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KYIV, UKRAINE - JULY 28, 2023 - Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani during a press conference during their meeting at the Ukrainian Government Building, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. NO USE RUSSIA. NO USE BELARUS. (Photo by Ukrinform/NurPhoto via AP)

Gulf States’ Interests in Mediating Ukraine Peace Initiatives

Once again, Qatar finds itself in the international spotlight for its high-profile international mediation efforts. In late April, the small peninsular emirate hosted high-level talks on a peace plan for the Ukraine conflict. National security advisers and senior officials gathered in Doha to discuss plans for a summit regarding Ukraine’s conditions for a settlement with Russia. The Swiss government had previously declared that it would host a peace summit in June, and a Swiss parliamentary committee offered 5 billion Swiss francs ($5.5 billion) in aid to support Ukraine’s reconstruction and postwar economic development. This newest effort serves as an extension of the 2022 Ukraine Recovery Conference, which Switzerland hosted in Lugano, aiming to buttress Ukraine’s reconstruction.

An Ambitious Agenda

The foreign policies of Switzerland and Qatar share several common themes. Though the Swiss have only recently adopted international mediation as a way to promote international stability, peacefully resolving disputes dovetails well with  the principle of “eternal neutrality” embraced by the country since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In a brilliantly pragmatic geopolitical maneuver, Switzerland positioned itself as a “harmless buffer” between Europe’s great powers, allowing it to profit from its role as a neutral ground and ride out the world’s most destructive conflict in relative peace.

Qatar, too, is sandwiched between the Gulf’s preeminent regional powers—Saudi Arabia and Iran. Like Switzerland, Doha has turned to mediation to ensure its survival in a dangerous neighborhood. The meeting on Ukraine, in which both the G7 nations and countries from the Global South will participate, lays the groundwork for the high-level peace summit to be held in Switzerland in June.

While the hosts are set, other details of the story remain unclear. Firstly, the conference must resolve ahead of time which states will participate in the mediation process. Early reports suggest that Russia has not been invited to either Qatar or Switzerland—meaning the Kremlin could simply ignore whatever proposal that the conference drafted. Chinese President Xi Jinping rolled out red carpet for “close friend Putin in strong show of unity” on 16 May, and confirmed that he will not attend the summit according to the Russian channel Rossiya.

Of course, finding a resolution to the Ukraine crisis at the June conference in Switzerland will almost certainly prove immensely difficult for negotiators. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently remarked that Moscow would be ready to negotiate with Kyiv, European countries, and the United States, but only if the other parties accommodate Russia’s “geopolitical and territorial interests”—a phrase widely interpreted as endorsement of Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, as well as its annexation of four provinces in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv would never agree to this proposal. Similarly, Ukraine’s peace proposal demands the withdrawal of Russian troops and a return to the country’s 1991 borders, including the return of Crimea and the country’s eastern oblasts, but these terms would be flatly unacceptable to the Kremlin. Negotiations remain deadlocked, but the potential involvement of the Gulf states in reaching a middle ground may offer a solution.

An Example Worth Following

Thus far, Qatar’s mediation efforts have focused on improving the humanitarian situation for those affected by the war—an effort broadly in line with the country’s guiding Qatar Vision 2030 initiative. Qatar’s negotiations in this regard have already resulted in the unification of Ukrainian families separated by the war, earning it plaudits from the international community and credibility as a negotiating partner in both Moscow and Kyiv. Doha has signaled that it intends to continue its support for children affected by the crisis and buttress international respect for the human rights of the civilian populations. And of course, Qatari funds will likely play a role in Ukraine’s reconstruction. Qatar could invest in rebuilding Ukraine’s education system, buttressing its soft power and winning international goodwill in the medium and long term.

Qatar’s endeavors have laid a path for its fellow Gulf monarchies to follow. On 29 April 2024 the UAE and Ukraine concluded trade talks that will see the Emirates assist with post-war reconstruction. The resulting Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement between the two countries will reduce or remove tariffs on a number of products and goods, easing market access to exporters from both countries and lowering prices. Like Qatar, the UAE could play a crucial role in Ukraine—leading programs and initiatives to support economic development. These lines of effort will achieve the strategic aims of the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 and Dubai D33 by encouraging economic diversification beyond the boundaries of the UAE and enhancing its soft power appeal across the globe. Saudi Arabia has followed in the UAE’s footsteps; on April 4, the Saudi government donated $10 million to the UN World Food Programme to support its operations in Ukraine. During Zelensky’s visit to Saudi Arabia in February 2024, he and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman openly discussed the peace summit in Switzerland. Saudi Arabia’s diplomats have proven adept at securing prisoner swaps between the belligerents, and Saudi funding has allowed for soldiers and trauma victims to access high-quality medical care.

Despite the concrete successes achieved by the Gulf states, the most difficult phase of negotiations is yet to come. The closed-door discussions in Doha may generate some momentum, but a lasting peace deal cannot be reached without the presence of both sides of the conflict at the table. As long as Moscow remains outside the negotiations, the peace summit can move productively without Russian obstructionism, but peace cannot actually be achieved until the summit draws up terms that the Kremlin finds acceptable.

It is hard to see how this could occur. At present, the two warring states hold diametrically opposed perspectives on a potential resolution to the conflict. However, the complexity of the situation also opens an opportunity for states with economic power to enact programs to ease the suffering of those on the ground. Negotiations also provide the Gulf states with valuable experience in tense discussions between bitterly divided enemies, as well as a lever to grow their influence over countries that may prove strategically important in the future. Even if Ukraine is forced to give up part of its territory and adopt a stance of neutrality in international affairs, it will always hold strategic importance both for Russia and the West. Thus, the outcomes of the peace talks will shape not only the GCC states’ relationships with the great powers, but will also set the Gulf Arab monarchies down a new path as they calibrate their foreign policies in an increasingly multipolar world.

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: Politics & Governance
Country: GCC, Qatar

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Dr. Diana Galeeva is a former Non-Resident Fellow with Gulf International Forum. She previously was an Academic Visitor to St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford (2019-2022). Dr. Galeeva is the author of two books “Qatar: The Practice of Rented Power” (Routledge, 2022) and “Russia and the GCC: The Case of Tatarstan’s Paradiplomacy” (I.B. Tauris/ Bloomsbury, 2022). She is also a co-editor of the collection “Post-Brexit Europe and UK: Policy Challenges Towards Iran and the GCC States” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). Dr. Galeeva completed her bachelor at Kazan Federal University (Russia), she holds MA from Exeter University (UK) and Ph.D. from Durham University (UK). Beyond academia, she was an intern at the President of Tatarstan’s Office for the Department of Integration with Religious Associations (2012) and the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan (2011) (Russia).


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