On 21 February 2022 Russia recognised the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk cities in Eastern Ukraine and three days later, on 24 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised a “special military operation” in Ukraine targeting a number of cities and infrastructures. The official stated objective of Putin government was to protect the people subjected to genocide by the Ukrainian regime. He stated that Russia will pursue the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bring to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.[i]
The crisis has evoked responses from the global community as well as regional actors. In the West Asia and North Africa region, Turkey is majorly affected by the crisis. Turkey shares maritime boundary with Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea and is acting as a mediator in the crisis. It hosted the Foreign Ministers of Russia and Ukraine on 10 March 2022 and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited his counterparts from Russia and Ukraine for a tripartite leaders’ summit. In addition, countries like Egypt, Libya and Lebanon depend on wheat import from the two countries. Moreover, as the crisis unfolds, the Gulf countries are proactively responding to the situation. Notably, the responses reflect the ongoing change in the foreign relations of these countries.
Russia has accused Ukraine of being taken over by the extremists since 2014 when pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted after months of protests against his rule. As per the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 908 people have been injured, 516 have lost their lives[ii] and over 18 million people have been affected due to the crisis.[iii]A United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution to end the offensive against Ukraine was vetoed by Russia. However, a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution condemning the Russian aggression was passed on 2 March 2022with 141 members voting in its favour, 35 abstentions and five members voting against the resolution. Similarly, United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution with an aim to establish an independent international commission of inquiry with 13 abstentions.[iv]
Thirty-eight countries have closed the air spaces for Russian aircrafts and more than 30 entities have cut off some Russian banks from cross border payment communications through SWIFT messaging system. More than 950 sanctions have been placed on individuals and companies in Russia by the European Union (EU), the United States (US), Switzerland, Japan and the United Kingdom (UK). An end to the gas trade with the western economies can lead to the loss of 3 per cent while a ban on crude oil trade can lead to a decline of 1.2 per cent in the GDP of Russia.[v] Ukraine crisis has led to the displacement of more than 2 million people within the first two week of Russian military action.
Iran stands in support of Russia
The Gulf countries have responded to the crisis as per their foreign policy interests and relations with the concerned parties. Iran is overtly supportive of Russia and abstained during the vote against Russia in UNGA. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the mafia regime of the US has created the Ukraine crisis. Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian blamed NATO for the situation in Ukraine and the foreign ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh added that the Eurasian region is on the verge of entering a pervasive crisis because of NATO’s movements led by the US. However, the Foreign Minister called for an immediate ceasefire and a political and democratic solution for Ukraine.[vi]
Iran and Russia are strategic partners and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Moscow in January 2022 where he discussed the draft for a 20-year strategic agreement with his counterpart, President Putin. Further, Russia is one of the key actors advocating revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is expected to bring economic relief to Iran. Russia and Iran are also discussing the sale of advanced arms like S-400 defence systems and Su-35 fighter jets to Iran. The two countries have converging interests in survival of Assad regime in Syria and the fate of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Russia also supported Iran’s bid to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Putin has expressed his support for Iran to gain a strong hold in the Eurasian Economic Union.
Saudi Arabia and UAE tread a Fine Line
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a strong regional power in West Asia and a major actor in the international energy market as leader of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has crucial partnerships with Russia through the OPEC+ grouping. Although Saudi Arabia has a long-standing strategic partnership with the US, the bilateral relations have faced some challenges in recent years. Before becoming President, Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state for its part in the Khashoggi murder and refused to engage with the Crown Prince, who effectively rules the country on behalf of his 86-year-old father King Salman. In a recent interview, the Crown Prince stated that he does not care about recognition by the US President.
The Saudi response to the Russian military operation in Ukraine is not aligned to Western response and has rather been seen as neutral and soft on Russia. Riyadh reaffirmed its commitment to the stability and balance of oil market and refused to produce additional oil even as the Biden administration requested for enhanced production in wake of rising oil prices; as it rose above US$ 130 per barrel.[vii]Saudi Arabia stands in support of Ukraine without overtly criticising Russia. The Saudi cabinet affirmed its support for international efforts to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine through dialogue and diplomacy and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman proclaimed that the Kingdom would support any measure for de-escalation of the situation.[viii] He also mentioned that Saudi Arabia was willing to act as a mediator in the crisis.[ix]
Similarly, the UAE is treading a fine line where it intends to show its solidarity to Kiev without alienating Moscow. It abstained in the resolution tabled at the UNSC but voted in favour of the UNGA resolution against Russia. The Emirate’s Ambassador to the UN, Lana Nusseibeh clarified the Emirate’s contradictory vote in UNSC and UNGA underlining the flexible diplomacy of the UAE.[x] The Emirates is, for the first time, a non-permanent member of the UNSC and on 1 March 2022 took over the presidency of the UNSC.
In recent years, the UAE and Russia have strengthened their economic ties; bilateral trade jumped by 21 per cent in 2021.[xi] More than 4,000 Russian companies have opened their branches in the UAE and a number of Emirati companies are keen to invest in transport, infrastructure and hospitality sector in Russia. It is noteworthy that the UAE is an important ally of the US in West Asia with relatively better military capabilities and can be an important player in sharing the regional burden as the US looks to focus on the Indo-Pacific.
The UAE ambassador to the US, Youssef Al Otaiba endorsed an increase in oil production as requested by the US and mentioned that the UAE favours oil production increases and will encourage OPEC to consider higher production levels; it has been a reliable and responsible supplier of energy to global markets for more than 50 years and believes that stability in energy markets is critical to the global economy.[xii] The UAE supports a political solution in Ukraine and has called for end of hostilities. Presidential Advisor Anwar Gargash stated that the Emirate’s priority was to encourage all parties to resort to diplomatic action.[xiii] It also sent 30-ton emergency aid to support the refugees and the displaced in Ukraine.[xiv]
Oman takes a Balanced Approach
Meanwhile, Oman took a balanced stand as the Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq Al Said mentioned that the Sultanate is following the events with great concern and regrets the outcome of the crisis. He stressed the need for Russia and Ukraine to return to diplomacy and resort to dialogue and peaceful negotiations based on the United Nations Charter.[xv]Oman shares warm ties with Russia as the two have taken a common stand on the crisis in Syria and Yemen.
Oman is shaping itself as a neutral actor in a fractious regional politics, and is focused on improving domestic economy. It has often acted as a mediator in regional conflicts. Russia finds Oman as a reliable partner that believes in collective security as well as multilateral dialogues between the Gulf countries and Iran.[xvi] Oman is a strategic partner of the US and receives security assistance focused on counterterrorism, capacity building, and border and maritime security.[xvii]
Qatar and Kuwait condemn Russia
Among the Gulf States, only Qatar and Kuwait have taken a more out-rightly anti-Russia position. Qatar was upfront in condemning Russia’s activities in Ukraine. It co-sponsored the UNGA resolution demanding Russia to withdraw its military from Ukraine.[xviii] In February 2022, the US designated Qatar as a major non-NATO ally providing Doha with benefits in defence trade, loan programs and priority in delivery for military sales.[xix] Nevertheless, when Biden administration approached Qatar to supply gas to Europe, Qatar mentioned that it cannot cover the deficit; however, currently it is supporting Italy during the energy crisis.
The US and Qatar also cooperate on Gulf security as Doha hosts the Al-Udeid Air Force Base and CENTCOM Forward Headquarters, and supports NATO and US military operations in the region. Qatar's foreign minister called for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict between Moscow and Kiev that would preserve Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally-recognised boundaries.[xx] In a telephonic conversation with the Ukrainian President, the Qatari Emir called on all parties to exercise restraint and resolve the crisis through diplomatic means.[xxi]
Likewise, Kuwait extended support for Ukraine as soon as the crisis broke out and co-sponsored the UNSC resolution condemning Russia. Kuwait foreign ministry emphasised the importance of defending Ukraine’s territorial dignity and sovereign rights.[xxii] On 1 March, the Kuwaiti Cabinet held an extraordinary meeting to follow up on the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine military confrontation at all levels to ensure the country’s security and provision of all necessary needs to citizens and expats.[xxiii]Kuwait is a partner of the US and receives military and defence technical support; it also supports US efforts to counter Iran.
Bahrain takes a muted Pro-Ukraine Position
Bahrain, which is a key ally of the US has also taken a pro-Ukraine position. The Joint Statement of the Second US-Bahrain Strategic Dialogue on 27 February 2022 stated that the two countries discussed the importance of building international support for Ukrainian sovereignty. Bahrain is a major non-NATO ally since 2002 and plays a key role in the region’s security architecture. It hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and US Naval Forces Central Command, and was the first Gulf country to join the US led International Maritime Security Construct to promote freedom of navigation in the region.[xxiv]
In the last two decades, the Gulf countries have diversified their external relations, and Russia has emerged as a partner for the Gulf countries in various spheres. The shift is clearly visible in the Gulf responses to the Ukraine crisis. Iran stands with Russia, while Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman have supported a political solution in Ukraine. They have registered concern for humanitarian crisis without condemning the Russian military operation. Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, the non-NATO allies of US have supported the Ukrainian sovereignty. Moreover, Qatar is the only regional country that has been overtly critical of Russia.
*Dr. Lakshmi Priya, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]‘No other option’: Excerpts of Putin’s speech declaring war, Al-Jazeera, 24 February 2022,
https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/24/putins-speech-declaring-war-on-ukraine-translated-excerpts , accessed on 11 March 2022.
[ii]Ukraine: Civilian casualty update, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 09 March 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=28241&LangID=E, accessed on 11 March 2022.
[iii]Flash Appeal Ukraine, 2022 Humanitarian Programme Cycle, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), March-May 2022, https://reporting.unhcr.org/document/1814 , accessed on 11 March 2022.
[iv]Human Rights Council establishes an Independent International Commission of Inquiry to investigate all alleged violations of human rights in the context of the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine, United Nations Information Service in Geneva, 04 march 2022, https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2022/03/morning-human-rights-council-establishes-independent , accessed on 11 March 2022.
[v]Russia-Ukraine conflict 2021-2022 - Statistics and Facts, Statista, 10 March 2022,
https://www.statista.com/topics/8922/russia-ukraine-conflict-2021-2022/#dossierKeyfigures , accessed on 11 March 2022.
[vi]MaziarMotamedi, What next for Iran and Russia ties after Raisi-Putin meeting?, Al-Jazeera, 21 January 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/21/what-next-for-iran-and-russia-ties-after-raisi-putin-meeting , accessed on 08 March 2022.
[vii]Herman Wang, Saudi crown prince says kingdom still committed to OPEC+ oil agreement with Russia, SPG Global, 27 February 2022,
[viii]Margaret Dene, Hannah Labow, Carol Silber, Middle East responses to the Ukraine Crisis, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 04 March 2022, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/middle-east-responses-ukraine-crisis , accessed on 09 March 2022.
[ix]Crown Prince says Saudi Arabia ready to mediate between Russia, Ukraine during calls with Putin, Zelensky, Arab News, 03 March 2022, https://www.arabnews.com/node/2035591/saudi-arabia , accessed on 08 March 2022.
[x]UAE takes over presidency of UN's top chamber amid Ukraine crisis, The National News, 01 March 2022, https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/2022/03/01/uae-takes-over-presidency-of-uns-top-chamber-amid-ukraine-crisis/ , accessed on 08 March 2022.
[xi]Fareed Rahman, UAE and Russia trade set to rise 21% to hit $4bn in 2021, The National News, 12 December 2021, https://www.thenationalnews.com/business/economy/2021/12/12/uae-and-russia-trade-set-to-rise-21-to-hit-4bn-in-2021/ , accessed on 08 March 2022.
[xii]Oil price dips as UAE endorses increased production, Al-Monitor, 09 March 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/03/oil-price-dips-uae-endorses-increased-production#ixzz7ND2XWHSF , accessed on 10 March 2022.
[xiii]Arwa Ibrahim, UAE stance on Ukraine war reflects ‘strong alliance’ with Russia, Al-Jazeera, 03 March 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/3/uae-stance-on-ukraine-war-reflects-strong-alliance-with-russia , accessed on 09 March 2022.
[xiv]UAE sends 30 tonnes of emergency medical and relief aid to Ukraine, The National News, 07 March 2022, https://www.thenationalnews.com/uae/government/2022/03/07/uae-sends-30-tonnes-of-emergency-medical-and-relief-aid-to-ukraine/ , accessed on 08 March 2022.
[xv]Oman following Ukraine crisis with concern: HM, Muscat Daily, 03 March 2022, https://www.muscatdaily.com/2022/03/03/oman-following-ukraine-crisis-with-concern-hm/ , accessed on 08 March 2022.
[xvi]Samuel Ramani, The growing strength of Russian-Omani ties, mei[at]75, 10 March 2020,
https://www.mei.edu/publications/growing-strength-russian-omani-ties , accessed on 09 March 2022.
[xviii]The UN Resolution on Ukraine: How Did the Middle East Vote?, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 02 March 2022,
https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/un-resolution-ukraine-how-did-middle-east-vote , accessed on 09 March 2022.
[xix]Joe Biden names Qatar major non-NATO ally as energy crisis looms, The Indian Express, 01 February 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/world/united-states-qatar-major-non-nato-ally-7750616/ , accessed on 08 March 2022.
[xx]Qatar supports Ukraine's territorial integrity, urges diplomatic settlement, Reuters, 28 February 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/qatar-supports-ukraines-territorial-integrity-urges-diplomatic-settlement-2022-02-28/ , accessed on 10 March 2022.
[xxi]Qatar's Emir receives call from Ukrainian president - State News Agency, Reuters, 24 February 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/qatars-emir-receives-call-ukrainian-president-state-news-agency-2022-02-24/ , accessed on 08 March 2022.
[xxii]Giorgio Cafiero, Analysis: Gulf states cautiously navigate war on Ukraine, Al-Jazeera, 04 March 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/4/analysis-gulf-states-cautiously-navigate-war-on-ukraine , accessed on 08 March 2022.
[xxiii]Kuwait cabinet mulls Ukraine crisis repercussions, Arab Times, 01 March 2022,
https://www.arabtimesonline.com/news/kuwait-cabinet-mulls-ukraine-crisis-repercussions/ , accessed on 09 March 2022.