Gulf mediation to end war

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 18 Oct 2022

The UAE and Saudi decision to mediate in the Russian war in Ukraine is the result of regional calculations and with a view to possible regional impacts, writes Dina Ezzat

Mohamed bin Zayed and Putin

The Russian war in Ukraine is nearing its first 12 months to the dismay of some capitals that had anticipated a Russian blitz of its neighbour and former Soviet republic. Today, there are few certainties about the next phase of the war, but there are concerns that it might extend to impact the Middle East militarily, particularly in the Mediterranean zone.

During the past few weeks, Russian forces that have been operating in Syria since 2015 have acted to increase the volume of air strikes against northern parts of Syria taken over by militant opposition groups.

This comes at a time when Russia has been resending Wagner Group fighters, which had been pulled out to Ukraine earlier in the year, to the east and south of Libya, according to informed diplomatic sources in Cairo.  

According to the same diplomatic sources, it is clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to send a message of military resilience and the ability to manage, and maybe also to expand, smaller conflicts on the side of the war in Ukraine.

The same sources say that what is particularly worrying is the possibility that Russia will use its foothold around the Mediterranean, both in Syria and Libya, to send “offensive messages” to the West from the southern and eastern borders of NATO. Worse still, the same sources added, there is a remote possibility that either Syria or Libya will evolve into theatres of proxy West-Russia confrontation.

Concerns over such scenarios could well have prompted both the UAE and Saudi Arabia to offer de-escalating contributions to efforts to mediate in the Russian war in Ukraine in the past few weeks. Already both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have facilitated prisoner-swap deals between Russia and Ukraine. Now, the “Gulf intervention” in this crisis is changing and expanding.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi earlier acted to send a firm message of dismay to US President Joe Biden over Washington’s attitude to both capitals by declining to support a US-led move to issue a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The UAE, a non-permanent member of the council, shrugged off US and Western pressure to vote in favour of the resolution.

In the first week of March, with considerable Saudi support, according to a New York-based Arab diplomatic source, the UAE abstained in the vote on the UN Security Council resolution. However, less than three weeks down the road the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries that had declined to condemn the Russian military invasion of Ukraine voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution that required Russia to immediately end its “military operations” in Ukraine and to provide protection for civilians.

According to the same Arab diplomatic source in New York, the US and the West exercised a lot of “heavy-lifting diplomacy” to make sure that the “traditional Western Arab allies, especially in the Gulf” would not abstain.

However, he added, it was also clear that the language of the UN General Assembly resolution in the spring of this year had to refrain from being harsh on Russia. The same source added that there were significant US-UAE consultations at the UN in New York at the time. He said that there had not been a need for similar pressure on last week’s UN General Assembly resolution that required Russia to reverse course on its “attempted illegal annexation” of Ukrainian territories and calling on other nations and organisations not to recognise it.

He said that contextualising the support of the Arab, especially the UAE and Saudi, vote on the recent UN General Assembly Resolution was essential because it was clear that Putin was not having the easy victory that some thought he was going to have in Ukraine.

 He argued that it was in the interest of the Arab countries that have issues with the Biden administration regarding human rights and democracy to have a “strong friend in Moscow” — as they do in Beijing — to help push back against pressure from Washington.

The vote came against a backdrop of increasing tension between Washington and Riyadh over the latter’s decision to shrug off US appeals for further oil production and to join the OPEC Plus group of countries in decreasing oil production before what the West fears will be a cold winter made worse by the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine.

“Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia is willing to turn their back on the US. There was a need for a balancing act,” he said. As part of this “balancing act,” Saudi Arabia this week decided to allocate $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and the UAE decided to play the role of a possible “mediator” between the West and Russia.

This was demonstrated by the visit of UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed to Moscow last Tuesday, where he met with Putin.

In Cairo, an Egyptian diplomat said that it was necessary for the Arab countries to have a role in promoting the de-escalation of the conflict. He said that in March Egypt had proposed the formation of an Arab committee to help promote de-escalation. But the committee’s visit to Moscow in April did not achieve what was hoped. However, the same source said, “things are different now, and there is potentially more appetite for possible, but not immediate, acts of de-escalation.”

The UAE move was in parallel with Turkish mediation qualified by an informed Turkish source as “sustainable and possibly useful”. But according to several Cairo-based European diplomats, it is actually about the high-profile diplomatic role that Abu Dhabi wishes to play or about a pre-emptive diplomatic effort to avoid an expansion of the crisis to the Middle East.

According to Alaa Al-Hadidi, a political commentator and Egypt’s former ambassador to Ankara and Moscow, there is a qualitative difference between the role Turkey has been playing in the conflict and the steps that either the UAE or Saudi Arabia are trying to take now.

He added that the context is more layered because Turkey is a NATO member, while both the UAE and Saudi Arabia as traditionally strong Arab allies of Washington have been feeling disappointed over US positions vis-à-vis the Gulf “for reasons beyond the debate over human rights and democracy.”

This had been the case for at least 10 years since the US started talking about the “pivot to Asia” under the Obama administration in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, which brought about a decrease in the US military presence in the Gulf.

There was also the groundbreaking visit of Saudi king Salman bin Abdel-Aziz to Moscow in October 2017. The opening up to Russia came prior to the debate over the killing of Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018.

As far as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are concerned, Al-Hadidi said, the US is not the strong ally it was in the past. “This is not about Democrats versus Republicans in the US, because even under the administration of former president Donald Trump there was considerable Saudi disappointment over Washington’s weak reaction to Saudi worries over Houthi attacks on Saudi territory” from Yemen, he said.

He added that there was a comparison to be drawn between the favourable status that Doha has with Washington due to the Qatari intervention in the conflict in Afghanistan and the tension that has been looming over Washington’s relation with both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

But Al-Hadidi said that neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE is trying to replace their alliance with the US with one with Russia. “It is simply not doable, and Russia knows this,” he said.

Instead, the attempts of both the Saudis and Emiratis to help with the humanitarian situation or to carry messages between the West and Russia are about the pursuit of a bigger diplomatic influence for these two countries.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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