The Gulf states and Ukraine: Why are Washington’s Arab allies tilting in different directions?
The divergence in views may indicate geopolitical shifts in the Persian Gulf, but may equally be tactics employed to gain leverage with Washington
Israel may have made up its mind to back the US side in Ukraine’s raging crisis, but Tel Aviv’s covert and overt Arab allies in the Persian Gulf remain uncomfortably divided over the issue.
While some have voiced support for Moscow’s position and others have denounced Russia’s military invasion of eastern Ukraine, the ‘Arab majority’ has remained neutral, issuing non-committal statements about dialogue, political solutions, and respect for the principles of international law.
Four specific stances taken by Arab and Gulf states are worth analyzing in order to understand the shifts taking place in West Asia right now:
First is the unusual pro-Russian posture struck by Saudi Arabia in the statement issued after a telephone conversation between French President Emmanuel Macron and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS). The statement spelled out the kingdom’s continued commitment to the ‘OPEC+’ agreement on oil production levels it brokered with Russia. This was an implicit thumbs-down to US pressure on Riyadh to increase production and drive down prices, which would ease strains on western economies.
Second is Qatar’s oblique official support for the US side and condemnation of Russia, reflected in Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani’s declaration that his country stands by “Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders.” That means opposing Russia’s recognition of the breakaway eastern Ukrainian republics of Donetsk and Lugansk and its military intervention in their support.
Third is the abstention of the UAE, currently a rotating member of the UN Security Council, in its vote on a US-authored draft resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the strongest terms and demanding the immediate withdrawal of its forces.
Fourth is the utter impartiality of the Arab League. The statement issued after its emergency meeting of permanent representatives – called for by Egypt and chaired by Kuwait – avoided condemning or endorsing the Russian move, and sufficed with flowery language about the need to respect the UN Charter and international law and support efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully.
A US-Gulf leverage game
All Gulf oil and gas producers have an obvious interest in maintaining the sky-high world energy prices that are being driven even higher by the crisis.
But Saudi Arabia’s affirmation of its commitment to the production deal it reached with Russia goes beyond this. It is sure to cause a bust-up with the US administration and President Joe Biden, who incidentally, has refused to meet with MbS since his inauguration.
Biden himself called King Salman to urge a hike in Saudi output to flood the market and bring down prices, in order to support the US and European economies and make up for any reduction in Russian oil supplies during the Ukraine crisis.
This clear challenge to Saudi Arabia’s historical strategic protector and ally can be seen as a warning to the White House: Riyadh may flip over to the Russian side if Biden continues to ignore, not recognize, and refuse to speak with the kingdom’s de facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman. Biden has insisted on dealing only with King Salman, a rule broken at least twice by Macron.
The Ukraine crisis, which could develop into a third world war, is being treated as an ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ issue. The US administration is unlikely to tolerate any even-handedness or neutrality on the part of its Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, which has yet to officially comment on the war.
The question being asked in Gulf political corridors is whether MbS can withstand Washington’s wrath at his surprise entente with Russia, and what the consequences might be.
The same question can be addressed to Qatar and its ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. He firmly took the US side in his foreign minister’s veiled condemnation of the invasion. This will not endear him to his Russian partners in the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), which held a summit-level meeting in Doha last week that President Vladimir Putin did not attend.
Qatar’s volte-face began when Biden invited Sheikh Tamim to Washington on 31 January and the latter agreed to use Qatari gas to help make up for any shortfall in Russian gas supplies to Europe due to the Ukraine crisis. He is the only Gulf leader to have met with Biden in the White House, where he was elevated to the status of ‘major non-NATO ally.’
This designation bumped Qatar above the Saudis and Emiratis, who have typically been more strategically aligned with the US government. Observers understood the tactical move to be about securing Qatari gas in case events in Ukraine turned sour.
The UAE’s neutral position on Ukraine comes amidst its own fresh challenges with Washington.
Once the US’s most valued Gulf ally, in December the Emiratis suspended a multi-billion dollar acquisition of US F-35 fighter jets, and in February announced that it would purchase a dozen Chinese L-15 training and light combat aircraft, with an option to buy 36 more.
The UAE’s neutrality on Ukraine is likely to stem from the country’s recent moves to swap out its muscular foreign policy – that saw disasters in Syria and Yemen – with the soft-power variety, which leads with trade and diplomacy, and is more independent of Washington.
Unprecedented recent visits by top Emirati officials to meet counterparts in Turkey, Iran and Syria attest to this new direction, as the UAE seeks out new partnerships to balance its rivalries with Gulf neighbors Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Abu Dhabi’s abstention on the Ukraine vote at the UN just adds fuel to Washington’s existing dissatisfaction.
Neutrality may win the day
This clear divergence between Gulf states over Ukraine has been reflected in their media’s coverage of the crisis.
Viewers have detected a tilt to the Russian viewpoint by Saudi Arabia’s flagship al-Arabiya channel. Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel has reflected the US/European view, despite attempts to give its rolling coverage the appearance of professional impartiality. For its part, Abu Dhabi-owned Sky News Arabia stood somewhere in between.
It is unclear whether the UAE’s abstention in the Security Council vote on Ukraine was cleared beforehand with the US administration. If not, it will cause trouble in Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Washington and incur US wrath in some form or other. And there may not be enough time to repair any damage.
The Arabs have no stake in this war. Neutrality, for those who can find a way of opting for it, is the wisest position to take. The African proverb “when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers” applies here, specifically to the Gulf states.