US and Europe look to Gulf relationships as Ukraine casts long shadow

Conflict testing international ties but an era of pragmatism is coming

President Joe Biden speaks about the war in Ukraine in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington. AP
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Western relations with Gulf countries are entering a period of greater “stability” and “understanding” despite resentment in the Middle East at being pulled into a new “Cold War-style debate”, leading analysts say.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has affected many international relationships, but while attempts by some Arabian Gulf countries to remain neutral have tested relationships with the US, the “differences” were not a precursor to “a big rift”, said Michael Stephens, senior analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Speaking at a webinar hosted by the London-based Council for British Understanding, Mr Stephens said the current geopolitical tension and energy crisis meant no one is in a position to “go their own way”.

“It’s not going to be easy … but we’re many decades into the marriage and it might not be a happy one but there are good reasons to stay in it,” he told the webinar, titled “The Future of Diplomacy in the Gulf".

The panel took place as the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) issued a report on the outlook for European diplomacy in the region. It found the implications of the Ukraine to be far reaching. "The war in Ukraine has heightened competition for influence in the region between European states and their key strategic rivals, Russia and China," it said. "Russia’s invasion has also sent shockwaves through global energy and food markets, which could deepen humanitarian crises."

The ECFR analysts said Europe had grown "comfortable in a Middle East dominated by the US" but would now be forced to recalibrate policies, taking advantage of openings "presented by stabilisation support, green energy, and regional economic diversification".

"Importantly, Europeans should push back against attempts to view regional engagement through the narrow lens of great power competition," the report added. "This approach would reduce the risk of further polarisation in the Middle East and would align with Europe’s interest in stabilising the region."

(FILES) This handout file photo courtesy of US Navy shows the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea in formation during a Strait of Hormuz transit on September 18, 2020. The Nimitz and its carrier group has moved back into the Gulf region, bu tnaval commander Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the US 5th Fleet, told AFP on November 28, 2020, the return of the carrier group on November 25 was not connected to any "specific threats," after the killing in Iran of a top nuclear scientist. Tensions in the region are extraordinarily high after the assassination November 27 of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an act still unclaimed, but which Iran has blamed on close US ally Israel. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / US NAVY /  Petty Officer 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

A senior regional analyst at CAABU roundtable said there had been “growing frustration” in the Arabian Gulf as countries were asked to pick sides in a new Cold War while the West displayed “hypocrisy” in its response to the conflict in Ukraine.

“After spending the better part of the last decades telling them not to get involved in crises in the region, they’re then asked to send weapons to Ukraine,” said Dina Esfandiary of the International Crisis Group.

“There’s a real frustration among Gulf Arab states with the way the West is dealing with this conflict versus how it has with other conflicts in the region,” she said.

Earlier this week, Chatham House's Sanam Vakil said that many of the “grievances” felt by the Gulf Co-operation Council towards the US stemmed from Washington's low-key reaction over continued aggression from Iran and the “uncertainty” over the revived nuclear talks.

Nevertheless, the GCC has “started to realise the geopolitical leverage they have”, making the West’s “necessity of dealing with the Gulf more important than ever,” said Mr Stephens, who is also an associate fellow at the Rusi think tank.

“We’re in a moment of flux now … [but] with regard to western relations with the Gulf, we are going to go through a period of stability and understanding,” he said.

Ms Esfandiary said the Gulf region would enter an “uneasy calm” with the US.

“The relationship will endure but perhaps not as easily as it has in the past.”

Updated: April 29, 2022, 9:58 AM