The Ukraine crisis with the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, was a difficult test for the Persian Gulf countries to show their support for the US. The most important outcome of the crisis was the division between the Persian Gulf monarchies and their degree of independence from US policy.
The past decade has been a reminder to the Persian Gulf monarchies of a gradual but steady US retreat from securing them. Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy was the first step in this project. Former US President Obama, who unexpectedly faced a powerful uprising in China, decided to shift his focus from the Persian Gulf and the Middle East to China and East Asia.
The project was completed with a more serious challenge from the next US President, Donald Trump, and the economic war with China. Trump did not see security as free and openly demanded money from Saudi Arabia in his speeches. “It’s easier to get money from the King of Saudi Arabia than to rent a property in New York,” he said. US President Joe Biden continued the same game to complete the project.
Withdrawal of US Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia, US lack of support for Houthi missile attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, removal of Houthis from the terrorist list, pressure to end the Yemeni war, Chinese presence, and large-scale investments in the Persian Gulf and Russian presence in Syria in 2015 showed the Persian Gulf monarchies that they can no longer rely on the US alone for their security.
In such a situation, the reaction of the Arab countries in supporting the US in the Ukraine crisis cannot make Washington happy. An example was the holding of an urgent meeting of the Arab League at the request of Cairo. Egypt was one of the Arab countries that strongly condemned the Russian invasion. But it failed to influence the majority of member states.
The Arab League merely made a few regular statements at the meeting, such as the need to pay attention to the dialogue, political solutions, and respect for the principles of international law. The Arab countries do not want to get involved in the war between the West and Russia because they will not benefit from it.
The neutrality of the Persian Gulf monarchies
The majority of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries tend to be neutral in the face of the Ukraine crisis. Kuwait has violated this procedure. The Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry has condemned any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and recommended dialogue instead of war and conflict. Kuwait’s reaction is rooted in its occupation history.
Kuwaitis had not forgotten how they felt when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attacked them in the 1990s. They have spread the same feeling about the occupation of Ukraine. But we should not neglect that Kuwait has good relations with Russia. In fact, they have not forgotten that the Soviet Union supported them in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and called for Saddam to leave Kuwait. Therefore, supporting Ukraine does not mean tensions with Russia for the Kuwaitis.
Saudi Arabia is the largest and most wealthy country in the Persian Gulf that has adopted neutrality. Riyadh does not currently have good relations with Biden. In his debates, he criticized the war in Yemen and spoke of the need to punish Saudi Arabia. Biden has not yet spoken to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, and has established contacts with King Salman. A law that has been broken twice by French President Emmanuel Macron.
US disregard for Saudi Arabia and repeated criticism by US officials of the human rights situation have left Riyadh reluctant to support the US in the Ukraine crisis. It has been in relations with Russia for years and is not ready to destroy it in a situation that is thousands of kilometres away from Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed bin Salman has not forgotten that at the time of the assassination of the famous Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and at the G20 summit in Argentina in December 2018, Putin respected him despite the negligence and distance of other people presidents.
The UAE is the most prominent country to oppose the US when Abu Dhabi abstained from voting on a UNSC resolution condemning Russia in the Ukraine crisis. The UAE is also disappointed with the US. It did not forget when the Yemeni Houthis’ drone attacked Abu Dhabi in January 2022, and the UAE asked the Americans to re-include them in their terrorist list, but it refused.
In recent years, the UAE has sought to diversify its security resources and counts on China and Russia, especially after the Americans sold their fifth-generation fighters conditional on special security conditions. The UAE considered it an insult and turned to Chinese L-15 and French fighter jets.
Qatar is the only country that has supported the US and blamed Russia. Doha is confident that its gas resources can be an alternative to the European gas supply. It was intensified by Biden inviting the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to attend the White House and discuss security issues and Qatar’s readiness to supply European gas. The Emir of Qatar is the only authority in the Persian Gulf that Biden has accepted in the White House and designated his country as a major non-NATO ally.
The Ukraine crisis is a battleground that most Persian Gulf monarchies are reluctant to side with somebody. They cooperate with the US and Russia and do not want to undermine these bilateral relations by taking sides. However, the main impact of the crisis is the division of the GCC countries, which shows the extent of the difference in their national interests.