The Russo-Ukrainian War and the Forked Path of Qatar-Russia Relations
By prioritizing its national interests and maintaining close relations with the Western bloc, Qatar has perhaps most explicitly demonstrated its position through condemnations of Russian actions and gestures of support for Ukraine.
Since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have found themselves squarely in the international spotlight. The important role these states play in the global hydrocarbon market, as well as their geopolitical importance and economic power, have contributed to the world’s interest in their responses to the conflict. It is clear that the “Ukraine moment” may prove decisive to the future of Russia-GCC relations. However, the likely impact of the war in Ukraine on Russia-Qatar relations is of particular interest.
By prioritizing its national interests and maintaining close relations with the Western bloc, Qatar has perhaps most explicitly demonstrated its position through condemnations of Russian actions and gestures of support for Ukraine. On the day of the invasion, Ukrainian President Zelensky tweeted: “I continue negotiations with the leaders [of Qatar]… [Ukraine has] received support from the Emir of Qatar.” The Doha Forum hosted by Qatar on 26-27 March included representatives from Ukraine and Western countries, but no high-ranking representatives from Russia. Along with the Emir of Qatar Shaykh Tamim and President of the United Nations General Assembly Abdulla Shahid, President Zelensky addressed the Forum. Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraine’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, participated in several panels. The panel “Crisis in Ukraine: A Defining Moment for European Security” included Ms. Dzhaparova. The rest of the panel members—Pawel Jablonski, a Polish Undersecretary of State, Patrick Turner, NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Defense Policy and Planning, and Karin von Hippel, Director-General of the UK-based think-tank RUSI, represented various Western powers and organizations. Russian officials were not invited to participate. This rather obvious show of support for the Ukrainian cause at such a sensitive time may spell danger for the bilateral relationship between Doha and Moscow in the short- to medium-term. Indeed, there exist two possible scenarios which might emerge—the rift between Qatar and Russia may widen and relations might be downgraded, or pragmatism and shared interests between both parties will preserve ties in the face of substantial headwinds.
The First Scenario: Downgraded Relations
A rupture in Qatar-Russia relations is made more probable by the emergent economic competition between the two states. Indeed, Qatar has become one of Europe’s best hopes to wean itself off Russian natural gas. Germany, France, Belgium, and Italy have all begun talks with Qatar to buy liquefied natural gas (LNG) on a long-term basis. Germany has already agreed to a long-term energy partnership with Qatar, although the complexity of negotiating energy flows must be considered when judging the potential of such an arrangement. In a recent interview, Dr. Nikolay Kozhanov, a research associate professor at the Gulf Studies Center of Qatar University, explained:
“In the short run, the GCC countries that can theoretically play an important role in the diversification of European supply sources are unlikely to be able to significantly increase the exports of their hydrocarbons to the EU. However, the trend of a growing Middle Eastern presence in the European oil and gas market has been set, and within the next five to seven years it might lead to a decrease in the Russian share of the regional market.”
In this sense, while Doha had already demonstrated its readiness to come to the aid of Western countries over the last six months, physical limitations on the ability of Qatar to increase export volumes remain. These obstacles will continue to hamper Europe’s efforts to rid itself of Russian gas. Other challenges, such as Moscow’s demand that European states pay for Russian gas in rubles, place immense pressure on Western states. How Europe will respond to these developments remains uncertain. It also remains to be seen how Western sanctions on Russian hydrocarbon exports will impact the international financial system. In recent weeks, Russia has sought ways to circumvent the dollar-dominated financial system—including the possibility of using the Chinese renminbi to sell its gas and oil abroad. Qatar, which seeks to expand its LNG export profile and maintain the current oil trading system, may view Russia’s actions as inimical to its long-term interests.
The Ukrainian conflict is not merely an energy issue, however. Long-term security cooperation between Qatar and the United States has driven the emirate to align more closely with Washington in recent years. For the same reason, Doha has drifted away from Moscow. The current strength of the U.S.-Qatar relationship is based on ties developed during the Sheikh Hamad era, as well as Qatar’s overriding security concerns as a small state. The centrality of Al Udeid Air Base to U.S. deployments in the region, Washington’s recognition of Qatar as a “Major Non-NATO Ally”, and ongoing Qatari mediation efforts—such as liaising between the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan—all exemplify the depth of U.S.-Qatar ties and the symbiotic nature of the relationship.
The Ukraine crisis may force Qatar to align even closer to the United States, band wagoning with its powerful partner. This behavior would be highly unusual, given that Moscow is not a major threat to Doha’s security and remains a tangential actor within the Gulf region. Despite this, states within the international system have come to recognize Russia’s potential for aggression and Moscow’s willingness to use force to further its interests. Given such developments, relations between Moscow and Qatar could be downgraded in the short- to mid-term, moving Doha closer to the West. In turn, this might shift the strategic calculations of Qatar’s neighbors. Although ties between Doha and several gulf monarchies have been on the mend recently, many of Qatar’s fellow GCC member states remain wary of Doha. Qatar’s continued movement toward the United States opens the doors for Qatar’s neighbors (such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), who have thus far demonstrated a marked neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war, to develop relationships with other states on either side of the conflict.
The Second Scenario: Maintaining Pragmatic Relations
The second scenario—in which Qatar and Russia retain a normal level of contact and healthy bilateral relations—would be a more positive outcome for both states, given the way both are diplomatically engaged in the region. Bilateral trade and investment sweeten the deal. The Qatar Investment Authority holds shares in the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft, a $500 million stake in VTB bank, and a 25 percent stake in St Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport. So far, QIA has held onto these assets for now. The reason Qatar has kept its investments comes down to avoid perceptions of partiality. As Dr. Kozhanov suggests, “Doha is not interested in using its economic resources as means of political influence or coercion. This could damage its principle of remaining a neutral power, ready to mediate in international conflicts, but not to create coalitions against anyone.” Though its actions so far would suggest Doha has begun to take an explicit position on the conflict, Qatar’s desire to remain a key diplomatic player is powerful. As Professor Mehran Kamrava explains in his 2013 book, Qatar: Small State, Big Politics, Qatar’s foreign policy tends to hedge against overreliance on a single power. In other words, Qatar likes to be the friend of everyone, if possible. As part of this policy, Qatar has developed political ties with the United States, Iran, the Taliban, and an array of other state and non-state actors. It would therefore follow Qatar’s past behavior to maintain contact with Russia, even during this contentious time.
The Qatar-Russia relationship stands on shaky ground. There exist two broad options available to the two parties—they could downgrade the bilateral relationship in the wake of the war in Ukraine, or they may continue to sustain diplomatic ties. In the latter case, Qatar could project an air of impartiality toward the conflict. The former case would have no historical precedent for post-Soviet Russia. Downgrading relations with Qatar would suggest a transformation of modern Russia’s policies in the MENA region. In contrast to the USSR’s zero-sum approach to Middle Eastern allies, modern Russia has followed a ‘win-win’ strategy—balancing relations with all states to advance core Russian interests in the region. Modern Russia maintains relations with Turkey and Israel while supporting Al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian War. Moscow has built good relations with the GCC states, despite the geopolitical disagreements between these parties. This willingness to work with both sides applies at both the intrastate and bilateral levels. If Russia were more partisan and selective in its friends, Qatar’s outlook on the Ukraine conflict may darken its attitude toward Moscow and justify a cooling of relations. But this is not the case, and Doha’s investments in Russia—as well its reputation as an impartial arbiter—render a diplomatic rupture unlikely. Qatar and Russia are therefore likely to maintain bilateral relations and to cooperate pragmatically where possible. Indeed, the case of Qatar and Russia may be illustrative of the future course of Russian policies toward important actors in the MENA region after the Ukrainian conflict.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.