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War in Ukraine: The ongoing conflict has provided growing strategic opportunities for GCC states

Article by Drewery Dyke

February 28, 2024

War in Ukraine: The ongoing conflict has provided growing strategic opportunities for GCC states

Heading into the third year of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Gulf Arab states – the six states comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – continue to maintain an intentional ambiguity regarding their stances in relation to the governments of Russia and Ukraine in respect to the ongoing conflict, rejecting the dichotomous pro/anti Russia/West stance.


No GCC state has categorically backed either party to the conflict. Instead they have, mainly via Saudi Arabia and the UAE, sought to operationalise the conflict for their own objectives, opting, in general, for an increasingly multipolar diplomatic and security stance. As the Ukraine war does not constitute a direct threat to the Gulf’s security or political interests, broadly, engagement has adhered to carefully formulated policy objectives.


Each GCC state has carried its own nuanced perspective into bilateral relations with the parties to the conflict: Qatar, subject to a regionally-imposed blockade between 2017-2021; and Kuwait, occupied by Iraq in 1990-1991, both initially appeared sympathetic to Ukraine.[1] Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, arguably initially appeared to give Russia considerable political leeway, possibly on account of its role in OPEC+ or since these Gulf states have provided a safe haven for Russian capital facing widespread western sanctions.[2] The conflict also enabled Saudi Arabia to distract and expunge residual western concerns over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate. Collectively, however, the conflict has presented opportunities for economic, security and diplomatic diversification.


This has been bolstered by their economic situation: the collapse of oil prices in 2014 adversely impacted on Gulf states’ budgets, exacerbating aspects of their domestic challenges.[3] Yet since Gulf states possess nearly 40% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 23% of proven natural gas reserves, Europe’s sudden diversion away from Russian sources had an immediate impact. According to a January 2024 report, the conflict resulted in around a 50% increase in oil prices.[4] Gas prices increased tenfold in the months following the invasion, falling to a threefold increase towards the end of year one.[5]


The resulting pivot away from Russian energy sources toward Gulf sources underscored the centrality of the Gulf to the UK and much of Europe’s energy security.[6] It bolstered Gulf self-confidence as well as political leverage amidst a period of doubt by Gulf states about the primacy of security relations with a seemingly unreliable United States (US) following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and apparent US inaction following the 2019 and March 2022 Houthi attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, including on the Gulf.[7]


While, in broad terms, US staying-power appears to have ebbed over the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations, Gulf caution remains predicated on the US military presence in the region and it is still the case that “GCC’s economies remain strongly tied to the US, as their currencies are pegged to the dollar and the global sale of oil is conducted in that currency.”[8]


Yet growing multipolar economic relations presage diplomatic ones: In 2017, the People’s Republic of China surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest crude oil importer; in 2022, Saudi Arabia was China’s top supplier of oil – later overtaken by Russia.[9] Perhaps commensurate with this economic orientation, in March 2023, exemplifying Gulf states’ increasingly confident diplomatic diversification and shaking up of engagement with great powers, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China issued a joint trilateral statement. This statement declared their “agreement to resume diplomatic relations between [Iran and China] and re-open their embassies and missions […] and [that] the agreement includes their affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states.[10] A June 2023 assessment stated that “China’s growing clout poses a challenge to America’s long-held political and diplomatic influence in the region”, but it overlooked that it was also a decision taken by Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran.[11]


The Ukraine war has provided Gulf states a two year opportunity to learn-by-doing as well as extend their own influence. In March 2022 – only a month after the invasion -Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a surprise virtual appearance at the Doha Forum and called on Qatar to “contribute to stabilizing the situation in Europe” and “increase energy production to make Russia understand that no state should use energy as a weapon and to blackmail the world.[12]


In 2023, GCC states – mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE – built on this engagement:

– In February 2023, the GCC and US re-activated the US-Gulf Cooperation Council Working Groups on Integrated Air and Missile Defense and Maritime Security.[13]

– Also in February, reflecting a cautious, measured policy approach, the “UAE cancelled the branch licence for Russia’s MTS Bank, the target of British and US sanctions.”[14]

– In March came the Chinese-led Saudi Arabia- Iran agreement, when Saudi Arabia also joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Chinese-led Asian security and economic bloc, with the status of dialogue partner.[15]

– In May, on invitation, President Zelenskiy addressed a meeting of the Arab League, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.[16]

– In June, while western figures avoided the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, the UAE’s President, Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan nevertheless attended: UAE-Russia trade increased 63% between January to September 2023.[17]

– In June and September, the GCC and the US convened ministerial-level meetings.[18] In early August at an event convened by Saudi Arabia, “representatives from over 40 countries gathered […] to discuss Ukraine’s plan to bring its protracted war with Russia to an end. The summit included high-level delegations from the United States, the European Union, China, India, and dozens of other states—and conspicuously did not include any officials from Russia, who were not invited.[19] The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the summit a “breakthrough”.[20]

– In the same month, the UAE sent a ship carrying 250 tons of relief aid to Ukraine. In early December 2023, Vladimir Putin visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia and held discussions with President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, respectively.[21] With both, Russia sought to engage their counterparts in relation to bilateral cooperation in trade and investment; on 10 December, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, undertook a virtual engagement at the Doha Forum, where he gave a bullish account of the Ukraine conflict, appearing to appeal to the ‘global south’.[22]

– In late 2023, the UAE brokered a high-profile Ukraine-Russia prisoner swap, following on from a similar exchange that the UAE and Saudi had supported in 2022, deepening their experience of working with both sides to the conflict.[23]


Has the Ukraine war offered only opportunity? No, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are nevertheless apprehensive about Russia’s engagement with Iran in respect to technology transfers in the arms sector between Iran and Russia, particularly in respect to precision missiles and drones.[24] Recalling observations made by Professor Simon Mabon in February 2023, even in the Gulf, food security remains a concern.[25] Recent Yemen-based Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea has also raised Gulf concern about the vulnerability of global supply chains and the impact of inflation, notably on food prices.


Heading into the third year of the Ukraine war, while it may still be a bit premature to assert that “Persian Gulf States May Be the Best Mediators for Peace in Ukraine” on account of the links they have assiduously maintained with both sides, they have, broadly, grasped opportunities, gained experience and expanded their strategic knowledge, depth and perhaps, above all, diffidence.[26]


It is the case that “Ukraine war shows [the] soft power of the Gulf states”.[27] As Kristian Coates Ulrichsen forecast in April 2023, “Ties with long-established security and defense partners, such as the United States, will continue along issue-specific and transactional lines but may not be regarded as exclusive of developing other relationships […]”[28] And GCC leaders will continue “to stay out of any confrontation that may occur and minimize the regional overspill. To the extent that any global uncertainty is likely to keep oil prices at elevated levels, the region’s energy producers will accrue economic leverage and reinforce their self-perception as influential middle powers.


The war in Ukraine has enabled GCC states and their leaders to grow, learn and gradually, purposefully, extend their reach and influence. A UK still working out the impact of Brexit; with its own, deep ties to the Gulf as well as long-standing security links, must re-assess and re-calibrate its own relationship to the region and how to balance Gulf stances with its own.


Drewery Dyke is a FPC Senior Research Fellow.


[1] Giorgio Cafiero, Where has the Ukraine Conflict Left Gulf States? , Italian Institute for International Political Studies / Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI), February 2023,

[2] Eugene Chausovsky, Persian Gulf States May Be the Best Mediators for Peace in Ukraine, Foreign Policy, February 2023,,them%20leverage%20with%20the%20West; See: “The Gulf states have actually increased their own imports of Russian oil since the conflict began, using cheaper oil from Russia for domestic use while increasing exports of their own oil to Europe [and] GCC states have also resisted alienating Moscow from OPEC+”. It comprises “a loose grouping of energy producers that includes OPEC members as well as other countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, South Sudan, and Sudan” and coordinate members’ oil supplies, even after the invasion. For example, in October 2022 “they agreed to cut production against the wishes of the Biden administration.

[3] Office for Budget Responsibility, Why have oil prices fallen by so much?, Box sets >> Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2015, Box: 2.1, Page 27,,our%20economic%20and%20fiscal%20forecasts.

[4] Qi Zhang, Yi Hu, Jianbin Jiao & Shouyang Wang, The impact of Russia–Ukraine war on crude oil prices: an EMC framework, Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume 11, Article number: 8 (2024), January 2024,,%2C%20an%20increase%20of%2056.33%25. They state that “[…] the Russia–Ukraine war caused the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices to rise by $37.14, an increase of 52.33%, while Brent crude oil prices rose by $41.49, an increase of 56.33%.”

[5] Energy and Climate intelligence Unit, The Cost of Gas since the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, February 2023,

[6] For just one example, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, EU countries received almost 40% of their gas from Russia. In October 2023, QatarEnergy agreed to supply Netherlands-based Shell for 27 years, mirroring an agreement the same company concluded with France-based TotalEnergies, also in October 2023, constituting Qatar’s largest and most enduring gas supply agreements with EU states. See: Yousef Saba, Qatar supplies gas to Europe, vying with US to replace Russia supply, Reuters, October 2023,

[7] Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), Beyond Riyadh: Houthi Cross-Border Aerial Warfare 2015-2022, January 2023, ACLED noted, in the introduction, that “on 25 March 2022, the Houthis launched a large-scale attack on Saudi Arabia using a combination of loitering munitions, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles. This coordinated attack targeted oil refineries and energy infrastructure across Saudi territory, from Asir to the Eastern Province, and even threatened the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Jeddah.

[8] Dr Diana Galeeva, Ukraine war shows soft power of the Gulf states, Arab News, September 2023,

[9] United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest crude oil importer in 2017, December 2018,; Aljazeera, Russia overtakes Saudi Arabia as China’s top oil supplier / Chinese imports of Russian oil rise by nearly one-quarter from the same period in 2022, March 2023,,equivalent%20to%201.75%20million%20bpd

[10] Embassy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Sweden, Joint Trilateral Statement by the People’s Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, March 2023,

[11] Amrita Jash, Saudi-Iran Deal: A Test Case of China’s Role as an International Mediator, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs / Conflict & Security, June 2023,,to%20sustain%20the%20manufactured%20peace. The article also noted that in August 2022, “Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, signed a memorandum of understanding with its Chinese counterpart, Sinopec, covering multiple areas of potential collaboration between the parties in Saudi Arabia. The other joint ventures between the two companies include Fujian Refining and Petrochemical Company (FREP) and Sinopec Senmei Petroleum Company (SSPC) in China, and Yanbu Aramco Sinopec Refining Company (YASREF) in Saudi Arabia.

[12] The Cradle, Zelensky makes surprise address to Doha Forum amid GCC split between Washington, Moscow The Ukrainian president is the latest western envoy to try his hand at convincing GCC countries to increase oil production, March 2022,

[13] US Department of Defense, Readout of the New Round of U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Working Groups on Integrated Air and Missile Defense and Maritime Security, February 2023,,the%20GCC%2DU.S.%20Strategic%20Partnership

[14] Dr Diana Galeev, Ukraine war shows soft power of the Gulf states, Arab News, September 2023,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Giorgio Cafiero, Why Saudi Arabia, Arab League invited Zelenskyy to their summit / Ukraine’s president and Arab nations might not seem like a natural fit, but they both had their reasons for extending and accepting invitation, Aljazeera, May 2023,

[17] Andrew Roth and Pjotr Sauer, Western firms snub ‘Russian Davos’ as its prestige evaporates / Annual event headlined by Vladimir Putin described as ‘totally toxic’ since full-scale invasion of Ukraine, The Guardian, June 2023,

[18] See, for example, US Department of State, Joint Statement Following the Ministerial Meeting of the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), September 2023,

[19] Ambassador William Roebuck, Saudi-Hosted Ukraine Event Ends Without Breakthrough but Still Irritates Absent Russia, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW), August 2023,

[20] Eugene Chausovsky, Global South Pivot: Ukraine’s Diplomatic Strategy in the Gulf, Gulf International Forum,

[21] President of Russia (website – note: site is not secure) – On December 6, Vladimir Putin will pay working visits to the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, December 2023,

[22] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation – Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions following the 21th Doha Forum, December 2023,

[23] Eugene Chausovsky, Global South Pivot: Ukraine’s Diplomatic Strategy in the Gulf, Gulf International Forum,; Agence France Presse (AFP), in the Moscow Times, Russia, Ukraine Swap Hundreds of Prisoners in UAE Brokered Deal, January 2024,

[24] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, The Russia-Ukraine War and the Impact on the Persian Gulf States, Project Muse, Asia Policy, Volume 18, Number 2, April 2023, pp. 39-46 (Article),

[25] Professor Simon Mabon, One year on: The reverberations of the war in the Middle East, Foreign Policy Centre, February 2023,

[26] Eugene Chausovsky, Persian Gulf States May Be the Best Mediators for Peace in Ukraine, Foreign Policy, February 2023,,them%20leverage%20with%20the%20West

[27] Dr Diana Galeeva, Ukraine war shows soft power of the Gulf states, Arab News, September 2023,

[28] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, The Russia-Ukraine War and the Impact on the Persian Gulf States, Project Muse, Asia Policy, Volume 18, Number 2, April 2023, pp. 39-46 (Article),


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.

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