The United States’ closest Middle East allies on Wednesday condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in a break from their previously neutral statements and a nod to the changing nature of a war that has created over a million refugees in just a week.
All of the US’ Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, voted in favor of a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly that condemned Russia’s invasion and called for its immediate withdrawal from Ukraine.
The apparent change of heart appeared abrupt. Saudi Arabia on Tuesday afternoon called for de-escalation. The Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar are members, also issued a statement calling for restraint and diplomacy. They didn’t condemn Russia.
But the starkest change came from the UAE, which just last week abstained from a similar resolution at the Security Council. A top official explained then that picking sides would “only lead to more violence.”
The UAE sees the war in Ukraine as having reached “a dangerous inflection point,” explained its ambassador to the UN Lana Nusseibeh. “The international community is alarmed by developments on the ground,” she said. “The humanitarian situation is worsening by the day.”
“Yesterday was the first time they actually acknowledged that this is a global and an intentional crisis,” said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow on Europe and the Gulf at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And so they have to take a stance.”
Relations between Russia and the Gulf states have grown over the past few years. Both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh count Russia as its main partner in the OPEC+ group of oil exporters that coordinates production policy that effectively sets global crude prices. The UAE and Russia began a “special relationship” two years ago aimed at increasing trade and cooperation. This week, Russia voted in favor of a UAE-backed resolution at the Security Council that labelled Yemen’s Houthi group as a terrorist organization, after previously abstaining.
But Gulf states’ ties with the US have been strained of late. Speaking at a defense conference in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, UAE ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba said that ties between the UAE and the US are undergoing “a stress test,” adding that he was sure it would be overcome.
The UAE also had a change of tone toward Ukrainians wishing to travel to the country. Abu Dhabi came under criticism on Tuesday for suspending visa waivers for Ukrainian citizens. The notice was announced on the Facebook page on the Ukrainian embassy in the UAE.
In an apparent reversal, the UAE on Thursday said that Ukrainian nationals are still eligible for visas on arrival.
More than 1 million have so far fled since fighting first broke out, with European countries bracing for a massive refugee influx.