The Doha Forum: discussing double standards and the war in Ukraine

As the world grapples with the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Doha Forum provided an opportunity to discuss it at a global gathering in a key diplomatic hub in the Middle East. . To understand global responses to war, it is helpful to see it from the perspective of people in the Middle East: a region that has suffered multiple invasions and wars in recent decades, which Europeans too often describe as a long period of unbroken peace.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a surprise video address during the opening session, urging Gulf countries to supply more oil and gas to make the global market less dependent on Russian energy. Appearing in person, Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova spoke forcefully.

The warm welcome extended to Ukrainian speakers in Doha contrasts with the approach of some other Gulf states, which have been decidedly reluctant to take sides. Indeed, the United States should be concerned that its traditional partners and allies in the Middle East are mostly indifferent to the invasion of Ukraine, even as Europeans see it as a defining turning point for the future. ‘era.

Few countries in the Middle East want a new cold war. They are more comfortable with a multipolar world, where they can hedge their bets and get different kinds of support from different major powers.

Jane Kinninmont

Few countries in the Middle East want a new cold war. They are more comfortable with a multipolar world, where they can hedge their bets and get different kinds of support from different major powers: the United States for security against state threats and terrorism, China for investments in infrastructure and new trade routes, Russia for oil. cooperation on prices and assistance for certain very targeted security problems (maintaining Israel’s ability to bomb Hezbollah’s supply lines in Syria, potential influence on Iran, etc.).

This shopping list approach is more comfortable than total reliance on a single major power. It’s also helpful from their perspective to be able to play the big powers against each other.

The irony is that small Arab states in the Persian Gulf – like Qatar – have good reason to fear a world where big states can step on their smaller neighbors. They saw it themselves: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has many parallels with Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait – which was preceded by Saddam Hussein’s denials that Kuwait was never a real country. Kuwait was not in NATO, but the US and UK led a coalition to liberate it, with UN clearance. It is no coincidence that, with regard to the invasion of Ukraine, Kuwait has taken the clearest and most principled approach in favor of international law and against aggression.

Although Qatar’s experience is nowhere near the severity of Kuwait’s, Qatar has its own reasons why it might sympathize with a country under pressure from larger neighbors who insist that its foreign policy must align with theirs. In 2017, his neighbors placed him under sanctions which they said would only end if he agreed to 13 demands, including aligning himself politically with them, cutting ties with Iran and Turkey and shutting down broadcaster Al. Jazeera. There were even unconfirmed claims that the United States staved off a possible invasion by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Rather than respond to demands, Qatar has strengthened its alliances outside the region with the help of its immense wealth and natural gas exports and accelerated plans for a small Turkish military base (although Al Jazeera is become a little nicer to Saudi Arabia). This year it was announced as a major non-NATO ally of the United States. (Last year, an agreement was reached to restore relations between Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and the rift was largely glossed over at the Forum.)

So the question of exactly what security commitments the United States is willing to make outside of NATO — which is currently being tested in Ukraine — is deeply relevant to the Gulf states’ own existential concerns.

The United States has been seen as the guarantor of Gulf security since the Iranian Revolution, which gave rise to the 1980 “Carter Doctrine” that “an attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region would be considered an attack on American interests. and would be pushed back. Subsequently, the liberation of Kuwait set the bar for largely informal assumptions and understandings about the willingness of the United States to defend the countries of the region. But today, these assumptions are being challenged. As a result, some Gulf states are now asking the United States for formal, written security guarantees, possibly in the form of a defense treaty, although congressional approval may be difficult to obtain.

As the desire for a more formal security relationship indicates, the Gulf States and Israel continue to need the United States more than any other power, both for direct security support (weapons, training, technology) and for his leadership in regional security efforts (such as maritime security in the Gulf and increasingly in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden). The presence of US military bases in most Gulf states acts as an additional deterrent to would-be invaders, even if Iran views the bases as an intrusion or even a provocation.

But the desire to formalize also reflects the fact that long-term trends in US politics (and, to some extent, the energy transition) have led many in the Gulf to wonder to what extent the US will guarantee actually their security against the threats they see. The Gulf States look to the last three presidents and see a steady trend of the United States becoming more isolationist in general, less committed to allies, and more interested in the Asia-Pacific than the Middle East.

Moreover, GCC and U.S. views on some of the key regional security challenges have diverged significantly: from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to the JCPOA with Iran and the waves of social and political upheavals after 2011 within the States. The leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have chosen Trump over Obama or Biden, given his stance on the JCPOA and his apparent lack of interest in human rights. But he, too, disappointed them with the limited US response when Saudi Arabia’s main oil refinery was attacked in 2019 with missiles attributed to Iran. If the discussions on formal security assurances go nowhere, it is likely to escalate matters further.

The domestic polarization of the United States has also weakened its international credibility. Many in the region share the view that Biden could be a one-term president and that US politics could again flip-flop along partisan lines. The recent tone of US politics has sent the deeply counterproductive message that if the Gulf states alienate the current president, they could see their fortunes reversed by the next one, who might even be happy to say “Biden lost.” these guys, and I’m bringing them on board”.

The irony therefore is that the leaders of this part of the world, which itself needs an international guarantee of the legal and political norms of state sovereignty, seem to think less about how to protect these laws and norms for all of them, and more in the way of ensuring they themselves have the right people on their side to defend them if they are attacked.

In this context, an international order that preserves the sovereignty of States is important but is hardly seen as completely secure.

Broaden the lens further to the wider Middle East – to the invasion of Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the internationalized civil wars in Syria and Libya with the intervention of several foreign countries – and you will understand why “the ‘rules-based international order’ is not a flag around which many can rally.

Several Syrian and Libyan speakers underlined their solidarity with Ukraine as they know firsthand what the Russian intervention looks like in their own country. “We are the southern flank of NATO,” said a Libyan speaker, during a panel where some debated whether the war in Ukraine would incite Russia to increase pressure in Libya or coerce its bandwidth to do so.

But, at the same time, there was a recurring theme: what about us, why didn’t the world care so much about our death, or the fact that we had to flee our countries or face chemical weapons? Why is there such a big gap between the sanctions on Russia and the policies of many US states to make it illegal for companies to choose to boycott Israeli settlements? A number of rude comments about ‘blue-eyed refugees’, ‘people like us’, etc. .

The global economic effects of the invasion and sanctions are also of concern to countries in the South, especially those already facing famine and acute hunger. Egypt, Ethiopia and Lebanon are among the most directly affected.

Hina Rabbani Khar – who was later appointed Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs – put it bluntly: “Our lives seem to be worth less”. Ibrahim Kalin, adviser to the Turkish president, condemned the Russian invasion but said the roots of the crisis included the “power imbalance of the past three decades” in world politics.

The perception that international law is not applied fairly has become a strategic issue for European and American efforts to build solidarity with Ukraine. One simple thing Europeans can do now is stop talking about “Western values,” which seem oddly parochial, exclusive and condescending to the rest of the world. Instead, the rallying points should be human security, international law and the principles of the UN Charter – an inclusive, equitable and global approach.

The opinions expressed above represent the views of the signatories and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or its members as a whole. The aim of the ELN is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s ability to meet the pressing challenges of our time in foreign policy, defense and security.

Image: Flickr, MFA of Poland.

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