.S. may have wanted? The UAE abstained rather than voting with the United States at the United Nations. Israel, of course, has tried to take a kind of special position between the United States and Russia and has not joined the sanctions in the way that the U.S. might have liked. We could give other examples.

CAFIERO: I was actually not that surprised. And for a number of years, we have seen the UAE in particular align more closely with the agendas of Russia and China at the expense of U.S. foreign policy interests. We saw this in Libya, Syria. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE value their partnerships with Russia. And in recent years, that's been increasingly so. When the dust eventually settles in Ukraine, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are going to want to continue working with Moscow. This cooperation takes place across many domains, from energy, investments, defense, and they're determined to make sure that they don't respond to the war in Ukraine in ways that seriously antagonize the Russian leadership.

INSKEEP: Could the Gulf countries significantly dampen the effect of Western sanctions since they're not participating and even want to deepen ties with Russia?

CAFIERO: The UAE and some other partners of the United States in the Middle East have not been joining this effort to squeeze the Russians. Since the sanctions began being implemented, many Russian oligarchs and others who are close to Putin have been coming to Dubai to park their wealth. And yes, to answer your question, the UAE is an enabler of Russia and seems to be a country that is helping the Russians bypass these Western sanctions.

INSKEEP: Is there anything the United States can do to cajole, persuade or threaten the Gulf states to take a different approach?

CAFIERO: Certainly, there are things that the U.S. could do to that end. However, I think the U.S. very much values its partnerships with the Gulf, despite these sources of frustration and deep disappointment. The U.S. depends on these countries in many different ways, and I think the Biden administration is keen to avoid taking actions that would excessively antagonize them. After all, in 2020, the United Arab Emirates normalized diplomatic relations with Israel via the Abraham Accords. And after the UAE did that, three other Arab states followed suit. Abu Dhabi has a lot of leverage in Washington. The Emirati leadership knows this, and I think that's going to enable the UAE to get away with doing a number of things that don't sit well with Washington.

INSKEEP: Giorgio Cafiero is CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, D.C.-based geopolitical risk consultancy firm. Thanks so much.

CAFIERO: Pleasure's all mine. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.