Since Russia launched its operation to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” Ukraine on 24 February, responding to calls for help from the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, it has been slapped with sanctions. The US announced a total ban on its energy imports, while the UK vowed to phase out imports of Russian oil and oil products by the end of 2022.
Boris Johnson is visiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this Wednesday, seeking to achieve what US President Joe Biden has failed to do so far: lobby the Gulf States to open the tap and boost oil supply amid reduced reliance on Russia.
Soaring energy prices, driven to new highs as Western countries sanction Moscow over its special operation to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” Ukraine, have prompted a scramble to seek sources of fossil fuels.
Biden, who earlier banned Russian energy imports, was reportedly snubbed by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, who ignored his calls to discuss soaring gas price-related issues, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Britain is now hoping to be more successful in courting the Gulf States, as the UK Prime Minister meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, on Wednesday, and then travels to Riyadh to confer with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In a statement issued by Downing Street on Tuesday, Boris Johnson called the two countries “key international partners”.
Underscoring that the Russian military operation in Ukraine would “have far-reaching consequences for the world, well beyond Europe’s borders,” Johnson said:
“The UK is building an international coalition to deal with the new reality we face. The world must wean itself off Russian hydrocarbons and starve Putin’s addiction to oil and gas. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are key international partners in that effort. We will work with them to ensure regional security, support the humanitarian relief effort and stabilise global energy markets for the longer term.”
With UK households’ gas and electricity bills set to rise by over 50 percent, according to analysts, along with the swinging cost of running a car, Boris Johnson has been under increasing pressure, with the government working on drawing up an updated “emergency energy strategy.”
In Britain, 4 percent of gas and 8 percent of oil comes from Russia, with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) saying that it imports 13 percent of its diesel from Russia, and none of its petrol.
However, the Russian energy embargo has already seen petrol pump prices approach a shocking £2 per litre in the UK.
However, the new UK strategy on energy, likely to offer a mix of support for fossil fuels, nuclear and renewables is yet to be published.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s current trip aims to discuss with Gulf leaders efforts to improve energy security and defuse growing volatility in energy and food prices that has prompted concerns over a “cost of living crisis” in the UK.
The UK is hoping to diversifying the country’s energy supply and is already working with international partners to ramp up renewables, said No 10 Downing Street. It was added that the Gulf talks will also touch upon regional security, including the current situation in Iran and Yemen, and humanitarian relief, while increasing both diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia.
Earlier, on 8 March, the UK announced it would phase out imports of Russian oil and oil products by the end of 2022, joining other nations including the United States, which slapped a total ban on Russia’s oil, natural gas and coal imports.
‘Vulnerability, Energy Insecurity’
However, the Gulf foray comes as Boris Johnson faces criticism over his trip from both MPs and human rights campaigners.
The visit comes after Saudi Arabia conducted a mass execution of 81 men on Saturday, said to have been convicted of terrorism and capital crimes, including the murder of innocent men, women and children, as well as the targeting of Saudi government employees, and the killing and maiming of law enforcement officers.
UK-based human rights group Amnesty International and many others have criticized Saudi Arabia for what they suggest are “grossly unfair trials, marred by claims of torture during pre-trial detention leading to forced ‘confessions’ which the prosecution systematically failed to investigate.”
Furthermore, the Saudi crown prince has been largely linked in the West to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Boris Johnson himself had previously described the killing of Khashoggi as “barbaric act”, deploring the “ostentatious horror of this murder”.
Ahead of Johnson’s trip, UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that “going cap in hand from dictator to dictator is not an energy strategy”.
Ed Miliband, ex-Labour leader and currently the party’s shadow climate secretary said:
“It is a sign of our vulnerability and energy insecurity as a country that the prime minister is going to Saudi Arabia to seek an increase in oil production, despite the appalling human rights record of the regime. Once again it demonstrates that the best solution to the energy crisis we face is a green energy sprint at home so once and for all we end our dependence on fossil fuels.”
Miliband underscored that the cost-of-living crisis should be tackled by “a windfall tax on oil and gas producers to reduce household energy bills.”
Senior Conservative MP Julian Lewis, who chairs Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, urged the importance of ensuring that as the UK seeks to “lessen our dependence upon one source of oil and gas, we do not end up creating a source dependency on another unreliable and sometimes hostile regime”.
Katie Fallon, of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, was quoted by The Guardian as saying that Johnson’s visit “signals that the prime minister plans not only to replicate but to entrench another trading relationship with a murderous regime with no regard for the right to life of their own citizens, yet alone those of another country such as Yemen”.
Yemeni government forces and the militant Houthi opposition faction have been at war for over six years. In 2015, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE entered the conflict to back the Yemeni government in exile and began conducting air, land, and sea attacks against the Islamist political movement.
According to analysis cited by British media, there is frustration in parts of the UAE with the UK being slow to display solidarity after January’s missile strikes fired by Houthis that hit Abu Dhabi and reluctance to back calls for the Houthi’s to be labelled as a terrorist organisation.
Nevertheless, according to official data, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are among the UK’s two largest economic partners in the Middle East.
As part of the visit, Saudi Arabia’s Alfanar group will confirm a new GBP 1 billion investment in the Lighthouse Green Fuels Project in Teeside, northern England, with Downing Street saying that aviation fuel generated by the plant has the potential to produce 80 percent less greenhouse gas than its fossil fuel equivalent.