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Global South Pivot: Ukraine’s Diplomatic Strategy in the Gulf

At a landmark summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, representatives from over 40 countries gathered on August 4-5 to discuss Ukraine’s plan to bring its protracted war with Russia to an end. The summit included high-level delegations from the United States, the European Union, China, India, and dozens of other states—and conspicuously did not include any officials from Russia, who were not invited. Despite the Russian absence, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the summit a “breakthrough”, explaining that it was the first peace summit that “involved countries representing the whole world, not just Europe and North America.”

The Jeddah summit illustrates an increasingly important component of Kyiv’s overall strategy when it comes to Russia’s war in Ukraine: to expand support for Ukraine beyond Western and NATO countries and appeal more directly to the Global South. Conversely, Ukraine is also hoping to decrease the support that the Global South has provided for Moscow. The Gulf is one region that serves as a critical pivot point for Kyiv’s Global South strategy, and the Gulf states are only likely to grow in importance as the conflict continues.

Why the Gulf Matters

Ever since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have played an influential role in the evolution of the conflict from an economic and diplomatic perspective. The significant weight that Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have in the global energy landscape has given the region substantial leverage over the major players in the conflict, especially as the West has ramped up sanctions against the Russian energy industry and Russia has cut energy flows to Europe. Indeed, just one month after the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a surprise virtual appearance at the Doha Forum on March 26, in which he called on Qatar to “contribute to stabilizing the situation in Europe” and “increase energy production to make Russia understand that no state should use energy as a weapon and to blackmail the world.”

Zelenskiy’s comments did not go unheeded by the Gulf. Qatar has ramped up its natural gas exports to Europe since the war began, while Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE have each increased their oil exports to the continent to make up for the substantial decrease in Russian energy. Despite this, the Gulf states have not followed the West’s lead in sanctioning Russia or its energy industry. In fact, the Gulf has actually expanded its economic ties with Russia since the start of the war, particularly in the energy sector. The Gulf states have increased purchases of Russian oil for their own domestic use, have continued to consult with Russia within the OPEC+ decision-making framework, and have even rebuffed the Biden administration by cutting their own oil outputs in order to ensure a high price.

These developments showed that the Gulf states were willing to support Ukraine and its Western backers to a certain extent, but not at the direct expense of their ties with Russia or their own economic interests. This view of the Ukraine conflict broadly reflects the non-aligned position of most states in the Global South: they do not overtly support Russia’s position in the conflict, but are unwilling to abandon their economic or diplomatic ties with Moscow. Instead, they are pursuing their own independent interests, which can be beneficial to Ukraine in some ways, but have also helped Russia to sustain its economy in the face of Western pressure, and, by extension, have allowed it to continue to wage its war in Ukraine.

The GCC’s New Role

It is these realities that have factored into Kyiv’s calculus at the Jeddah summit. The U.S. and other NATO countries have demonstrated their commitment to supporting Ukraine from a military and economic perspective, but the existing level of support for Ukraine has clear limitations. Ukraine’s counter-offensive has produced some territorial gains, but these have so far been much more modest than hoped. In the meantime, Russia has expanded its ties with states throughout the Global South, and appears unlikely to capitulate to Western economic and political pressure. By pursuing better relations with Russia’s passive enablers in the developing world, Kyiv clearly hopes to mitigate the extent of those ties.

This is where the Gulf states could present an important weathervane for Kyiv’s efforts. The Gulf states have not only expanded their economic ties with both Russia and the West for reasons of self-interest, but have also used such ties to serve as mediators in the Ukrainian conflict, earning them critical soft-power credentials and raising their international profiles. For example, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have each negotiated high-profile prisoner swaps between Ukraine, Russia, and the United States, showing their effectiveness in being able to work with different sides of the conflict. The Gulf states have also been floated as potential mediators to revive grain shipments following the collapse of the Turkish-mediated Black Sea Grain Initiative last month.

As such, the decision to hold the most recent Ukraine peace summit in Jeddah is a logical move for Kyiv and its supporters. Other nations, notably the United Arab Emirates, have offered to host further summits if needed, and Ukraine is likely to agree to these as well. However, there are limitations to what can realistically be expected to be achieved at such summits, particularly without active Russian participation. Indeed, Moscow actively opposed the Jeddah summit, describing it as ‘doomed without the Kremlin’s input. This is perhaps not surprising, given that the main purpose of the summit was to promote Ukraine’s 10-point-peace plan, which insists on the return of all Ukrainian territory seized by Russia—a demand that Moscow has adamantly rejected. Without Russian acquiescence, it is highly unlikely that such summits can achieve a ceasefire in the ongoing conflict, much less a broader peace.

However, the Jeddah summit was still significant in that it showed that Ukraine has some level of support in the Global South beyond its traditional partners. Kyiv clearly hopes that unambiguous rhetorical support for its position will lead to more concrete measures, such as energy cooperation and diplomatic mediation, both of which could potentially bring the war closer to an end. Given their functional ties with Russia, Ukraine, and the West and their active diplomatic role in the conflict, the GCC states are ideally positioned to play an increasingly important position in Kyiv’s Global South strategy moving forward.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security, Geopolitics
Country: GCC

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Eugene Chausovsky is the Senior Director for Analytical Development and Training at the New Lines Institute. His analytical work focuses on political, economic and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, China, and the Middle East, as well as global connectivity issues related to energy and climate change. He tweets at @eugenechausovsk.


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