DUBAI: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in the Gulf on Wednesday for meetings in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia aimed at easing skyrocketing gasoline prices, as the West grapples with economic headwinds from Russia's war in Ukraine.
Johnson will be seeking greater investments in the UK's renewable energy transition and ways to secure more oil to lessen British dependence on Russian energy supplies.
His visit, though, is also about pressing these two major OPEC producers to pump more oil, which would have an immediate impact on Brent Crude prices that nearly touched $140 a barrel in trading last week. Prices have eased to around $100 in recent days, in large part due to new pandemic lockdowns in China.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine is "causing global uncertainty and a spike in the price of oil," Johnson told reporters in Abu Dhabi ahead of his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. "Everybody can see the effect of the increase in gas prices that are coming through," he added.
"Because of Europe's reliance on Russian oil and gas, Putin has been able to blackmail the West to hold Western economies to ransom," he said. "We need independence," Johnson added.
Pressing for more oil is a tall order to ask of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, which are benefiting richly from high energy prices that boost their revenues and spending powers.
Moreover, ties between Western governments and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman remain tarnished by the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.
The prince has yet to hold a direct call with US President Joe Biden, who is trying to revive Iran's nuclear accord to the frustration of some Gulf states and Israel. Biden ordered a US ban on Russian oil imports after the war and cautioned that Americans will feel pain, too —at the gas pump. Yet, he declared, "Defending freedom is going to cost."
The Covid pandemic pushed demand for oil down, with Brent Crude prices averaging around $42 a barrel in 2020 before climbing to $70 last year on the back of a deal by major oil producers to drastically curb production.
The deal, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, calls for gradually increasing production levels each month as economies recover, but it did not account for the impact of the war in Ukraine, launched by Russia three weeks ago.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the spare capacity to pump more oil, but they've so far been unwilling to change course from the deal forged with Russia. The UAE's energy minister as recently as last week said the country is "committed to the OPEC+ agreement and its existing monthly production adjustment mechanism".
His statement followed a conflicting comment from the UAE's ambassador in Washington, who seemed to suggest the UAE was in favor of releasing more oil on the market. Western leaders have signaled that current wartime energy security demands that allied nations pump more.
The Biden administration dispatched two officials last month to Riyadh to talk about a range of issues — chief among them global energy supplies.
In a call with Biden prior to the visit, King Salman doubled down on "the importance of maintaining the agreement" that is in place between OPEC producers and Russia, according to a Saudi readout of the call.
"The reason for coming here is that it's not just that they've got oil. They're also some of the biggest investors here, in the Gulf, in UK renewables," Johnson said in Abu Dhabi.
Many UK lawmakers, including those in Johnson's own Conservative party, have questioned the decision to turn to Saudi Arabia, citing its recent mass execution of 81 people on Saturday.
The UN human rights chief said that just over half were Saudi Shiites who had taken part in anti-government protests a decade ago, calling for more rights. Some were executed after trials that failed to meet due process guarantees, said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Boris said he's raised human rights issues many times and will raise them again during this trip. "But we have long, long-standing relationships with this part of the world and we need to recognize the very important relationship that we have and the strength of that relationship," he said.