On February 24, Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by land, air, and sea – the largest military operation of one nation by another in Europe since 1945. While the Gulf states were not forthcoming about their views on the annexation of Crimea in 2014, they had generally expressed support for the UN General Assembly’s resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine in 2014. This cautious attitude can be plausibly linked to the Middle East’s regional changes and security architectures as a consequence of the Arab Spring. At the time, the international community regarded the situation as a confrontation between Russia and the West, with Ukraine as an unfortunate participant, rather than a confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Since then, due to the political complexities surrounding Russia’s active stance in regional affairs (and particularly since its intervention in Syria in 2015), each of the GCC states has pursued a policy of neutrality toward Moscow’s actions in Eastern Europe.
Today, the GCC states’ voices resonate more loudly. They have expressed different views on the conflict, demonstrating how divided the Gulf remains; while some have remained strictly neutral and others have attempted to hedge their bets between Russia and the West, others have come out in full force for one side or the other, in part due to their own historical experiences. Existing competition between the Gulf states themselves have led some to gamble by showing direct or indirect support to both sides of the conflict, perhaps envisioning fundamental changes in the security order in Europe, and the coming change to the balance of power globally, as a result of the conflict.
Bahrain has not expressed a clear position on the Russo-Ukrainian Conflict. However, likely due to its close security partnership with the United States, it has tended toward views friendly to Washington, and by extension, the United Nations. In 2014, Bahrain supported the UN General Assembly resolution defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine. During discussions between Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzheppar and Bahraini Deputy Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, the latter “reaffirmed Bahrain’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and emphasized his country’s principled position on preventing Bahraini companies from carrying out any activities in the temporarily occupied Crimea.” At the same time, Bahrain’s political elite shares a consensus that Moscow remains a vital political and commercial partner, and concerns over the Russia-Ukraine dispute have not been considered an impediment to that relationship. Bilateral relations with Moscow reflect a desire to develop economic cooperation in trade, energy, and other sectors, and Bahrain aims to maintain and develop relations with Moscow, as Manama wants to expand its international relations with all major powers. This suggests that Bahrain will seek to maintain a neutral stance on the current crisis.
Similarly, the Sultanate of Oman took a relatively neutral stance. At the time of writing this commentary, it had not released any official statement regarding the Russian invasion, though it had earlier expressed concerns over the escalating military buildup on January 25. Oman’s reluctance to back one side or the other in the conflict can be understood within the broader context of its political course, as Oman is known for its policies of neutrality. At the same time, economic considerations will likely play a role in any further developments. Although Oman is a relatively minor energy exporter compared to its richer neighbors, its oil revenue has continued to rise throughout the crisis. This has had two independent impacts on the Omani economy, one negative and one positive. As the writer and economic analyst, Khalfan Al Touqi, explained to the Times of Oman: “The rise will cause inflation in countries importing goods, and that includes the Sultanate of Oman, since they import a majority of [their] goods. The positive side is that the government will pay off debts, and the credit level of the Sultanate will rise.” Given this balance it does not seem that Oman will shift from its current neutrality at present.
Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest player, has perhaps the most challenging balancing act to maintain between Russia and the West. Riyadh has so far been careful not to take a position on the war, even indirectly; for example, citing the need to preserve the production agreement among OPEC and non-OPEC countries in the OPEC+ deal, it refused President Biden’s call to pump more oil as prices jumped past the $100 per barrel mark after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Bloomberg has even suggested that if the war creates any winners, one of them will be Saudi Arabia, which can benefit from a drop in competition to its reliable oil supply. At the same time, along with crucial energy markets, U.S. policies under the Biden administration towards Riyadh and its leadership influenced the Saudi balancing act.
Past Aggressions, Current Sympathies
By contrast, Kuwait’s position on the Russian invasion has been very clear – perhaps unsurprising considering its own historical experience. On February 24, the day of the invasion, the state of Kuwait underlined the importance of respecting the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine and categorically rejected the “use, threat to use, or displaying of force” in conducting relations among countries. Such a statement draws an implicit parallel between Ukraine’s experience in February 2022 and Kuwait’s in August 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his army to invade Kuwait. At the same time, a different analogy with the past can be made: as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Soviet Union played an important role in the adoption of resolutions demanding that Iraq immediately withdraw its troops from Kuwait and recognize its independence and sovereignty. At the time, not only Kuwait, but all its GCC partners appreciated the principled position of the USSR. Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic contacts with Russia in that period and facilitated Moscow’s establishment of relations with Bahrain. In general, while other Gulf states remained in the Western bloc during the Cold War, Kuwait, with which the Soviets concluded an agreement to establish diplomatic ties in March 1963, remained the most receptive of all the GCC states to Moscow’s interests.
However, the most interesting responses to Russia’s military operation have so far come from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, helping to illustrate how the Gulf remains divided within itself. Although the GCC states agreed to end rift at the al-Ula Declaration in January 2021, they did not in reality solve the differences between the UAE and Qatar. In the year since, both states have subordinated global issues to their regional rivalry, and each has shown indirect and direct means of supporting both sides in the war.
Of the six GCC states’ positions on the Russian military operation, Qatar’s was perhaps the most explicit in its condemnation of Moscow and its support for Ukraine. On the day of the invasion, Qatar supported Ukraine, and President Zelensky tweeted: “I continue negotiations with the leaders. Received support from the Emir of Qatar.” Qatar’s decision is directly linked to its desire to keep good working relations with the West, especially the United States, which headquarters much of its Middle Eastern military presence at Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base. In some respects, Doha’s position should not be surprising; despite increasing relations with Moscow, with large investments in Russia especially since 2016, earlier relations between Moscow and Doha had been poor. Doha had hosted the Chechen separatist Zelimkhan Yandarbyiev prior to his assassination in 2004, and Russia’s ambassador withdrew from his position in 2011 after he was beaten by customs officials at Doha’s airport.
Perhaps more importantly, Qatar has gained financially from the crisis. In January, in the shadow of the Ukraine buildup, the U.S. approached Qatar, the world’s top natural gas exporter, seeking to replace Europe’s energy needs in case of a shortage. After the meeting between President Biden and Sheikh Tamim, Qatar was declared a major non-NATO ally, though the Qatari authorities announced that the country would not be able to redirect gas to Europe due to existing contracts in Asia. On February 22, Qatar hosted the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), where Doha, with other states, stressed that significant investment would be required in gas infrastructure, and that they need the certainty of long-term contracts to be able to guarantee supplies in Europe. Nevertheless, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and subsequent diplomatic isolation of Moscow might create opportunities for Moscow’s main gas competitors – Iran and Qatar, which respectively hold the second- and third-largest total gas reserves in the world – in the mid-run. In an effort to strengthen ties with Qatar, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Doha to attend the GECF Summit. There has been speculation that Doha might play a role in mediating between Tehran and Washington to finalize the renewal of the nuclear deal.
Although it has pushed for peace in Ukraine, Iran has come out in support of the Russian position in the conflict, blaming the U.S. and NATO for the sharp escalation of tensions. Should the JCPOA be finalized, however, Iran will realize immediate economic benefits, mainly if the West moved away from Russian oil and gas imports. Yet, the escalation between the West and Russia might put the revival of the nuclear deal at risk because Russia plays an important role in the negotiations. Russia-Iran relations are in any case complex in terms of regional influence, and largely lean on a shared antipathy towards the U.S. If Iranian leaders decide that their own interests are best served by closer alignment with the West, both Qatar and Iran could present challenges to Russia’s powerful position as the key energy supplier for Europe.
A Fine Balancing Act
The same moment has been seized by the United Arab Emirates, which most perceive as Qatar’s key regional competitor. The UAE appears to have calculated the potential advantages from balancing its position between both sides. On February 23, Russian and Emirati foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed discussed the two countries’ friendly relations and strategic partnerships, stressing their “keenness to enhance the prospects of UAE-Russian cooperation across various fields for the higher good of their peoples” in a joint statement. Subsequently, on February 25, the day after the Russian invasion, Sheikh Abdullah and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the Russian attack over the telephone. On February 26, the UAE abstained on the U.S.-backed United Nations Security Council resolution opposing the Russian military operation against Ukraine, calling for immediate de-escalation and cessation of hostilities in Ukraine. There were only three abstainers in total – China, India, and the UAE. Moreover, Russia’s Foreign Office reported that Lavrov and Sheikh Abdullah would hold further talks on February 28 in Moscow.
Regional competitors are taking different positions on this conflict. While Qatar is siding with the U.S. and the EU, the UAE is balancing its position between both sides. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political science professor commented in the Financial Times: “we no longer need a green light from America or any other western capital to decide on our national interest.” He continues, “we are not with or against – that is the position. If America is upset, they will just have to level with that.”
Moscow and Abu Dhabi are allies through their oil politics and OPEC+, and the UAE experienced a windfall after oil prices shot up to $100 per barrel in the aftermath of the crisis. Politically, despite the UAE remaining a strategic Western ally, its relations with Russia have been strengthened significantly at political, economic, and humanitarian levels, and not simply at the national level between Abu Dhabi and Moscow. 2020 saw an increase in trade turnover by 77.64 percent in comparison to 2019. At the same time, the UAE and Russia align geopolitically, as both sides have worked together closely in their support of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. The United Arab Emirates’ Mubadala holding company made its single largest investment in Russia in December 2021, purchasing 1.9 percent of Sibur, Russia’s largest integrated petrochemical company. The UAE has retained a strong interest in building and strengthening relations, including offering investments, with Russian regions with Muslim populations, especially Chechnya, Tatarstan, Ingushetia, and Bashkortostan.
Finally, the traditional close alignment between the GCC and Washington has seen considerable transformation in recent years. Every new administration’s policies have scaled back U.S. involvement in the region, which has tended to prompt further Moscow-GCC collaborations. This general rule is especially true when considering the Emirati view, and perhaps offers some explanation for the Emirati position on the conflict. The central impact of the ongoing crisis will not be solely on energy and international security; there will also be a potential impact on the tourism sector, trade, and it could indirectly cement broader divisions within the Gulf. The outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has implications for the future of world order, and potentially the Gulf region’s position, and could escalate competition between the Gulf states.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.