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The Enemy of My Enemy: Ukrainian Diplomacy in the Gulf

On November 6, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stridently condemned Iran for supplying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Russia. In a pointed message to Tehran, Zelensky stated, “If it was not for the Iranian supply of weapons to the aggressor, we would be closer to peace right now,” highlighting the role of Iranian weapons in enabling Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. The drastic escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Iran contrasts markedly with Kyiv’s courtship of the Gulf monarchies. In October, Zelensky called Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Emirati President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to thank them for supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and to explore prospects for future cooperation.

Ukraine’s strategy toward the Gulf region consists of two main pillars. The first calls for countering and degrading Russia’s resilient influence in the GCC. Ukraine has consistently promoted its narrative regarding Russia’s invasion and courted humanitarian aid, reconstruction investments, energy price compromises, and mediation assistance from the oil-rich GCC states. The second pillar envisions a multinational coalition that opposes Iran’s military assistance to Russia, which Ukraine hopes will also strengthen its security partnership with Israel.

Ukraine Courts the Gulf Monarchies

From the moment Russian troops poured across the Ukrainian border on February 24, Kyiv has viewed the Gulf monarchies as valuable diplomatic partners. During the first 48 hours of the war, Zelensky spoke with the Qatari Emir and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba briefed his Bahraini counterpart, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, on the development of the conflict. Ukrainian diplomats also fashioned unique, customized narratives to appeal to each GCC country. On March 24, Kuleba hailed Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed al-Sabah’s solidarity with Ukraine, observing that Kuwait had “also suffered…armed aggression [from] a totalitarian regime” during Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s occupation from 1990-91. In his August 12 Arab League address, Ukraine’s Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa Maksym Sukh highlighted Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s ports, which obstructed the export of 20 million tons of grain that otherwise would be exported “principally to Arab and African states.”

Although GCC countries have thus far refrained from sanctioning Russia, Ukraine’s charm offensive has nonetheless borne fruit. The UAE has regularly supplied humanitarian aid to Ukraine, which included support for Ukrainian refugees sheltering in Poland, Moldova, and Bulgaria. Zelensky has also held talks with Mohammed bin Zayed about Emirati participation in Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction and food security programs, as well as Emirati fuel provisions to Ukraine. After Zelensky called Mohammed bin Salman to congratulate him on his appointment as Saudi Prime Minister in mid-October, Saudi Arabia agreed to send $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. In addition to aid distributions, Qatar has used its standing as a Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States to engage with the alliance to address Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis.

While Turkey has taken center stage in public mediation efforts between the belligerents, Ukraine has leveraged its increasingly close relationship with the Gulf monarchies to establish a backchannel to Russia. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan coordinated with Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to release foreign fighters captured in Ukraine, including British national Aiden Aslin. This paved the way for more expansive and effective Saudi mediation, which saw 200 Ukrainian soldiers and five Azov Regiment commanders who participated in the Battle of Mariupol released in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners and Putin-aligned Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk. These prisoner exchanges were viewed by Russia’s pro-war hardliners as preferential to Ukrainian interests, while the agreements were welcomed by Kyiv. In mid-November, the UAE hosted talks with Ukrainian and Russian diplomats about a proposed prisoner exchange, which would be tied to allowing Russian ammonia—crucial to global fertilizer production—to reach Asia and Africa.

Ukraine’s efforts to convince the GCC countries to reduce energy prices have been less successful. At the March 26 Doha Forum, Zelensky urged fossil fuel-rich countries to increase exports to slash Russia’s gas revenues. Qatar’s gas exports expansion plan has largely complied with Zelensky’s request, as its efforts to capitalize on Europe’s divestment from Russian gas resulted in a 100.6% annual increase in gas exports. OPEC+’s decision to cut 2 million barrels of oil production in October 2022 rebuffed Ukraine’s attempts to convince member states of the need for greater exports. Although Kuleba perhaps recklessly retorted that OPEC+’s extra profits were the product of Ukrainian suffering, Ukraine has since refrained from expressing its disappointment with OPEC+’s decision publicly. Instead, Kyiv has continued to focus on strengthening its relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Ukraine’s Iran Policy Pivots from Engagement to Containment

Despite lingering tensions over Iran’s downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January 2020 and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s repeated claims that the United States precipitated the current conflict, Ukrainian officials engaged with Iran during the early stages of the war. From February to July 2022, Kuleba spoke with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Abdollahian on four occasions and received positive indications of Tehran’s disquiet about Russia’s actions. After his March 14 call with Abdollahian, Kuleba declared that “Iran is against the war in Ukraine and supports a peaceful solution.” During his mid-March visit to Moscow and March 30-31 conference with Afghanistan’s neighbors in China, Abdollahian reportedly conveyed Kuleba’s views on the war to Russian diplomats. Ukraine also welcomed Abdollahian’s opposition to Russia’s “attack on Ukraine” during the Iranian FM’s July 15 call with Kuleba.

Russia’s use of Iranian Shahed-136 and Mohajer-6 drones against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure has torpedoed the previously cordial Iran-Ukraine relationship. The Ukrainian Armed Forces initially reacted with caution to reports of Iranian drone exports to Russia. On September 5, Ukraine’s Air Force Command spokesperson Yurii Ihnat warned that the payload of Iranian drones was three times that of Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs but raised questions about their quality, as international sanctions had forced Iran to produce drones using smuggled parts. Russia’s nation-wide missile strikes on October 10, which made extensive use of Iranian drones, intensified Ukrainian anger toward Iran. On October 18, Kuleba asked Zelensky to consider suspending diplomatic relations with Tehran, as “Iran [has become] an accomplice of Russian crimes” on Ukrainian territory. On October 29, Kuleba urged Abdollahian to stop the flow of weapons to Russia, but this appeal fell on deaf ears. Ukraine claims that it killed at least 10 Iranians in Russian-occupied Crimea after speculation about the presence of Iranian forces there to train Russian soldiers further escalated tensions between the two states.

At the same time that Ukraine-Iran relations are on the verge of collapse, Kyiv has leveraged the Iranian drone threat to strengthen cooperation with Israel and its Western partners. Zelensky praised the expansion of intelligence-sharing between Israel and Ukraine in late October, stating, “After a long pause, I see us moving forward.” A Lithuania-led initiative to impose EU sanctions on Iran after its de facto participation in the Ukraine war was announced during Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabriellus Landsbergis’s November 11 meeting with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock.

As the war enters the winter months in Ukraine, Kyiv’s strategy of co-opting the GCC and confronting Iran appears set to continue. The Gulf monarchies will likely keep the humanitarian aid and reconstruction pledges to Ukraine coming, if only as a means of alleviating American pressure over their too-close-for-comfort relationship with Russia. As the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiations remain at an impasse and frustration with the Islamic Republic grows, Ukraine will most probably receive further expressions of solidarity against Iran from its Western partners. Because volatile energy prices cause such economic hardship for European consumers, Ukraine’s ability to lobby Gulf monarchies to detach themselves from Russia deserves particular scrutiny in the months ahead.

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

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Dr. Samuel Ramani is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum. He is also a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford. Samuel has published extensively on the Gulf region for media outlets and think tanks, such as the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Middle East Institute, and is a regular commentator on broadcast media outlets, such as CNN, the BBC World Service and Al Jazeera English. Samuel’s first book entitled Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender will be published by Hurst and Co. in June and by Oxford University Press later in the year.  

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