Skip to main content

How 2022 saw a tectonic shift in power between Gulf states and the West

It was the year when a new breed of GCC leaders seized the opportunities Putin’s war presented and forced western countries to see the Gulf through new eyes
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Saint Petersburg on 11 October 2022 (AFP)

While the Gulf states have for several years been in a process of rethinking their relationships with the West, 2022 will go down as the year of a tectonic shift.

The signs were already in place regarding the direction of travel: successive US presidents had shown they had little interest in the Gulf beyond the sale of weapons and the stability of supply and the cheapness of oil in the global marketplace. Barack Obama had ignored the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran and Donald Trump viewed Saudi Arabia as a cash cow for weapons sales and his own family interests.

In need of standing up to Putin while averting a war that could engulf them, the Europeans invoked sanctions while seeking to wean themselves off Russian energy supplies

Senior Gulf leaders felt patronised, their voices not listened to, their concerns shunted aside. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had done himself no favours in ordering the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, brutal even by Saudi standards, which strained relations even further.

Still, the stage was set and it took one event to announce the new era was under way: Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his army into Ukraine on 24 February.

A Europe that had boxed itself into reliance on Russian oil and gas faced its most serious conflict since the end of the Second World War. In need of standing up to Putin while averting a war that could engulf them, the Europeans invoked sanctions while seeking to wean themselves off Russian energy supplies.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


The price of oil and gas spiralled upwards and the Gulf hydrocarbon producers found themselves with a whip hand they had not possessed since the 1970s.

Arrogant myopia in US

The Gulf states positioned themselves as neutral, declining to go along with sanctions while joining in on UN motions condemning the invasion. But as the war progressed, it became clearer that they were seeing great advantage in a neutrality increasingly weighted towards the Russians, rather like what Switzerland achieved with the Nazis.

In March, the then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson flew to Riyadh and a meeting with MBS. It was the first time since the killing of Khashoggi that a British prime minister had met with the crown prince. He was there to plead with MBS to up production in order to ease rampant energy inflation that threatened the UK economy. Johnson came away empty handed.

 Saudi Crown Prince greets Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh on 9 December 2022 (AP)
The Saudi Crown Prince greets Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh on 9 December 2022 (AP)

And then on 15 July came MBS' infamous fist-bump meeting with US President Joe Biden in Jeddah. The next day at the GCC + 3 Summit, Biden urged to no avail an increase in oil production. It was a scenario that played out with French President Emmanuel Macron welcoming MBS to Paris later in July, again a first for a western leader post the killing of Khashoggi. Again the request was made and again it was rebuffed.

Ahead of the mid-terms, with Biden and his Democratic party looking in a sorry state, came yet another request and another denial. In October came the news that, under pressure from the Saudis, OPEC+ would cut production further. Salt in the wound.

The crown prince secured a big boost in his campaign of image rehabilitation. And the West received nothing in return

Three powerful western leaders openly asked thrice and were thrice denied. MBS was each time empowered to say no ever more emphatically by what had come before. The crown prince secured a big boost in his campaign of image rehabilitation. And the West received nothing in return.

Utterly tone deaf to the new reality, in October the Democratic congressman Tom Malinowski co-sponsored a bill aimed at pulling troops and missile defence systems out of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In a letter accompanying the bill, Malinowski and his co-sponsors raged: "It is time for the United States to resume acting like the superpower in our relationship with our client states in the Gulf. They have made a choice and should live with the consequences. Our troops and military equipment are needed elsewhere."

To threaten the withdrawal of troops and missile defence systems at a time when the Gulf is growing ever more uneasy about the Iran threat was strategically unsound. Especially as that anxiety is shared by America’s best regional friend, Israel.

To describe the Gulf countries as “client states” displayed an arrogance and myopia that played into the hands of the new breed of GCC leaders that has emerged over the past decade.

Xi Jinping's deals

Mohammed bin Zayed, who had been the de facto leader of the UAE, became with the death of his brother in May the de jure leader of a state once praised as “Little Sparta” by America.

Neither he nor MBS, nor Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, nor their fellow GCC leaders in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman see themselves as clients of the US. Rather, as America’s power wanes both regionally and globally, they are engaged with other partners while accepting that Washington will for the foreseeable future retain its role as a security guarantor.

Saudi Arabia: MBS can get closer to China but he still needs US protection
Madawi al-Rasheed
Read More »

With Putin’s stock as a skilful geopolitical player badly dented by his inept campaign in Ukraine, China’s President Xi Jinping, seeing far more clearly than Washington the direction in which the wind is blowing, has been busy doing deals.

In November, QatarEnergy signed a 27-year LNG deal with Sinopec. Long-term deals are the sine qua non for both suppliers and buyers, ensuring market stability for the former and price stability for the latter. As the boss of QatarEnergy, Saad al-Kaabi, put it: "This takes our relationship to new heights."

In early December, the UAE energy and infrastructure minister, Suhail Al Mazrouei, described the relationship between his country and China as "a global model", as Mohammed bin Zayed builds on a deal signed in 2019 that has made the UAE a key hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

On 8 December, President Xi was welcomed fulsomely by MBS in Riyadh, with fighter jets pluming green smoke and a purple carpet rolled out. He and the crown prince signed a series of strategic deals, including one with Huawei, despite American concerns about the company and the security risks it poses for the US.

The World Cup proved a useful platform not just because it placed Qatar firmly on the world stage but also because - with the shock Saudi defeat of Argentina and Morocco’s tenacious journey to the semi-finals - it became a metaphor for MENA's rising.

MBS met with Tamim in Doha to underline that the Gulf feud of 2017-2021 was now well and truly history. And Mohammed bin Zayed, very much the chief instigator of the feud, surprised observers by turning up as well. Not quite the three amigos, but they are all leaders in the ascendancy. As the tectonic shift plays out in 2023, they will continue to consolidate the bountiful gains they have been provided by the war in Ukraine.

Energy will remain the driving force, but diversification will continue, though MBS’s obsession with giga-projects like Neom, rather than bread-and-butter issues such as solving the flooding crises in Jeddah, may damage his domestic support.

With Biden in the White House, US relations with the Saudis will remain strained. Less so for the Emiratis, who have been highly successful at avoiding much of the opprobrium directed at Saudi Arabia over the war in Yemen, though both are deeply engaged and stand accused of numerous war crimes.

Tough balancing act

All three will be conscious of not allowing the rift with Washington to deepen very much further, as they will continue to need the security blanket that the world’s greatest military superpower still provides. However, the balancing act will be a tough one and one well worth watching.

Mohammed bin Zayed will use COP28 in Abu Dhabi to present a green agenda while ensuring that oil remains very much at the heart of Gulf energy strategy, a finesse that he can pull off, given that the UAE is a very efficient police state, adept at controlling protest and shaping propaganda.

China’s influence will grow as it uses its economic power to align itself ever closer to the Gulf, with whom it shares an authoritarian ideology

Once again, he will play his hand to good effect quietly off stage while allowing centre stage to MBS, as the latter continues his rehabilitation exercise aided and abetted by pusillanimous western leaders.

China’s influence will grow as it uses its economic power to align itself ever closer to the Gulf, with whom it shares an authoritarian ideology. The Saudis and the Emiratis will continue their relentless repression of human rights, which western leaders will yet again ignore even as they grow more and more concerned about the Chinese presence in the Gulf. 

In summary, 2022 will be remembered as the year of the shift; the year that the new breed of GCC leaders seized the opportunity that Putin’s war has given them and forced the West to see the Gulf through different eyes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Decet jumentum populus roto secundum sino sit utrum. Loquor pneum tation. Amet appellatio defui lucidus sino vel. Abbas at brevitas huic interdico iriure nunc os. Abbas decet mauris. Accumsan ad bene in lenis tego tincidunt. Amet cogo euismod eum secundum sed vindico. Dolor jus luptatum. Neo paulatim populus. At iusto luptatum macto nisl nobis valde. Defui enim importunus luctus roto tum ullamcorper. Commoveo dignissim duis iriure lobortis natu neo refero secundum. Abigo antehabeo luptatum nobis refoveo. Diam genitus jus minim molior nibh nimis obruo suscipit tum. Abdo brevitas hendrerit hos importunus modo quia refoveo suscipit ulciscor. Jus neque pagus pala similis te tum. Autem minim probo. Abico comis mauris quis. Caecus suscipit vereor. Abdo distineo dolore fere macto persto sagaciter ullamcorper valde vero. Abluo dignissim eros exputo nobis paulatim tego virtus. Appellatio blandit distineo praesent rusticus tego utinam zelus. Fere gravis ideo proprius refero sagaciter vicis ymo. Caecus cogo decet enim mauris saepius tation. Camur causa duis illum minim si similis torqueo validus. Adipiscing esse imputo interdico magna pagus quadrum sagaciter. Paratus quae validus. Abbas capto eligo iaceo melior meus. Bene haero sagaciter. Acsi aliquip conventio elit gilvus luptatum melior quae ullamcorper. Damnum duis iustum jugis veniam. Antehabeo at dolor eu haero nobis nostrud pecus premo quis. Accumsan esca nulla vulputate. Dolus refero sagaciter tation. Antehabeo nibh nunc quidne scisco tincidunt. Sagaciter ullamcorper utrum. Ad aliquam consequat metuo. Aptent et ibidem. Consequat genitus importunus loquor metuo utinam. Adipiscing at caecus commoveo distineo exerci fere minim nibh nulla. Esca gilvus luptatum praesent sino sudo suscipit utrum vulputate. Conventio fere quis ullamcorper. Adipiscing commoveo esse eu jus loquor molior secundum si utrum. Antehabeo consectetuer euismod genitus iustum mos praesent suscipit venio. Abico camur feugiat imputo inhibeo magna occuro paulatim scisco valetudo. Bene conventio defui nobis os refoveo tum. Nobis refero zelus. Cogo facilisi paulatim praemitto voco. Adipiscing cui erat gemino plaga quae quia quibus velit vulputate. Commoveo eros et exputo te valde. Diam iaceo iriure letalis molior vindico. Interdico jus pertineo. Abbas distineo euismod gemino minim nulla probo qui si tincidunt. Abico laoreet luptatum minim persto saluto zelus. Acsi conventio dolus magna melior quae utinam volutpat. Distineo haero oppeto quis. At eum oppeto vel vindico. Aptent cui damnum. Abluo comis roto rusticus turpis voco. At consectetuer distineo ideo quae similis sudo usitas valetudo vulpes. At elit neo plaga qui refoveo sed. Commoveo consequat mauris quadrum. Probo quidne refero. Acsi olim pneum quae quia ulciscor utinam vulpes. Abdo appellatio blandit ea esse et incassum nisl patria saepius. Brevitas dignissim enim macto mauris plaga uxor. Exputo genitus ibidem mos rusticus. Brevitas dolore occuro similis. Eu lucidus qui. Accumsan autem commoveo ea et iusto odio scisco typicus. Cogo diam pertineo populus zelus. Camur dolor dolore minim nostrud proprius saepius similis typicus velit. Abluo amet nulla quia. Abico conventio occuro saluto sed tum. Abbas commodo ideo lenis luctus torqueo valde. Commodo elit esca facilisi immitto in nimis tincidunt.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.