In the international crisis triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the political leeway of the Gulf states in the war has increased. This is due to military (Iran) and diplomatic variables (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar). On the one hand, the provision of drones and training assistance by Iran to Russian forces in occupied Ukraine envisages – on a lesser scale – the military coordination scheme experimented in Syria. On the other hand, recent Gulf monarchies’ diplomatic activismvis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine highlights that mediation can potentially come from leaders whose countries didn’t enact sanctions, while cultivating personal ties with Moscow (Turkey, first of all). All the Gulf monarchies voted, with a balancing act, in favour of the UN resolution (12 October 2022) condemning Russia’s ‘illegal so-called referendums’ and asking for the reversal of Ukrainian territories’ annexations by Moscow.
Gulf states’ leeway in the crisis: military and diplomatic tools
The Gulf states have been stepping up – in different ways – their engagement in the Russia-Ukraine crisis. According to the United States and media sources, Iran is delivering short, medium-range missiles and armed drones to the Russian army operating in Ukraine. Previous media reports had already highlighted Tehran’s provision to Moscow of smuggled Iranian-manufactured weapons via Iraq and the Caspian Sea. Military instructors belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, also known as pasdaran) would be arrived in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, comprised Crimea, to support the Russian military in flying drones.
On the other side of the Gulf, diplomatic contacts with Moscow and Kiev have intensified, achieving some (still minor) results. For instance, on 23rd September, Saudi Arabia’s mediation allowed the release of ten foreign war prisoners captured by the Russians in Ukraine, including a US and a UK citizen. After a Russia-Ukraine prisoners swap, former detainees were transferred from Russia to the Saudi kingdom. On 15th October, the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud pledged 400 million dollars of humanitarian aid for Ukraine, after a phone call with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Riyadh also stated its willingness to continue the efforts of mediation for de-escalation.
In the same days, the Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan flied to St. Petersburg to meet the Russian president Vladimir Putin (11th October), with the Ukraine file at the top of the agenda. Although the meeting did not produce any tangible outcomes, the UAE’s news agency mentioned – among the topics discussed – military de-escalation, humanitarian repercussions and peace prospects. The UAE also pledged further 100 million dollars in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. On 13th October, the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met Putin at the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan. The bilateral aimed to ‘defuse tensions’. In line with its foreign policy, Doha is willing to play a diplomatic role also on Ukraine, but its stance on the war – which, in some passages, seemed closer to Kiev’s position than to Moscow’s – has complicated the relationship with the Kremlin.
Implications on Gulf’s balances and US-Gulf relations
Iran’s tighter political alignment and military cooperation with Russia in Ukraine is not a source of direct concern for the Gulf monarchies. Indeed, Gulf and Middle East capitals perceive the war in Ukraine as a far conflict, quite in the same way we Europeans perceive Syria or Yemen wars, although with global implications on energy, inflation, food and security. Regarding Ukraine, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha’s main goals are continuing to pursue and protect their economic interests despite the conflict, also trying to achieve diplomatic gains as mediators to improve geopolitical leverage and national prestige.
However, Iran’s new military role in Ukraine has potential implications for security balances in the Gulf. First, the provision of missiles, drones and instructors to Russia – combined with the violent repression of internal protests – removes the last chances to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA). Not by chance, the White House stated the JCPOA ‘is not on our focus right now’. This means Tehran will likely intensify its ‘looking east’ policy, as well as its destabilising activities in the Middle East, mainly at the detriment of Gulf monarchies’ national security and collective freedom of navigation.
Secondly, in all post-2011 battlefields of the Middle East, Iran and the Gulf monarchies are rival, simply with money and local allies, or even through weapons and proxies. The presence of pro-Iranian Shia armed groups in the region further complicates matters. Not only do many of these groups share anti-US feelings, but in latest years they have strengthened the relationship with Russia, due to the role played by Iran. Indeed, the Lebanese Hezbollah has already cooperated on the ground with Russian military forces in Syria. In Iraq, Russia cultivates ties with units of the Popular Mobilization Forces – officially to counter jihadi terrorism – and has a communication channel with the Houthis in Yemen, whose leadership has often visited Moscow. Such connections, shaping an embryonic ′Russia-Iran-Shia armed groups triangle’, built upon sanctioned economies and asymmetric warfare, may pave the way for anti-US converging interests in the region. This could increase the risk of incidents, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean (Syria) and the Red Sea’s flashpoints.
In the context of the Ukraine war, Gulf powers' growing activism in the crisis represents, at the same time, a risk and a cautious opportunity for the United States. The military role of Iran alongside Russian army not only strengthens a worrisome axis, but it is likely to intertwine two critical files: the relationship with Moscow and the one with Tehran. On the other hand, the increased diplomatic engagement of the Gulf monarchies could offer a chance once Russia-Ukraine negotiations will enter the agenda. Anyway, much of the strategic direction will depend on how the Gulf states decide to use the political leeway they are slowly gaining in the crisis.