Main Image Credit Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with Crown Prince and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud in 2018. Courtesy of kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
The shockwaves of Russia’s increasingly brutal invasion of Ukraine are being felt around the world, including in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Of course, while the full scale of the war’s impact on the region will become clearer in the coming weeks and months, two weeks after Russia’s initial assault on Ukraine, there are three immediate issues that merit particular attention.
Geopolitics: The Struggle to (Not) Pick Sides
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has put governments across the region in a strategic bind. Almost all of them have expanded their relations with Moscow over the past decade, both in response to Russia’s return to the region as a major external power (via its military intervention in Syria), and to adapt to the geopolitical reality of an increasingly multipolar world in which the US and its European allies no longer appear willing to guarantee regional security. Regional powers were taken equally by surprise by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and by the West’s rapid coming-together and resolve to confront Moscow.
This partially explains why most Middle Eastern states have been so slow off the mark in formulating their positions vis-à-vis Russia and its war. The only immediate responses to the crisis came from Kuwait, which condemned Russia’s actions – knowing only too well what it means to be a smaller state coveted by a much larger neighbour – and the Assad regime in Syria, which lent its support to Moscow by recognising the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. The UN General Assembly vote on 2 March brought a bit more clarity as to how regional states were responding: almost all Arab states, along with Israel and Turkey, agreed with the resolution that ‘deplores in the strongest terms’ Russia’s ‘aggression against Ukraine’; only Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Sudan abstained. However, even among the countries that voted in support of the resolution, most have continued to choose their words very carefully, refraining from explicitly condemning Russia’s – and specifically President Vladimir Putin’s – actions.
The UAE’s reluctance to take sides has received the most attention, primarily because it is the only Middle Eastern country that currently holds a UN Security Council seat. Its abstention from the 26 February resolution demanding an immediate end to Russia’s attack on Ukraine caused consternation in Washington, London, Paris and many other Western capitals. One explanation for Abu Dhabi’s decision was that it wanted to retain Moscow’s goodwill for a resolution that the Council adopted two days later, in which the Yemeni Houthis – who have recently fired ballistic missiles and explosive drones at the Emirates – were explicitly described as a ‘terrorist group’; Russia abstained, allowing the resolution to pass. Like many of its neighbours, the UAE sees the war in Ukraine as a European conflict, while the Iranian-backed Houthis pose a direct threat to its national security. Still, in order to formally designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, the UAE will need the support of Washington and other Western capitals. This will require some skilful diplomacy from the UAE as it seeks to smooth ruffled feathers in the West.
The challenge of responding to developments in Ukraine without undermining their friendly relations with Moscow has highlighted a dilemma for many Arab states. Within their own region, they are vocal proponents of the principles of sovereignty and non-interference, norms that they have accused Iran of running roughshod over during the past two decades – just like Russia is now doing in Ukraine. On the other hand, when it comes to their relations with global powers, Arab states are terrified of being made to choose sides. It is true that many Arab leaders were adept at navigating the superpower rivalry during the Cold War; and while painful, losing ties with Russia may not have dramatic consequences in the short term. However, just like Western policymakers who worry that China could follow Russia’s example and attack Taiwan, Arab states fear that they may also one day face a terrible choice between the US – their most important security partner – and China, the region’s largest trade partner. Countries across the region are therefore acutely aware that finding a way to balance between global powers – however uncomfortable – is something they must get used to.
The challenge of responding to developments in Ukraine without undermining their friendly relations with Moscow has highlighted a dilemma for many Arab states
Economics: Between Wheat and Fossil Fuels
Russia’s invasion is already affecting the economies of many Middle Eastern states. Most immediately, it threatens food supplies across the region. Countries such as Yemen, Syria and Lebanon are already gripped by food insecurity; the Food and Agriculture Organization says that hunger affects 55 million people across the region. Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s largest wheat producers, and the MENA region is their main customer. Egypt, for example, is the world’s largest wheat importer. In 2020/21 it sourced 85% of its imports from Russia and Ukraine. Rising prices or delivery disruptions could have a devastating impact in many countries, both on living standards and, potentially, on political stability. After all, popular concern over rising bread prices has often been a key catalyst for protests and popular unrest across the region. In that sense, little has changed since the Arab Spring 10 years ago.
The other obvious economic implication of the war in Ukraine for the Middle East is its impact on energy markets. As uncertainty about the future of Russian oil and gas supplies to Europe and elsewhere grows and prices skyrocket, the world looks to Middle Eastern producers to ramp up production. But it is not so straightforward. Technically, countries like Saudi Arabia or the UAE do have the capacity to pump more oil, but they are not going to do so just because Washington or European capitals ask them to. They have their own political and economic calculations. On 1 March, OPEC+, the grouping that includes the members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia, decided not to significantly increase production. Instead, they stuck with their agreement to gradually unwind the production cuts instated in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic caused oil prices to fall through the floor.
For Arab producers, this decision was likely influenced by both a reluctance to upset relations with Moscow and a desire to send a signal to Washington that they are not going to do the West’s bidding. This message to the West comes at a time when many regional states feel that their own security concerns are not taken seriously enough by their Western partners. That said, economic self-interest is also at play: high oil prices are a boon to the economies of Saudi Arabia and its fellow producers. Increased revenues are needed to finance economic diversification programmes and to plug budgetary holes caused by the pandemic. After years of gloomy predictions that oil prices might never again climb above $50–60 before the world swears off fossil fuels entirely, the current economic windfall offered by this latest crisis is difficult to turn down.
Middle Eastern gas producers, meanwhile, face even more urgent questions about how they can step up their supplies. Even before Russia’s attack on Ukraine, demand had been outstripping supply in international gas markets, which had sent prices soaring. But now, Europe’s desperate need to shift its imports away from Russia adds a fresh urgency to these discussions. Here, the problem – and the eventual solution – is arguably less about politics, and more about capacity. There is scope for Qatar and other producers to sell more gas to Europe in the medium- and long-term, but providing immediate relief is more difficult. Long-term contracts make short-notice deliveries difficult, and constructing the required infrastructure – whether it is pipelines or liquified natural gas terminals – will take time.
From Moscow’s perspective, instability in the Middle East is a bigger problem for Europe than it is for Russia
Regional Conflicts: Spoiler Russia?
Finally, rapidly deteriorating relations between Russia and the West raise questions for various ongoing conflicts across the MENA. It is not inconceivable that Russia could use its military presence in the region – including its regular forces in Syria and Russian private military companies like the Wagner Group in Libya – to put pressure on Western interests. Photos circulating on social media apparently showing a pro-Russia protest in Mali, allegedly organised by Wagner Group operatives who have recently started working for the military junta in Bamako, lend credence to such fears.
But Russian actions, and Russian-Western tensions more broadly, could negatively affect regional security and stability in other ways as well. At the time of writing, Moscow is holding up negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal, just when an agreement seemed to be imminent. It is demanding guarantees that Western sanctions on Russia do not prevent it from trading with Iran once a new deal is concluded – a carve-out that Washington and European capitals cannot grant. The question of whether Russia will actually let the deal collapse, and thereby risk the further escalation of Iran’s nuclear programme and potentially a wider regional conflagration, is a first test of just how far it is willing to go in fuelling instability in the region.
In general, from Moscow’s perspective, instability in the Middle East is a bigger problem for Europe than it is for Russia – with the partial exception of Syria. The military bases Russia holds in Syria have become even more strategically important for Moscow following Turkey’s decision to restrict access to the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits for Russian warships. Elsewhere in the region, however, Russian interests are more discretionary. Stability in Libya, for example, could yield economic opportunities, but in an environment in which Russia faces a united Europe determined to support Ukraine, continuing and potentially increasing instability on Europe’s southern flank could be appealing to Moscow. In this context, Libya’s renewed division between two rival administrations, which has the UN-brokered political process teetering on the brink of collapse, comes at an opportune moment.
Ultimately, even if Russia were to refrain from the temptation to act as a spoiler in the Middle East, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the war in Ukraine will not adversely affect international efforts to resolve conflicts in the region. It seems highly unlikely that Russian and Western diplomats will be able to achieve any progress on ending the crises in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere in the region given the international context.
The implications of the war for the MENA will become more apparent in the coming weeks and months. Nevertheless, it is already clear that UK and other Western policymakers cannot afford to lose sight of Europe’s southern neighbourhood, despite ongoing developments in Ukraine. Whether as a second-order effect of the war, or through intentional action by Moscow, Russia’s aggression has substantially increased the risk of instability in the region.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Tobias Borck
Senior Research Fellow, Middle East Security
Former Course Assistant, RUSI Leadership Centre