The reasons behind Gulf states’ neutral policy on Ukraine
The Russian military campaign in Ukraine has thrown Europe’s geopolitical landscape into disarray. This crisis also overshadows the global order, with countries worldwide adopting various positions toward the crisis, including the Gulf states, which have adopted a policy of neutrality. But why have the Gulf states acted in this way and what are the justifications for their position?
Throughout history, the Gulf states have always been known for embracing a position which is harmonious with international legitimacy and in line with international law, and opposing any armed invasion or violation of the sovereignty of an internationally recognized state. This has been and remains the Gulf states’ stance toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although the UAE, along with China and India, abstained from voting in favor of the US-Albanian resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and calling on Moscow to withdraw its forces, this position should not be misconstrued as indicating approval of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It seems more probable that the Gulf states wish to send a message to the West that both Russian and Iranian geopolitical expansion violates international law, and that the West should address the Iranian threat in the same way it is addressing the threat posed by Russia.
It seems that the Western powers have now begun to adopt a nervous posture toward the positions of some Gulf, Arab and African states on Russia, and it seems some have invoked the statement of former US President George W. Bush, who said: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This position is somewhat unfair as it implies some sort of opportunism on behalf of countries adopting a more neutral position and places unjustified pressures on them.
Many countries worldwide hope that the West will pursue a position similar to the one that it is now adopting on Russia when it comes to other conflicts and crises in the world, more specifically toward the Iranian regime’s regional proxy war project.
Given the West’s paradoxical position toward Iran’s expansionism, via its proxy militias, which pose a grave existential threat to most governments and nations in the Arab region, it has failed to reassure the leaders and peoples in the region. On the contrary, many Arab peoples see the West as being supportive of Iran’s malign behavior, trivializing or at least downplaying it using the argument that its actions are geographically distant from the West and mostly avoid targeting Western interests, despite skirmishes and limited-scale operations with Western forces here and there.
The Gulf states’ own international standing and economic resources do not allow them to align politically and economically with one camp against another.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
The Gulf states do not want to engage in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis for several reasons. Experiences in both the recent and distant past have presented them with many lessons that have made them reconsider their political positions and the need to focus primarily on their own political, economic and geopolitical interests, adopting a realist foreign policy standpoint. Their own international standing and economic resources do not allow them to align politically and economically with one camp against another.
It should also be noted that the Gulf states are more connected to the East than the West, especially in the field of energy, sharing major economic interests with China in particular, and to some extent with Russia. Despite these ties, however, the Gulf states do not want to politicize energy prices at the expense of their own national interests, especially since they need revenue inflows to support their national budgets to continue with the implementation of development plans in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is also true that the Gulf states share political and military interests with the West and do not wish to consider undoing ties in the near future, whether at the political, cultural or economic levels. The Gulf states also believe that they can act independently of the Western and Eastern camps in such a way that their policies serve mutual interests.
It may also be that the Gulf states wish to abandon the former model of forming alliances of a more unipolar nature (forging alliances with one predominant global power while distancing themselves from the other). Instead, the Gulf states prefer to adopt a more flexible multipolar model so that they can benefit from forming multiple positive and well-balanced alliances, through which they can forge balanced relations with all the major world powers according to assessments of common benefits and the convergence of interests. This is an approach that many countries worldwide have already begun to pursue within the framework of the multipolar world order which is now taking shape.
At the popular level, meanwhile, there is also clear resentment among the region’s peoples toward the West’s withdrawal — however symbolic — from the Arab region and the Middle East in general, which has created a predictable vacuum that was equally predictably quickly filled by other world powers, especially in light of the crises, wars and constant threats posed by Iran against the region. In the words of an old Arab proverb well-known worldwide: “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” Conversely, anyone who abandons you in your hour of need is no friend. This friend did not learn from their mistakes and failed to rectify them, whether in the case of the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran, or the withdrawal of military equipment at a time when it was seriously needed.
The West now perceives a serious threat in Ukraine, with this new crisis possibly changing its own threat perception. This should automatically lead to a genuine understanding of the Arab region’s grave concerns about the equally serious Iranian threat. With these Western countries now better able to put themselves in the shoes of the Gulf states in particular and the region’s countries in general, they will be better able to understand that they disastrously miscalculated the threat perception in the Arab region when it comes to Iran.
So, is the West ready to rectify its past mistakes, impartially address the crises gripping the world and respond satisfactorily to the flagrant violations of international norms without resorting to justifications devoid of political commonsense? And is it ready to calculate its policies on a fair and just basis? I sincerely hope so.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami