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The Ukraine Crisis and the Gulf: an Emirati Perspective

Interview with Abdulkhaleq Abdulla

The Ukraine Crisis and the Gulf: an Emirati Perspective
 Abdulkhaleq Abdulla
Visiting Senior Fellow at Harvard University

The Ukraine war is transforming the international order. With a body of literature pointing to the decline of the West in power dynamics, we cannot understand this new global equilibrium without speaking to those who are (or will be) its architects. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Visiting Senior Fellow at Harvard University and Professor of Political Science at UAE University, discusses the Emirati perspective for Ukraine Shifting the World Order.

What is your personal reading of Putin's motivations in moving against Ukraine? And what is your stance on this idea of a preventive war? 

Putin miscalculated the invasion on three levels:

  • First, Putin overestimated his own power, thinking the victory would be a quick one. In fact, recent military operations in Ukraine contradict this. The Russian army performed poorly on the field. This miscalculation mostly stems from Moscow's elite who (mistakenly) continue to consider Russia under the light of superpower status.
  • Second, Russia underestimated Ukrainians. This underestimation of Ukraine's readiness to not only fight but also resist was connected to the decision to launch the war. There was definitely a hypothesis that the Ukrainian armed forces would be reluctant to confront the Russian regular army. This assumption was primarily grounded in the experience gained from the 2014 Crimean annexation and the Ilovaisk and Debaltseve operations. 
  • Third, the Kremlin underestimated the West's reaction to the war which was justified. Russia’s attack was "illegal" (violating Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, requiring UN member states to refrain from the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of a state). European, American, and NATO responses were particularly undervalued, as seen with subsequent Finnish and Swedish NATO memberships demands. Finally transatlantic cooperation was clear with sanctions and humanitarian aid. Both the US and the EU were decisive in imposing an unprecedented set of measures against Russia. This underscores the fact that in times of crisis, the EU and the US are still vocal leaders.

Whatever Putin’s initial ambitions, they were hampered by these underestimations. He has yet to bring convincing evidence to legally justify this attack. All claims arguing that Russia’s war was a pre-emptive strike against Western aggression (i.e. the presence of Ukrainian-based chemical factories or the act of self-defense against NATO’s eastward expansion coupled with threats against Russian security) are not substantiated by any evidence. People who buy these falsehoods do so more out of an anti-Western stance, and because they are fascinated by Putin’s one-man show.

You describe the combined Western reaction as stronger than anticipated. How do you assess the Chinese position? And in your view, how can the situation evolve? 

China's reaction is unsurprising; it can be read in two ways. Beijing wanted to cast itself as a neutral party in the conflict, which is legitimate, and tried to do this by playing the card of neutrality in the vote at the United Nations. China abstained as the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution blaming Russia. Yet China is Russia's "natural" ally. It financially supported Russia through oil and gas purchases. This puts China in an ambiguous position with conflicting goals. It wants to balance its strategic interests, maintaining a partnership with Russia while also recognizing that the attack was not legally justified. 

If the Russians lose, it is likely China's support for Russia will be less vocal. But if Russia sustains the course of the war (as is currently the case) the West will be hit by a rise in prices and food shortages - all the more so since Putin is playing the long-term card here. This situation can hence evolve in several ways. 

In strategic, political and economic terms, if Russia were to emerge weakened from the conflict, China would win because Russia would increase its dependence on Beijing.

In strategic, political and economic terms, if Russia were to emerge weakened from the conflict, China would win because Russia would increase its dependence on Beijing. I mention this idea of weakening in relation to economic sanctions which may be a fatal blow to Russia's economy. But it should be noted that the possibility of a Russian defeat in the strict sense is highly unlikely. On the contrary, a scenario in which Russia grows stronger from the war would also help China. Beijing needs strong allies on its side in order to assert itself against the United States. 

So regardless of the outcome here, on the geopolitical chessboard, China should gain from the conflict. Finally, Russia's entanglement in Ukraine could drag on to the point that it is no longer sustainable. As of today, Ukraine is militarily stronger than in the past. The increase in its defense capacity has complicated Russia’s military operations. Russia may be forced to scale back its military ambitions amid fierce Ukrainian resistance. The possibility of a counter-offensive to regain Russian-controlled territories cannot be ruled out. 

On regional reactions, the West was concerned that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) gave the impression of sitting on the fence at the UN - a neutral, almost supportive stance towards Moscow. What’s your take?

On February 25 the UAE abstained from voting on the UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia spearheaded by the US — joining China and India in doing so. Only two countries from the region had supported that UNSC resolution: Kuwait and Turkey. The UNGA resolution was cosponsored by four countries from the region: Israel, Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey. There was a huge misreading and misjudgment of the Emirati reaction on the part of the West. The latter's reaction was justified. Europeans and Americans should not have been surprised by the UAE's position for several reasons. It said the vote was a “forgone conclusion” while calling for an immediate halt to hostilities.

First, the UAE abstained from the UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, not for political reasons but rather due to the fact that the UAE represents two groups: an entire Asian one and an entire Arab one. The UAE consulted both Asian and West Asian Arab countries (i.e. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia) attitudes as well as 22 Arab countries. When it voted at the UN, it was not only representing itself but all the different groups.

Second, when this resolution came to the UN General Assembly’s attention on March 2nd, the UAE voted against the invasion – this is where the true UAE position was reflected. The Emiratis condemned the illegality of the invasion, voting alongside 166 countries. Fourteen countries in the Middle East and North Africa voted in support of the measure, one voted against it, three abstained, and one did not vote (Algeria, Iran and Iraq abstained, and Syria voted against).

Third, the UAE's position (as the Arab Gulf states' position) has a legal, political and economic leg to it. Legally, the invasion was unjustified and there is clear unanimity there. Politically however, many countries view it as a European issue, and prefer to stay on the sidelines. Economically, Russia is part of OPEC+ of which the UAE has a lot of interest in, so it stayed neutral. Finally, Putin shows great respect for Gulf leaders and managed to develop personal relationships with its leaders - unlike the West and specifically the US.

Because of Putin's deep respect for the leading role of the Gulf states and for what they have achieved, some considered he deserved reciprocity. 

Because of Putin's deep respect for the leading role of the Gulf states and for what they have achieved, some considered he deserved reciprocity. 

Your answer leaves no room for Anti-Americanism, as you previously mentioned for other countries in the developing world?

Anti-Americanism runs deep in the public mind throughout the Middle East and in the larger South. This related to US imperialist history in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the nature of the US-Israeli relationship. This causes many in the region to admire Putin's stand against America and the West more generally. Nevertheless, anti-American attitudes pertain to the public and do not guide official circles, where the stance tends to be more grounded in national interests. 

Do you think the Gulf countries' reaction was informed by their confrontation with Iran and US handling of the case?

There is no link between the Gulf states' or the UAE's reaction and their relationship with Iran. These are two separate issues. It is not news that there is tension regarding Iran's expansionist project and the fact that it is a destabilizing force in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East. Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia, is designated as a terrorist organization by a large portion of the international community. 

However, Iran is a strong ally of Russia and shares the Kremlin's anti-Western position. Weakening the US is in both of their interests, and Iran has supported Russia throughout. Iran is nevertheless playing this cleverly. If Russia emerges weaker, it might affect Iran because of their close ties, but if Russia ends up winning in the long term, it could also adversely affect Iran as it has been trying to diversify its portfolio with India and China.

Will the war impact the power balance in the Middle East? 

We can already identify winners and losers in the region. The expected net winners in the region are the six Arab oil-and-gas-producing countries (especially Saudi Arabia). Their value has risen both financially and strategically. Oil could hit $220 a barrel and Europe is going to need more Gulf oil in the next few years to come. The UAE and Qatar will win on the gas producing front. Nations who depend on Ukrainian wheat will unfortunately be net losers, like Lebanon or Egypt for instance (and others?).

Now the US has shown renewed interest in the Middle East. 

In the US, from the first days of his presidency, Biden started implying that the region would not feature among his top concerns, but now the US has shown renewed interest in the Middle East. Biden's visit, including his stop in Saudi Arabia despite his commitment to making it a "pariah" country, marks an inevitable shift from the so-called Asia pivot his administration had wished to focus on. 

In retrospect however, Biden's Middle East visit did not achieve much. He failed to restore trust in the US, did not manage to establish personal contact with the younger leaders in the region, and he was not able to secure the needed oil production increase. Moreover, he did not win over support for the Ukraine war, and his attempts to build an "Arab NATO" (NATO-like Arab-Israeli air defense alliance) were unsuccessful. The only positive outcome was that he reached out to the Arab States, and made the trip despite all the severe domestic pushback back in Washington.

What about Israel's position on the war? 

Israel’s position in the West - especially in Washington - is generally secure, no matter what they do. Israel has a large portion of Russian Jews who have considerable influence in Israeli politics, which explains why their government has refrained from publically blaming Russia. However, this does not excuse their behavior of not supporting Ukraine especially since Zelensky is Jewish. And while the West has little to say about Israel's silence, they have been quick to blame the UAE for their neutrality. The double standards in the Western media and international community as a whole is telling. 

Everybody is assessing the possibility for a post US-dominated world order. To what extent has the war in Ukraine prompted this? How do you make sense of these conflicting perspectives, especially through the lens of the Global South? Would you say the Gulf is representative of that of the Global South?

Many democracies of the so-called Global South have come out in support of Russia and stood by Putin, as we have seen with Brazil, Indonesia, India and South Africa. This indicates either that Russia has successfully englobed these countries in its sphere of influence, or that the West failed in its quest to win over these states in the struggle of "democracy vs. autocracy". Framing the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Russia in this dichotomy was a mistake by the West. It left a large majority stuck in the middle. 

This war, along with the Covid crisis and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, accelerated an already existing trend. However it is not the catalyst. There is a grand historical shift from America to Asia that has been playing out for a while. The center of global gravity is moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the war in Ukraine is not directly related to this broader trend. 

Finally, a new world order is in the making. The nature of this new system is a topic of debate. It could be bipolar, opposing China and the US, multipolar, with various global actors, or it could even be unipolar if the US pulls this one off and Russia ends up defeated. The traditional balance of power may well shift from a "superpower centric" world to a "continental centric" one (meaning Asia rising as a whole). You don’t have to have a unified continent to talk about a continent-based world system. If I had to bet, that’s the perspective I would bet on.


Copyright: MANDEL NGAN / AFP

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