Former Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary Generals have always called for dialogue as an approach for resolving disputes between states. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is proving to be yet another window of opportunity for Gulf States to both express their distress over current security challenges and to potentially play a role in mitigating these challenges.
Specifically, the significance of Gulf States in the conflict from an economic perspective is proving to be key, given the destabilizing consequence of the conflict on energy markets. The wealth of energy reserves dominated by the bloc supports a pro-Western outlook on the Ukrainian conflict and prospects for sanctions against Russia, thus elevating Western interests at the expense of Russia.
For the first time since the Russian military operation in Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24, 2022, Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers attended a multilateral meeting in Riyadh with their Gulf State counterparts. The meeting took the form of a high-level GCC-Russia and GCC-Ukraine dialogue on the same day that the regular ministerial session had concluded.
This meeting was unprecedented in the way it saw the two foreign ministers meet with the same bloc or organization, albeit separately, as opposed to the failure of both UN and EU bodies in bringing together opposing sides in the ongoing war for a discussion on potential resolution mechanisms for the conflict.
Today, the Gulf States are more cautious of their involvement in tackling international conflict. Particularly after their support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, allowing the placement of US army bases and the use of their air space by a US-led coalition, Gulf States have — for the last decade — been occupied with addressing the fallout from their involvement.
This has included the establishment of key terrorist organizations, namely the violent extremist group Daesh (so-called ISIS), which continues to threaten the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar who all took part in airstrikes against the group, increasing expenditure on armaments and defense training.
At present, Gulf States are keen to pursue a balanced approach when dealing with international conflict. They make certain that their relationship with superpowers, including the United States and Russia, is balanced, especially in light of such a volatile landscape in the international arena. In doing so, emotions are kept aside, and collective interests are prioritized.
In the build-up to the ministerial meetings, Russia announced its willingness to sign an ‘Economic Integration Agreement’ with the UAE, Iran, and Egypt, signaling willingness by Russia to further strengthen its ties with what it classifies as friendly countries.
These have so far demonstrated a balanced approach to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, despite unilateral support for a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s relationship with Gulf States is at now at an all-time high, specifically after OPEC+ commitments made by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who believe that US regional commitments are not living up to the region’s security and stability demands.
Qatar, on the other hand, is the elephant in the room, given their recent commitments to supply Europe with liquified gas, in an attempt to reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. This is a different viewpoint taken by Qatari policy makers as opposed to their Gulf States counterparts who have overall maintained neutrality, clearly aligning them with Europe and the West.
Ukraine, has received humanitarian aid from the Gulf States since the Russian military operation first began. The GCC-Ukraine dialogue is the first of its kind, and as opposed to the dialogue with Russia, on the Ukrainian end, the Ukrainian government has been very proactive in expressing their perspective to different regions in the world, seizing any and all opportunities for international engagement.
The importance that Gulf States play vis-à-vis Western sanctions on Russia given their crude oil export capabilities and the impact on economic stability cannot be understated. This is true specifically in western countries suffering from record high inflation rates. The United States and Russia have independently made clear their respective interests in the region working to promote these with their Gulf allies.
Gulf States have yet again proven to have more leverage over these relationships for the ultimate benefit of sustaining the security and developmental prospects of the Arabian Peninsula.
On one the hand, the Russian foreign minister’s visit to the Gulf had two main objectives, a request for Gulf States to ignore calls from the West to join sanctions imposed on Moscow-which Lavrov explicitly confirmed during a press conference following the GCC-Russia ministerial meeting in Riyadh — and to keep production within the OPEC+ framework.
Then, the White House press secretary announced an upcoming visit for President Biden to Saudi Arabia, who in his presidential campaign promised to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state, and during his tenure as president so far, has vowed to prioritize human rights over the US-Saudi relationship. These commitments however, all ended quite suddenly, as the US seeks to strengthen its relations with Saudi Arabia.
Following news of the visit, OPEC+ announced that it would increase production for the months of July and August, whereas an extended two-month truce in Yemen received accolades by President Biden, with an emphasis on the courageous role of Saudi leadership. This has demonstrated, yet again, a rapid change in perspectives due to the ripple effects of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the importance of relationships in the Arabian Peninsula to the conflict.
There’s no doubt that holding ministerial meetings with Russia and Ukraine, should be seen as a brave step for the bloc. It is such approaches that will undoubtedly lead to competitiveness for power in the region to soar, especially given the oil export capability which is proving to be a key factor in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. There is no better timing for Gulf States to address their respective security and economic concerns and work for the benefit of the region at large than at the present time.
— Ahmed Buhejji is the non-resident Grand Strategy Fellow at the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum. He is a Second Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain, joining the Office of the Foreign Minister in June 2018. Ahmed holds a Master’s in International Relations from Queen Mary University of London and a Master’s in Business Administration from DePaul University.