By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
The Gulf Cooperation Council And Ukraine
An essential facet of Russia’s war in Ukraine has been the emergence of players that fall outside the conflict’s pro-Western and pro-Russian dichotomy yet are influential in shaping its trajectory. One group of players that falls outside the West-Russia split is the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman. Although loosely allied with Western powers like the United States, they’ve been reluctant to get fully on board with anti-Russian measures. While vastly smaller in size and population than the continental giants of China and India, the GCC states have influenced key dynamics of the war in Ukraine: energy, diplomacy, and the intersection of Eurasian geopolitics with that of the Middle East.
Although no Arab government, save Syria, has outrightly supported Russia’s invasion, occupation, and annexation of Ukrainian land, Arab statesmen do not believe their governments should burn bridges with Moscow because of this conflict.
The GCC is a major player in global oil and natural gas markets, collectively accounting for nearly 40 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and 23 percent of proven natural gas reserves. This is an important factor, given that the United States and European Union have made diversification away from Russian energy a key part of their strategy to contest Moscow’s war efforts in Ukraine and reduce Moscow’s revenues.
GCC countries have served important functions related to both of these Western efforts. On diversification, Europe imported more oil from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait in the first ten months of 2022 compared to the same period the year before (and in the case of Saudi Arabia and UAE, more than the previous three years total). Natural gas flows from the Persian Gulf to Europe have also increased: Qatar was the EU’s second-largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplier (after the United States) last year, delivering 16 percent of its LNG supplies to the European bloc in the first ten months of 2022. Meanwhile, state-owned QatarEnergy signed a 15-year deal with Germany in November 2022 to supply 2 million metric tons of LNG per year starting in 2026, cementing long-term ties between the Gulf’s largest LNG provider and Europe’s largest economy.
However, GCC states have not entirely aligned with the West’s broader energy strategy. The Gulf states have increased their imports of Russian oil since the conflict began, using cheaper oil from Russia for domestic use while increasing exports of their oil to Europe. GCC states have also resisted alienating Moscow from OPEC+, a loose grouping of energy producers that includes OPEC members and other countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, South Sudan, and Sudan. They usually work together on coordinating cuts and expansions of oil supplies. This has remained the case even after Russia invaded Ukraine, such as the decision OPEC+ countries made in October 2022 to cut production against the wishes of the Biden administration.
Gulf states have stood behind Russia’s importance on global oil markets and supported unity within OPEC+. Despite Russia’s decrease in oil production due to sanctions and cuts in supplies to Europe, Russia is still the second-largest oil producer within OPEC+, with the bloc’s members calculating the need for Moscow’s cooperation to stabilize prices in the event of future oil price volatility.
Many GCC countries also have important ties with Russia beyond the energy sector that they do not want to sever for the sake of the West. Saudi Arabia is a significant arms purchaser from Russia. The UAE has received large inflows of Russian money since the war in Ukraine, including from tourists and investors, that was geared toward Europe before the expansion of EU sanctions. And GCC states have also had their complicated relations with the West—including recent investigations into Qatar’s alleged bribery of EU parliamentarians related to the World Cup—which could potentially challenge the extent of Western-GCC alignment in other areas.
The Gulf countries aim to secure their interests without throwing their full political weight behind either side. But rather than simply pursuing opportunism and greater profits in response to the conflict in Ukraine, many GCC countries have also leveraged their energy heft and broader political position to play a more active diplomatic role in the war. For example, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman negotiated a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine in September 2022, while in December of that year, the UAE and Saudi Arabia mediated a high-profile prisoner swap between the United States and Russia, which included the exchange of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Such mediation efforts would only have been possible with solid working relations with Russia and the West. This points to the unique position that GCC countries have: Refusing to sanction Russia and maintaining economic ties with Moscow gives them leverage with the Kremlin, just as their willingness to increase energy supplies to Europe gives them leverage with the West.
The final dimension of the GCC’s influence over the contours of the conflict in Ukraine stems from the bloc’s geopolitical competition with its neighbors. Although GCC countries have a clear interest in shaping energy flows and revenues to their benefit and becoming more active diplomatically, other players in the Middle East share similar interests. This includes Turkey, which has strived to position itself as the primary mediator between Russia and Ukraine and as a key beneficiary of energy shifts, and Iran, which has supplied Russia with drones and other military equipment to increase its diplomatic stature.
GCC countries, which have complex relationships with Iran and Turkey, are thus interested in ensuring that their energy and diplomatic efforts related to the conflict in Ukraine are not overshadowed or undermined by Ankara and Tehran. The GCC and its regional rivals could thus approach the conflict as an emerging zone of competition to influence its various spillover effects, including in overlapping spaces like Syria, where Russia also plays a key role.
Ultimately, the GCC doesn’t want to get dragged into the conflict, but it may end up key to it. Although largely limited to tactical measures like prisoner swaps, the GCC’s mediation role between Moscow, Kyiv, and the West could become more substantial in the future. Depending on how the conflict plays out, Gulf countries could be involved in mediating a potential settlement to the war when the time comes. Whenever that point may be, don’t be too surprised if those talks are hosted and hashed out in Dubai or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.