By Hussein Ibish, PhD
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine poses conundrums for almost every country in the Middle East. None stand to gain from Vladimir Putin’s wanton aggression in Europe. The Gulf Arab countries, which have expressed a telling range of disparate responses, are each trying to navigate a delicate and challenging diplomatic problem.
It’s not just Gulf states that are trying to thread the needle. Turkey is most deeply implicated, being a Black Sea power and a traditional rival of Russia in the region, not least in Syria. The crisis threatens an almost endless series of headaches for Ankara from virtually every direction.
Ankara and Moscow had to move quickly to foreclose a crisis that could have triggered NATO’s Article 5 obligations of mutual self-defense when an apparent Russian missile struck a Turkish merchant ship in the Black Sea in the afternoon of February 23, pre-empting Moscow’s initial attack on Ukraine.
Like earlier dangerous Russian-Turkish incidents, particularly Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in 2015 and the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara in 2016, this latest incident was patched up and passed over by mutual agreement. But such flare-ups show that Turkey and Russia are not just at loggerheads on many fronts, but could also easily be sucked into actual violent confrontations.
Now Turkey, alarmed by this extreme aggression by its historic rival to the north, has hinted at the possibility of barring Russian warships from entering the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits. Ukraine has been urging Ankara to invoke Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, which allows the denial of passage to belligerent powers in a state of war.
It would be a significant escalation in tensions, but Russian-Turkish suspicions are already so inflamed that Turkey has officially acknowledged the state of war exists, hinting it could indeed take this dramatic step.
Israel, too, has had to walk a thin line on Ukraine. The Naftali Bennett government has obviously been forced to say more than it wanted to in defense of Ukrainian territorial integrity and the UN charter. The issue of territorial integrity is awkward because of Israel’s endless occupation of Palestinian territories that have been controlled since 1967.
Moreover, Israel is one of Washington’s Middle East allies that have prioritized strategic diversification, as the United States appears less engaged and reliable in the aftermath of its fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For Israel and some Gulf countries, this has meant courting Russia and, increasingly, China. But Israel’s closeness to Washington meant that ultimately it had to join the chorus of condemnation. Yet as soon as the explicit criticism of Russia was issued, the Israelis began to tone it down. The pressure is not yet over, though.
The other American partners seeking new ties to Russia in the name of strategic diversification have been Gulf Arab countries.
The UAE in particular, and much like Israel, has already developed a mature relationship with Moscow. The day before the invasion started, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that the “strategic partnership” remains “strong” and “friendly.”
Abu Dhabi is trying to protect this policy from the Ukraine crisis. The UAE abstained from a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression at the United Nations Security Council and has said little else.
But, like Israel, Abu Dhabi may not be able to remain aloof. The UAE faces a major potential problem if there is a concerted campaign beyond Europe and the U.S. to target Russian oligarch assets stashed around the world.
After London and some other European cities, Dubai has been an important secondary repository for pilfered Russian wealth. The Emirates may be called upon not merely to say more but to enforce sanction by taking unwanted measures regarding valuable foreign holdings.
Saudi Arabia, yet another traditional U.S. ally seeking to diversify its strategic defense and economic options, has thus far been able to succeed where Israel couldn’t, hedging its position between Moscow, Beijing and the White House, and largely remaining silent. Riyadh will maintain this ambivalent quiet as long as possible. Yet if the conflict drags on, pressure on the Saudis will certainly grow.
Other Gulf countries have taken a different tack.
Kuwait’s unique experience of suffering the Iraqi invasion and occupation of 1990–91 pushed it to quickly speak up in defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And Qatar spies another potential opportunity to resurrect its pre-Arab Spring posture as a mediator and broker in international relations.
So, as usual, the Gulf Cooperation Council lacks a unified stance, to put it mildly.
Even Russia’s own regional allies potentially have much to lose. Syria promptly and effusively welcomed the Russian aggression. But the Assad regime had no choice because it remains dependent on Moscow, its preferred senior partner, patron and, arguably, savior, because Russia’s demands on Syrian sovereign prerogatives are much less extensive than Iran’s.
Yet Syria gains nothing by the invasion of Ukraine and stands to lose from the secondary effects of sanctions on Russia, ramped up Turkish-Russian tensions inside Syria, and the potential weakening of its patron which may well become bogged-down, distracted and weakened by a quagmire in far-off Eastern Europe.
Even Iran mainly stands to lose. Some in Tehran may be hoping Putin has initiated the final dismantling of the U.S.-led international order and that China will soon inflict a coup de grâce to the global status quo in Taiwan. Since Iran’s ambitions are entirely at odds with the legacy system, it’s instinctive for Tehran to welcome a major blow against it.
But that’s not how the Ukrainian crisis is playing out. Instead, U.S. President Joe Biden has surprised many with his resolute opposition to Russian demands and success in unifying and strengthening the Western alliance. NATO has not been this cohesive in at least a decade. And Germany’s announcement of greatly increased defense spending is only the latest sign that Russia’s aggression is reviving, rather than destroying, NATO and the Western alliance.
Unless Tehran fundamentally alters its strategic goals, or the West falters, this is distinctly bad news for Iran.
The same logic ought to apply in reverse to Iran’s Gulf Arab rivals. The six GCC countries are all veterans of the pro-American camp. All of them, including Qatar, benefit from the status quo and, therefore, traditional global order. It makes little sense for any, including the UAE, not to welcome and encourage the restoration of the system that is surely the best bet for their own stability and survival.
Disappointment and lack of confidence in Washington is almost unanimous among its Middle Eastern friends, and for good reason. The lack of judgment exemplified by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the striking lack of will to respond to provocations by Syria and Iran during the Obama and Trump presidencies, leave no option other than seeking to broaden relationships and expand options. Anything else would be unrealistic.
Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been openly fretting about the possibility they could be caught in a new U.S.-China Cold War and forced by one or both sides to choose between their main strategic partner and their best customer which is also a rising global power. Yet such a dilemma may be imposed on them much sooner by Moscow and Washington because of Ukraine. And if such a choice is forced, the correct answer is no mystery.
Washington has repeatedly dashed hopes and raised fears in recent decades, but traditional U.S. allies, especially small and vulnerable countries with a lot to lose, have far more to gain from the potential revival of the global Western-led alliance than from a chaotic transition to a new might-makes-right framework increasingly dominated by Moscow and Beijing. Even if it’s awkward, difficult, and at times costly, that’s certainly the wiser choice.
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