The external shock propagating from the war in Ukraine is reverberating across the Gulf, where existing trends pushing the region towards a post-American era have been reinforced. The repercussions have been visible at the UN Security Council (UNSC), where the meeting held on the 25th of February 2022 represented a moment of truth: as expected, the draft resolution defining the attack against Ukraine as unprovoked and unjustified was vetoed by Russia, raising routinary questions about the effectiveness of the United Nations (UN) in ensuring international peace and security when one of the permanent members of the UNSC is part of a conflict. Remarkably, while 11 countries voted in favour of the draft resolution, the UAE decided to abstain like China and India.
Abu Dhabi has lobbied hard to obtain a seat as non-permanent member for the term 2022-2023 and on the 1st of March took over the presidency of the UNSC. The Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN Vasily Nebenzya was quick to congratulate, adding that he expects the UAE to lead the most important body of the UN ‘with flying colours’. Russia also voted in favour of the UNSC resolution 2624 (2022), which extends the existing arms embargo in place on leading figures of the Houthi rebels to the entire group, leading to speculations about a deal made behind the scenes between the Emirati and the Russian permanent missions at the UN. Winning Moscow’s support for the resolution has certainly been crucial for the UAE, which have pushed for more stringent measures against the Houthis, especially in the aftermath of the attack against Abu Dhabi last January.
Against the backdrop of the rumoured Emirati-Russian entente in New York, the US administration may have to carefully reconsider its foreign policy choices in the Gulf region, at a time in which it had just started to readjust to the security challenges stemming from the intractable conflict in Yemen. Nevertheless, beefing up the US bilateral defensive assistance to the UAE through the deployment of the guided missile destroyer USS Cole and a squadron of advanced F-22 fighters, or with plans to launch a fleet of more than 100 unmanned drones in troubled waters around the Arabian Peninsula, seems to have not been enough to repair the damaged relations with major Gulf partners, which have been extremely frosty since US President Joe Biden took office.
Driven by plain human rights issues, the recalibration of the US policy towards Saudi Arabia has also eroded Washington’s leverage vis-à-vis a leading oil producer, right when the conflict in Ukraine threatens the global oil supply. US’calls on Riyadh to stabilise oil prices have so far gone unheard, as Saudi Arabia sticks to the policies of the OPEC+ group, that also includes Russia. Even Qatar, which Biden has recently designated as Major Non-NATO Ally, said it is currently unable to divert its gas exports in case of a major disruption, citing investment needs and long-term contracts tying Doha to Asian partners.
This leaves the US with the only option of re-engaging with Iran, reviving the nuclear deal and resuming oil production and exports from Teheran, a prospect that would mitigate energy sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, but significantly alter the strategic balance in the Gulf.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region