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Two years on, what the Ukraine war means for the Middle East

Two years on, what does the Ukraine war mean for the Middle East?
10 min read
05 March, 2024
Analysis: Russia's invasion of Ukraine has accelerated East-West bifurcation in an increasingly multipolar world, with Arab states striking a delicate balance.

The deadliest conflict in Europe since 1945 rages on in its third year. So far, tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have lost their lives in this war.

Many Ukrainian cities are destroyed while millions of displaced Ukrainians live as refugees in other countries. Moscow remains committed to achieving its objectives in this war while Washington’s continued military support for Ukraine is in question amid an election year in the US.

For Arab states, Russia’s overt invasion of Ukraine has represented both challenges and opportunities. This war has served to accelerate East-West bifurcation in an increasingly multipolar world, requiring Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members to strike delicate balancing acts when navigating shifts in the global geopolitical order.

The conditions created by the shock of 24 February 2022 empowered GCC states in various ways. Their economies benefited from record revenues attributed to high oil prices.

Furthermore, the challenges before Western policymakers reinforced the centrality of Gulf Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia in terms of global energy, security, and geopolitics, underscoring Washington, London, and European capitals’ need to involve Riyadh in the formulation of their responses to global challenges of the 21st century.

In November 2019, Joe Biden, as a presidential candidate, called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and he refused to speak directly with Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) throughout the start of his term. Yet, by July 2022 Biden controversially visited Jeddah to meet with MbS.

One of the White House’s objectives behind that trip was to try to pull Saudi Arabia away from Russia’s orbit of influence several months after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is reasonable to interpret Biden’s decision to go to Jeddah within the context of Saudi Arabia being successful in terms of maximising the benefits afforded to the Kingdom in an increasingly multipolar world defined by great power competition.

Put simply, the Ukraine war helped the Saudis make Washington view the US-Saudi partnership differently. Rather than assuming that Saudi Arabia depends on the US, and that Washington can make demands of Riyadh, multipolarity has afforded Saudi Arabia the means to do more hedging amid a time of intensifying East-West animosity while reinforcing to the US how much Washington needs Riyadh - arguably as much as vice versa.

At the same time, the Ukraine war also created instability that negatively impacted GCC members. For example, massive interruptions to supply chains posed serious challenges to the Gulf Arab states, especially concerning food security.

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Divergent positions within the Gulf

The six GCC states have not all had identical responses to Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. On one side of the spectrum, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have been most accommodating of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government since February 2022.

On the opposite side, Kuwait and Qatar have been most critical of Russia’s violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereign rights. Oman and Bahrain have been in the middle. Nonetheless, all six GCC members have spent the past two years attempting to maintain their close relations with both Moscow and the West.

“Given its history, it is unsurprising that Kuwait has been the most outspoken against Russia's invasion of Ukraine and most supportive of Western states' responses,” Dr Neil Quilliam, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, said in an interview with The New Arab.

“Similarly, Qatar has taken a strong position in favour of Ukraine. For the other GCC states, however, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is ‘somebody else’s issue’- it is either seen as a European or NATO issue and one that does not directly affect the Gulf, though the consequences of the invasion, of course, have been felt all over,” he added.

“The Gulf states do not subscribe to Western narratives about Russia’s move posing a challenge to the rules-based order or see it to be of major consequence and this should be no surprise, as the region has experienced punishing wars and occupations for the past 100 years and more. Consequently, it is just another war.”

No GCC state has implemented any of the West's sanctions on Russia since Moscow's invasion. [Getty]

A careful balancing act

As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UAE joined China and India on 25 February 2022 in abstaining on a US-drafted resolution condemning Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine.

Nonetheless, all six GCC members have consistently voted with the West in UN General Assembly resolutions that called out Moscow for its invasion, occupation, and annexation of Ukrainian territory.

Gulf Arab officials have also diplomatically engaged their Ukrainian counterparts, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and given Ukraine much humanitarian and non-lethal assistance over the past two years. Indeed, Zelenskyy’s been in Saudi Arabia more than once since the full-fledged Russian invasion and many important officials from GCC states have come to Kyiv amid this war.

At the same time, no GCC state implemented any of the West’s sanctions on Russia. The UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed along with other leaders and high-ranking officials from Gulf Arab states have made trips to Moscow since February 2022. Late last year, Putin was a welcome guest in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, in particular, have maintained close working relations with Moscow across a host of domains. Saudi-Russian energy cooperation via OPEC+ is a case in point. The UAE also played a major role in enabling Russia to weather the West’s financial warfare. Since February 2022, Emirati authorities have permitted Russian oligarchs and Kremlin-linked figures to park their wealth in Dubai.

As the most Russia-friendly GCC member, the UAE’s willingness to play this role in helping Moscow withstand Western pressure stands to contribute to the long-term strengthening of the Abu Dhabi-Moscow partnership.

“From the onset of the Ukraine war, Gulf States - individually, not collectively - had made conscious and calculated decisions to not take strong positions on the conflict,” Dr Mira al-Hussein, an Emirati sociologist and research fellow at the Alwaleed bin Talal Centre, University of Edinburgh, told TNA.

“As the US’ focus on the region began to gradually wane, Gulf states continued to wisely hedge on other regional powers, while simultaneously attempting to re-engage the US and ensure a prolonged security commitment to the region,” she added.

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“If there is a shift in the balance in Moscow's favour because of diminishing Western support for Ukraine, then Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will feel vindicated for hedging against US commitment to their security,” said Dr Quilliam.

“At the same time, it will reinforce the idea that Russia is a dependable and enduring partner and that it has been seen to support its allies, such as Syria, through thick and thin. In other words, a shift in the balance in Moscow's favour would only serve to reconfirm Gulf Arab leader fears that they can no longer rely upon the US and encourage them to hedge further with Russia and China.”

Although Washington and some other Western capitals sought to bring GCC members into closer alignment with NATO and Ukraine against Russia, Gulf Arab officials seem to have played their cards wisely from a strategic standpoint.

With the war in Ukraine now essentially a stalemate with neither side having achieved a decisive victory, staying relatively neutral seems to have been a decision that served the long-term national interests of GCC states.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been most accommodating of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government since Moscow's invasion. [Getty]

As Dr al-Hussein explained, the Gulf Arab leaders and policymakers look at the current state of this war in Ukraine and are “reassured that their choice to remain neutral was rational and wise”.

Despite the GCC states remaining relatively neutral in this conflict, it can be said that these six Arab countries have had no choice but to view Russia as a global power with nuclear weapons and Ukraine as a much less powerful country on the international stage.

The foreign policy strategies of the GCC states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, vis-à-vis the Ukraine war have reflected their vested interests in deepening ties with Moscow. Officials in Kyiv have taken note of this, which has probably left Ukraine somewhat suspicious of GCC states - particularly those which most accommodated the Kremlin after the shock of 24 February 2022.

That said, Kyiv has joined the West in taking advantage of Saudi and Emirati diplomatic bridges to Moscow throughout this conflict. Underscored by Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Riyadh’s mediation roles in the December 2022 Brittney Griner-Viktor Bout exchange, prisoners of war swaps, and the reunification of families, Gulf capitals have leveraged their relative neutrality to help the West, Ukraine, and Russia.

“The GCC countries have used their balancing act between Moscow and Kyiv to boost their strategic autonomy versus the US and present themselves as a mainstay for multipolarity,” Ahmed Aboudouh, an associate fellow with the Chatham House and a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council, told TNA.

“The past two years have been remarkable in the sense that they helped GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, to learn to deal with both sides of the conflict and build political clout on both sides that allows these countries to bring both to a middle ground on peripheral issues such as prisoner swaps,” he added.

Balancing ties with Russia and the West

Despite Saudi Arabia and the UAE helping their Western partners with prisoner swaps and hostage releases, their overall accommodation of Russia since February 2022 has fuelled a degree of tension between those two Gulf states, on one side, and the US and other western powers, on the other. However, such tension related to the Ukraine war has not led to any major crisis in either Saudi Arabia or the UAE’s relationship with Washington.

“The US understands the rationality behind Gulf states’ neutrality on this war. There has not been any real effort on Washington’s part to penalise those who facilitate Russia's sanction avoidance, which calls into question the extent to which the US and Europe are interested in isolating Russia, or their desire to further antagonise Gulf states,” Dr al-Hussein told TNA.

Throughout the future, however, there might be some lasting bitterness in the West about these GCC members taking relatively non-aligned positions toward Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine. But given how quickly new developments on the international stage unfold and how short attention spans are in Washington and other Western capitals, it is not clear how long that bitterness will last.

At the end of the day, the US and other Western countries have to worry about more than Ukraine, and they count on their relationships with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for help with countless international challenges from Afghanistan to Sudan.

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Gulf Arab statesmen focus on Gaza, not Ukraine

Gulf Arab policymakers are currently much more concerned about the Israeli war on Gaza than Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. The mayhem in Gaza is impacting Arab societies in ways that Russia’s brutality in Ukraine does not.

Israel-Palestine is also much geographically closer to the Gulf than Ukraine, and for all GCC states the stakes are extremely high when it comes to the Gaza war’s spillover into Yemen, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden.

Israel’s actions in Gaza have the potential to bring GCC states closer to Russia. This is mostly due to how easy it is for Moscow to present itself to the Arab-Islamic world as a power which differs from the US.

The Ukraine war has not led to any major crisis in either Saudi Arabia or the UAE's relationship with Washington. [Getty]

Instead of vetoing UN Security Council resolutions to spare Israel from any form of accountability for its crimes, Russia is busy depicting itself as a defender of the Palestinian cause.

“If anything, the war in Gaza accelerated the push for multipolarity as the US credibility and reliability received a blow in the region. While the US will remain the GCC’s main security partner, the double standards and reluctance to revamp its support to Israel creates an opening for Russia and China to advance their standing and rhetorical appeal in the Middle East and the Global South. This will not alter the regional status quo anytime soon, but it will pave the way for deeper ties with Moscow,” said Aboudouh.

As Dr al-Hussein told TNA, “Russia’s statements in support of Palestine in the UN Security Council meetings may serve as good PR for local Gulf consumption to promote Russia as a moral counterpart to the US, if necessary”.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero