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Putin’s war through the eyes of the Persian Gulf and India

Moving closer to the Global South represents Europe’s last-ditch attempt at ending Russia’s scorched-earth adventurism in Ukraine.

February 27, 2023 - Saahil Menon - Articles and Commentary

President of the United Arab Emirates Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan meeting with President of Russia Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg on October 11, 2022. Photo: Presidential Executive Office of Russia wikimedia.org

On the one-year anniversary of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” with no end in sight, it is fair to conclude that the western powers have been found wanting on several fronts. If anything, the European Union’s inward-looking legacy has led to an inadvertent prolongation of the bloodshed in Ukraine. There is a widespread misconception in Brussels that it is incumbent upon EU member states to do all the heavy-lifting and single-handedly restore continental peace, while failing to take stock of external stakeholders with considerable skin in the game. Needless to say, China immediately springs to mind given its “no limits” partnership with Russia, plus the fact that both nations are ideologically in lockstep alignment with each other. Yet, any transatlantic endeavour aimed at containing the aggressor is a non-starter so long as the oil-rich sheikhdoms in the Arabian Peninsula continue to be overlooked.

The Gulf countries have long been viewed as mere vassals of the United States, not least since their relationship is predicated on low energy prices in exchange for unconditional military support from “Uncle Sam”. Its Arab monarchs are fast emerging as key power brokers in the midst of this conflict, while simultaneously hedging their bets amid declining American and British hegemony. Europe’s legacy-brand nations have further emboldened these six petrostates as they haphazardly wean themselves off Russian hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, western media outlets have helped turbocharge the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) eastward pivot by publishing incessant hit pieces on the human rights situation in the region. Article topics include the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and various smear campaigns against Qatar and the UAE in the buildup to the 2022 FIFA World Cup and Expo 2020 respectively.

At the same time, there is no denying the extent to which economic considerations have played a role in the Middle East’s deafening silence vis-à-vis Ukraine. Pro-business hubs like Dubai and Doha are profiting handsomely from sanctions imposed on Russia, particularly with respect to aviation and travel constraints. These two effective city-states, along with Istanbul, have become the go-to transit destinations for Russian youth fleeing an increasingly dystopian environment back home. To put things into context, Flydubai – a subsidiary of the flagship carrier Emirates – still operates direct flights to twelve Russian cities. Qatar Airways has also ramped up its services to Moscow and St. Petersburg in open defiance of its western allies. Admittedly, this move has much to do with the changing face of outbound tourism from the Gulf, which has seen more and more inhabitants opt to visit Russia and the CIS in lieu of Europe. The Kremlin even announced plans to do away with entry requirements for these supposed “friendly states” and thereby incentivise greater people-to-people exchange.

Monetary gains aside, a triumphant Russia will ultimately lend credence to the similarly iron-fisted, autocratic governance prevalent in the Gulf states. Their leaders see eye-to-eye with fellow tyrant Vladimir Putin when it comes to exercising absolutist, one-man rule over the general populace. They even go a step further with a social contract tantamount to lopsided bribery that grants their citizenry financial perks and de facto legal immunity if they stay out of the public sphere. Civil society and press freedom are practically non-existent across the Khaleej, meaning that the real feelings of the masses on sensitive issues are all but impossible to decipher. The suppression of independent thinking and the umbrage its rulers take at any deviation from official discourse is precisely why no pressure has been exerted on them to change course. Incidentally, the West has no qualms about arm-twisting India into distancing itself from Russia while giving the aforementioned family dictatorships carte blanche to chart out their own roadmap.

Backing the wrong horse

Anti-establishment posturing by the collective GCC is largely down to a false sense of bravado among its member states, who no longer feel compelled to toe the western line. Their overt duplicity in light of the current war is modelled on a parallel stance taken by other jurisdictions of significance that are better placed to play both sides. The UAE, for instance, has pressed ahead with an ambitious “zero problems” policy which seeks to emulate India’s decades-old non-alignment doctrine. On the face of it, putting to bed petty discord with adversaries in the pursuit of regional stability seems like a reasonably logical undertaking. However, it is far more difficult for a sparsely populated and expat-driven economy to walk a tightrope between East and West than a nuclear-armed, aspiring superpower. Make no mistake, New Delhi has rightfully drawn heavy flak for sitting on the fence and doubling down on oil imports from Moscow following the full-scale invasion. Worse still, India’s inertia as the world’s largest democracy has consigned it to a geopolitical no man’s land that identifies with neither the free world nor totalitarian regimes.

The Indians have fallen hook, line and sinker for Russia’s bogus charm offensive that has sought to coax much of the developing world into its camp. Multipolarity has become the bedrock of this generic sales pitch as Russian diplomats try to garner sympathy from the main movers and shakers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. To truly appreciate the Kremlin’s fall from grace, one need not look any further than the post-Soviet space, where states are second guessing their ties with a modern-day pariah that is haemorrhaging its human capital and nearing the status of a failed state. On that note, India ought to self-examine what tangible benefit it derives from full-fledged membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS. Apart from failing to promote cultural awareness, eradicate trade barriers and ease cross-border mobility, regular skirmishes with China continue to take place. There is every likelihood that the Chinese could use Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a pretext to encroach on Indian territory with impunity – at which point reorienting itself to the G7 liberal democracies may prove too little too late for India.

The Emiratis today find themselves in an equally precarious scenario. Neighbouring Iran has not only stonewalled discussions to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action but may draw inspiration from the outlandish reasoning behind Putin’s decision to go rogue. It is worth bearing in mind that UAE nationals of Persian origin are systematically discriminated against and disparaged for speaking Farsi. Moreover, Iran has expressed its outrage at the Abraham Accords and vowed to retaliate in the event of intelligence sharing. Abu Dhabi has enmeshed itself in a cobweb of conflicting foreign policy overtures that could imperil national security. Owing to the breakneck speed at which Saudi Arabia is opening up as part of the Vision 2030 initiative, there is no doubt that they too will follow suit in reconciling with all regional and global players. Either way, it is not in the long-term interest of the GCC to forgo a time-tested and pragmatic alliance with the West by brazenly cozying up to a cash-strapped Russian Federation, whose economic prowess does not do justice to its mammoth landmass.

Bridging the wealth disparity between Russia’s two metropolises and the rest of the country has been an intrinsic pillar of Putin’s domestic policy. Emerging markets like India and the Gulf States are his target audience when it comes to attracting greater foreign direct investment to other provinces. It is worth remembering that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief guest at the 2019 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. He also addressed the summit virtually twice thereafter. The inflow of Indian capital to far-flung and poverty-stricken Siberia is intended to counterbalance Chinese interests in the area. Indo-Russian engagement remains rather one-dimensional and transactional in nature as it is based almost entirely on arms deals. On the other hand, the Gulf is being courted to offer funds and explore ventures with regards to Muslim-majority autonomous republics like Chechnya, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The Russian Duma has even tabled the launch of a “Golden Visa” scheme to lure high-net-worth individuals from developing nations in what can only be described as a pipe dream. The Kremlin’s efforts to save face and keep its economy afloat as it throws caution to the wind are proving futile. It is only a matter of time before partners the world over realise that no good can come of tethering themselves to a hermit kingdom in the making.

Saahil Menon is an independent wealth advisor based in Dubai with an academic background in business, economics and finance.

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