stratEGIC Monthly (October 2022):
The Gulf’s Tenuous Balance
By Veronica Stigliani and Ashleigh White
The ninth issue of the stratEGIC Monthly, featuring analyses of key issues that defined the Euro-Gulf space in October 2022, focuses on how the protests in Iran affect the Arab Gulf and how Qatar and the UAE balance between Russia and the US amid the situation in Ukraine.
How One Woman’s Death Dramatically Shifted the Balance in the Middle East
By Ashleigh White
The death of Mahsa Amini — a young Kurdish woman arrested on 13 September in Tehran by Iranian morality police for allegedly violating Iran’s strict rules requiring women to cover their hair — has led to widespread protests across Iran calling for women’s rights. Over the past six weeks more than 14,000 people have been arrested, with at least 234 people killed by Iranian security forces. Iran’s intense crackdown has attracted international scrutiny. As the weeks go by, more and more Iranians, across the country, have joined the protests, including ethnic minorities and even school children. On 4 October, during his first public announcement regarding the situation, Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed the protests on the US and their allies, including Saudi Arabia, which seemingly undid any progress in the Saudi-Iran relations made over the past year.
Many Gulf leaders see the unrest as a way to weaken their regional adversary. The GCC countries’ responses to the protests have also been influenced by their views regarding Iran and a fear of possible unrest occurring in their own countries. Qatar, for example, is not keen to interrupt ties to Iran and has not given the protests much media attention. In contrast, Saudi-affiliated media outlets have offered wide coverage of the protests, including in Farsi, which generated a warning from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander, Hossein Salami, calling on Saudi Arabia to limit their coverage of the protests.
On 2 November, Saudi-Iran tensions simmered as Riyadh announced having received credible threats of a pending Iranian attack on the country. This came after the Iran-backed Houthi’s in Yemen announced an end to their truce with the Saudi-led coalition and threatened to resume attacks on critical Saudi infrastructure. Although the timing could be coincidental, these strikes would give Tehran ample opportunity to launch attacks on Saudi Arabia while denying responsibility. Moving forward, Iran’s ongoing protests will continue to impact the GCC and the wider Middle East and it is likely that a greater focus on social issues will follow.
The UAE’s and Qatar’s Balancing Between Russia and the US
By Veronica Stigliani
On 11 October, UAE President, Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MbZ), arrived in Saint Petersburg for a meeting with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. Two days later, in Astana, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Ḥamad Al-Thani also met President Putin, on the sidelines of the Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. Both meetings covered matters of international relevance and set in motion dynamics that convey the position of Abu Dhabi and Doha.
The context in which the UAE President’s visit took place is characterised by the decision of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to slash oil production by two million barrels per day, to stabilise global energy markets. While Russia hailed the measure with favour, the United States did not, given that it had pressured the Gulf countries to increase rather than decrease production. However, this should not be interpreted as the UAE choosing a side in the US-Russia rivalry and while Abu Dhabi has maintained a working relationship with Russia, and avoided joining Western sanctions on Moscow, it has also tried to develop a foreign policy based on equidistance among competing parties. Moreover, the oil-producing countries had already pushed production to the highest levels, which means that OPEC has simply tried to capitalise on an advantageous situation.
As for Qatar, relations with Russia have been tense since the beginning of the war, considering that Doha partially aligned with NATO’s position towards Moscow, and the Astana meeting was mostly seen as an attempt to defuse tensions. The Emir’s choice to meet President Putin reflects Qatar’s willingness to consolidate its role as mediator between conflicting parties, which implied a rapprochement to Russia. Like the UAE, Qatar tried to balance its position maintaining relations with all sides and Qatar’s Emir held a phone call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy before his meeting with President Putin, to express his support for the Ukrainian people. Similarly, MbZ called his Ukrainian counterpart with the intention of promoting a diplomatic solution to the conflict and promised €100 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Both the UAE and Qatar are working to emerge as mediators to the warring parties, aware of the potential gains and returns of playing such a role. Within the constraints of their national possibilities, Abu Dhabi and Doha have been developing an increasingly autonomous foreign policy, as a consequence of the reiterated occasions in which Washington proved not to be a totally reliable partner, and of the possibilities and room of manoeuvre opened by the new international context.