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HomeGeopolitical CompassArabian PeninsulaHow the Ukraine Crisis is Reorienting GCC Foreign Policies

How the Ukraine Crisis is Reorienting GCC Foreign Policies

Author: Jonathan Fenton-Harvey 

Affiliation: Al Sharq Strategic Research (contributor); Journalist and Researcher

Organization/Publisher:  Al Sharq Forum/Al Sharq Strategic Research

Date/Place: June 7, 2022 / Istanbul, Türkiye

Type of Literature: Article

Word Count: 4118



Keywords: War, Gulf States, Russia, Ukraine, USA




In this article, the writer talks about the crisis left by the Russian war on Ukraine and its repercussions on the countries of the Middle East, especially the Gulf states, on various political and economic levels. 

According to the author, the Gulf states are facing a political dilemma with significant economic consequences. Each of the Gulf states, with their differences, seeks to build a balanced political-diplomatic relationship between the parties to the conflict, Russia, the West, and the United States. At the geopolitical level, the Gulf countries are considered regional powers influential in their surroundings and have solid and significant relations in the field of energy. And with a multipolar world coming into view, countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE seek to adapt to this new environment.

Considering a noticeable decline in American influence, albeit ostensibly from the Middle East, the Gulf states have sought other alternatives to fill the void. These authoritarian countries have maintained their regimes through their relations with China and Russia. Under the rule of the new American administration, many differences have emerged.

On the issue of human rights in those countries, in addition to the policy followed by the Trump administration towards the crisis in Yemen and the US withholding the sale of some weapons to Saudi Arabia, this prompted the latter to find alternative solutions that were available from both China and Russia. The writer believes that the Gulf countries today view China and Russia as the main guarantors of stability in the region, especially after the Arab Spring in 2011. Both countries have a particular file related to human rights violations and reject any external interventions regarding the issue, which is something they guarantee to the other as they present themselves—that they do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

The Gulf states’ attempt to balance the relationship between Russia and the West appears in the position taken by the UAE in the Security Council, in its refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and then to take a different place by denouncing Russia’s actions in Ukraine in line with the position of NATO. Thus, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have maintained their relationship with both parties, their traditional sponsor represented by the United States, and its new allies Russia and China, in a way that guarantees their interests in the Middle East and maintains their control in the region. The writer considers that the policy taken by the Gulf countries towards Russia and China was not the result of the Ukrainian crisis but rather was an extension of the policy being pursued by these countries since the Obama administration and Trump as well, which has continued with Biden’s presidency and his adoption of silence with the Gulf countries regarding their violations of human rights.

Still, it can be said that the conflict in Ukraine pushed this relationship to the fore again, so the conflict of interests between those countries and Washington has become more profound. Amid these rivalries, the writer believes that Qatar was the biggest beneficiary from this diplomatic balancing, as it formed new partnerships in the fields of military and energy, showing apparent flexibility in dealing with the two parties to the conflict.


Critical Commentary: 

The Gulf’s refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine indicates these countries’ dissatisfaction with the policy of the United States. The UAE’s abstention in the Security Council came as a response to Washington’s slow and inappropriate response to the attacks on its territory by the Houthis, in contrast to Moscow’s support for the UN Security Council vote to classify the Houthis as a terrorist organization. As for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, energy issues and tensions between the White House and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have significantly pushed Saudi Arabia to its current position on Russia. Through OPEC, Saudi Arabia has invested and established partnerships with Russia, making it realistic for Riyadh to avoid antagonizing the Kremlin. It is important to note that while Qatar has defended Ukraine’s sovereignty, Doha does not join Western powers in calling for an economic war against Russia. It has developed deeper ties with Russia in investment, infrastructure, and tourism. Some believe that the policy being pursued by Saudi Arabia and the UAE comes in the context of maintaining the stability of the oil markets. It is not in their interest to close the door to Russia and, at the same time, maintain a good relationship with Washington. Rather than standing against Moscow, these countries see that further development of their relations with Russia can pay off, meaning that the Emiratis and Saudis are unlikely to jeopardize their security, investments, and commercial ties with Russia due to a conflict in which they see no need to engage directly. Amid the conflicts between the West and Moscow, this means leaders in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh will be keen to maintain a geopolitical balance.


On the other hand, China has been the largest trading partner of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries since 2020, the largest buyer of oil, and a prominent source of direct investment through the distinctive Belt and Road Initiative. The two sides share a vision that supports opening the region to other powers such as China, Russia, and India, cooperation in maritime security, renewable energy sources, military technologies, and advanced communications. Energy trade cooperation and Chinese direct investment have become relatively indispensable to the Gulf states’ economic transition away from fossil fuel energy, and an essential source of high technology. This level of interdependence and economic interdependence has given China unprecedented political leverage over the GCC countries. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has not recalibrated its commitment to Middle East security. The Gulf states’ resistance to US pressure to “politicize” their economic interests with China will soon reach unprecedented levels. The Middle East, including the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf, constitutes a strategic goal for Russia and China in the context of international trade and economic expansion, and at the top of these concerns is the creation of a “zone of peace” in the Middle East through development, in contrast to the conflict created in the region by the United States and its allies.


By: Taqwa Nedal Abu Kmeil, CIGA Research Assistant



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