••• The International Writers Magazine - Academic Paper - Long Read
The Arab World and the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
Dr Marwan Asmar
Why the Arab world appears to be supporting Putin
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has arguably come to be as the most intractable for the global system and international relations. Today, it is affecting every region of the world because of its nature of global linkages.This paper looks into the conflict and war as it effected the Arab region and how countries of the Middle East have come to deal with it and respond to it.
The paper looks at the conflict from the Arab street level, how regional states have come to view it, the repercussions it created for the region, emerging regional relations that have been created by it, the opportunities as well as the challenges it has posed.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has created new power dynamics in the globe and for the Middle East regions, influencing the oil factor, international wheat prices and possible new relations between the Arab world and the West that has come to be highlighted by it.
All these are being examined in a complex world that is maligned by deep international linkages that has gone beyond the nation-state but reflect a global system based on more vigorous self-interest and parochialism.
Arab world and the Russia-Ukraine debacle
The Arab world is yet to make up its mind about the ongoing Ukraine war with Russia. With nearly two years into the conflict that began on 24 February, 2022 and likely to be entering its third year, Arabs continue to send ambivalent vibes as to which sides they are supporting in the war. Countries across the Arab region have outwardly sought to play a middle-of-the-road, balancing and a neutral role between Russia and the Ukraine in their on-going conflict to the dismay of global powers like the USA and Europe which quickly termed Moscow's intervention as military aggression that must be stopped immediately.
However, and although most Arab countries voted for the UN General Assembly resolution demanding Russia end its invasion, the Arab world, even conservative states like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar, were seen as supporting Russia and president Vladimir Putin on Ukraine.
One clear example of that is the Arab world have refused to join the sanctions regime slapped by the West on Russia for what it terms as its invasion of Ukraine but which Moscow initially labelled as a "special military operation."
Away from semantics, there are those analysts who nevertheless, say the point was proved when Arab countries refused to vote on a resolution to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Noteworthy is the fact that all six Gulf countries voted to abstain joining other Arab states like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen. This is except for Syria and Algeria who voted against the resolution.
From the bottom up!
In a sense, they tallied the Arab man-in-the-street position that also tended to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine regardless of how they felt about Moscow invading another neighboring country. Arabs, mainly gauged through the social media – with analysts putting forward many reasons for this - tended to adopt a much more pro-Russian stance.
An interesting take on this is provided from Palestine with people having divergent views as registered in one opinion poll with 43 percent believing that Russia is to blame for starting the war; and 40 percent blaming the Ukraine. Further to that, and reflecting the Arab street and its governments, 71 percent believe that the Palestinian Authority should stay neutral in the Russian-Ukraine conflict.
It would be a simplification of the situation to say Arabs plainly supported Russia for its actions for many reasons have been put forward for this over the past months including the perception of western hypocrisy regarding Palestine and the blind support for Israel, particularly by the Americans.
Another public opinion poll of 7,835 people showed 33 percent of people in the Arab world don't trust any media reporting on the Russian-Ukraine war while 21 percent of respondents felt they trusted Arabic news reports and 21 percent thought the Western media reports were dependable. The figure goes down to only 8 percent who say they trusted the Russian media.
However, and this is somewhat confusing because a number of writers have suggested that one of the reasons why Arabs, especially young people who supported Russia in its war with Ukraine, did so because of media channels like Russia Today which is creeping into the Arab narrative and offering a Russian view.
Western double standards were seen on Iraq when wholehearted support, mainly from western states was given to the United States to invade that country and affect regime change there and remove its then president Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Present and past similarities and conjectures were being put forward between Ukraine and Iraq where no nuclear weapons were found despite the insistence of the then president George W. Bush and his erstwhile western ally British Prime Minister Tony Blair to go to war on the country and remove its Baathist government there.
Pragmatism and oil
These popular views inadvertently filtered through governments and states.While it would be, also an over-simplification, to overdo the emotional tone between Arab people and their states and governments, nevertheless, there were congruences played out on the pragmatic, self-expedient level, especially regarding the latter as they sought to shift their support from their traditional allies into new unchartered territories.
One critical dimension of the Ukraine war was it quickly, influenced international oil prices which for a while, spiraled in fits and starts. In the early days of the conflict price per-barrel were set to rocket with forecasters casting they would hit the roof to as much as $300. In the end, they only registered $130 dollar – a 16-year-high - but quickly went down to under $100.
That also sent market jitters with talk of inflation and high prices for most commodities in western countries and the countries of the global south. But that didn't seem to bother many countries who were starting to benefit from a high price culture, not least of all for Russia, other world oil producers and the Gulf oil countries.
This is in spite of the fact that other countries in the Arab rejoin started to have a hard time including Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia to name but a few. Already facing degrees of economic crises and characterized by widespread protests especially in Lebanon, Sudan and Algeria, they started to bear the brunt of the high prices of commodities.
Such a situation didn't suit Europe either; its many countries are oil importers and rely mainly on Russian oil and gas with Germany being particularly hard hit. As these countries began to apply sanctions on Russia, a cue they took from the United States, Russian started switching the tap off and denying them the oil they badly need.
Nor did it abide well with the United States. Thus, American president Joe Biden quickly begun a round of oil diplomacy with the Gulf states and especially Saudi Arabia which as a so-called "swing producer" he wanted the Kingdom to produce more oil to stabilize and even lower the spiraling prices that seemed to be getting out of control.
He even travelled to Jeddah at the head of a large entourage of US diplomats in July 2022 to appeal and convince the Saudi leadership to increase production. Riyadh promised that it would consider this move but offered no firm guarantees as underlined by neither King Salman nor his Crown Prince Mohammad Ben Salman. After all, local officials argued Saudi Arabia was only one member of the OPEC-plus countries that includes Russia which was hungry for financial liquid to finance the war it set upon.
OPEC countries across-the-board like Iran and Venezuela were also very happy with the oil price rises because that meant more income to pump into their cash-starved economies.
America was in a somewhat different situation despite the fact it is itself a major oil producer with Biden and his team having other domestic considerations. The US president had his eyes on the mid-term elections and the American voter support for the Democrats. But his appeal to the Saudis in the end fell on deaf ears.
Saudi failure to increase oil production continued to add tension between Washington and Riyadh that has been going since Biden entered the White House as president in January 2022 when he promised he would continue to hold the Saudis accountable over the slaying of the Jamal Khashoggi affair in Istanbul.
The sentiments on that issue made during his presidential election campaign still rang in the ears of the Saudis during their Jeddah meeting with Biden. There was to be no bridging of the rift at least for the time being between the two countries that built rock solid relations over at least the past 80 years.
Recriminations was coming from both sides. Saudi Arabia, as well as other Arab countries were blaming America for this current state of affairs as underlined by the new US foreign policy led by Biden himself and his new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. They were accused of wanting to retrench from the Middle East and wanting to go elsewhere such as Asia and the Far East.
The Ukraine war had of course come to change all that because it effectively turned international relations upside down with opportunities for realignments and alliances.
Not foreseeing nor expecting global changes, the Americans now wanted to get back to the Arab world, not least because of the oil dynamic but also because of the strategic locations of this part of the world which they were well aware of. The Middle East region is the nearest to Ukraine after Europe, but this was only half the story.
Today, Arabs still feel embittered by American foreign policy in the region and their military intervention in Iraq, a country they invaded in 2003 and its subsequent so-called war on global terrorism and the rising tentacles of Daesh both north of Baghdad and across the northern plains of Syria and their subsequent rise in such countries as Tunisia and Libya, moving on to the Gaza Strip, parts of Africa and Afghanistan.
Despite the fact the United States was fighting the so-called war on global terror with a global coalition of countries starting in 2014, new relations begun to emerge, especially after that year when Russia was invited into Syria by non other than president Bashar Al Assad, who called on Moscow to prop up his regime that was fighting his own people, as well as other extremist groups like Al Qaedah.
The Russian entry into the Middle East, as well as Turkey, which saw fit to enter Syria as it pleases and the northern Iraqi territories to safeguard their borders as well as the projected Iranian role, changed perceptions and regional strategies. Countries of the region, mainly Saudi Arabia which was persuaded to militarily intervene in Yemen because of changing balances in regional relations, began to view its role differently and to widen its foreign policy options and to look further to Russia and further to the east to China. This further annoyed the Americans.
And that explains why many interpret the Saudi role in the Ukraine conflict, as being mainly pro-Russian, pro-Moscow and pro-Putin. But not to argue, the Saudis say they are taking a neutral, middle-of-road stance and not interested in any further realignments. Many say as well, the Saudis see the Russian-Ukraine conflict as nothing to do with them but mainly as a European issue which they don't want to enter into and become embroiled in.
However, to show that they are willing to play a constructive role in international relations, they, along with other Arab nations through the Arab League which included Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and Sudan, they sought to mediate in the protracted conflict and bring war to an end.
But this has been to no avail. To show its good offices in global politics and thwart its bourgeoning relations with Russia, Saudi Arabia contributed $400 million in humanitarian assistance to that beleaguered country. However, the Arab response to the conflict continued to be seen as standing on the fence, not taking sides despite the schism in the popular street opinion.
This was not pleasing to western leaders who wanted the Arab world, especially those countries that are openly pro-western, countries like Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries – Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain and Oman – and Egypt to play a much more protracted role and be active in their condemnation of the Russian military intervention of Ukraine.
Right from the start of the conflict in early 2022 the West, led by the United States, Europe and under the umbrella of pan-regional organizations like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) who became vociferous in their condemnation of Russia and terming their actions as the worst 'global' crisis experienced since the World War II of 1939 and 1945.
The West's condemnation led by the United States and Britain, Germany with France initially seeking a mediating role to persuade Putin not to send his troops to Ukraine, was a multi-layered affair. They sought condemnation on the level of the United Nations, in words communicated in the Western media and more importantly in providing military aid to Ukraine that amounted to billions and billions of dollars.
They quickly became the suppliers of the Ukraine government led by its president Volodymyr Zelensky and equipping him with many different kinds of weapons and military hardware. Many saw such actions as prolonging the war and fueling it but Ukraine also became an avenue to try out such weapons that included anything from pistols and rifles to long-range launchers, artillery rocket systems, anti-aircraft weapons, armored vehicles, helicopters, drones and many other military, soft and hardware equipment.
Ukraine became the West's military backyard with at least 28 countries supplying it to fight the Russians on top of which is the United States. While figures many increase as the war continues, Washington has pledged, as of June 2022, $54 billion in aid for the Ukraine with $20 billion in military support approved by the US Congress.
Material support was less than what was required for Zelensky who wanted the West and NATO to enter the war in Ukraine on the side of the Kiev government but this is something that Western countries wouldn't do. They came to realize the dangers of such declaration and not wanting to increase escalation and aggravate Moscow further which had become upset about Kiev's application to join the European Union and the NATO alliance.
In the Ukraine war western leaders come to tread carefully not least because of the issue of nuclear weapons and the possibility of conflagration in that part of the world. This is because of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant that is deemed the biggest in Europe and has six nuclear reactors and lies in the south-eastern part of the country. This is a sensitive part because it is near the disputed Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway republics from the Kiev government and which Moscow intends to support and are aligned with.
Zelensky's PR campaign
In addition to arms, western leaders followed different strategies in dealing with Ukraine. They, and over the past two years, travelled to Ukraine and as a sign of support met with Zelensky. They included Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Olaf Schulz of Germany, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
In early 2023, US president Biden directly travelled to Kiev from Poland and met Ukrainian leader Zelensky in a show of support. He was preceded by his wife, America's First Lady Jill Biden who travelled to western Ukraine and me with the country's First Lady Olena Zelenska. The aim here was to provide the Ukraine president and his team with moral support save of direct military intervention the consequences of which could be militarily catastrophic not for the region but for the world.
In addition to the visits, Zelensky made it his business to speak to the world. He wanted to keep the pressure up. He spoke to friends but he also spoke to those who were also willing to provide tepid support and would be persuaded to cross to his point of view. Hence, comes Israel and the speech he made via satellite to the Knesset even when it was not in session asking for active support. The Knesset speaker refused to hold a special session for the Ukrainian leader.
However, Israel was in no mood to listen to Zelensky and the speech he made on 20 March 2022 didn't going down too well with them especially when he made comparisons with the Holocaust of WWII. Many Israeli commentators like Liat Collins in the Jerusalem Post said it was a good job that the speech was made when the Knesset was in recess.
However, Israel, its government and politicians had other considerations. It didn't want to be seen as an outright supporter of Ukraine because it didn't want to upset the Russians especially over Syria. Israel had long regarded that country as its "potshot", frequently sending its bomber jets to strike deep inside the country and carrying out hundreds of sorties at least since 2015, aiming at military bases, installations and airports that frequently caused the death of Syrian soldiers.
Many times Israel wouldn't acknowledge the fact that it carried out the military strikes but Jewish politicians and officials including its long-time and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have on frequent occasions indicated that Israel was indeed behind the attacks which are aimed at military installations including Iranian targets in the country. Like Russia, Iran is also playing a role in Syria through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to shore up the government in Damascus and Israel says it will not tolerate its presence there.
Within this scenario, and if Israel were to offer its full support to Ukraine, it would upset its strategic balance in Syria and Russia may take a more active role if they see its Israeli sorties over Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib and/or other Syrian cities. As far as Israel is concerned, it’s a delicate situation it will not upset and remain ambivalent about.
Arab League in Jeddah
Like other countries, the Arab world has kept its door open to Zelensky. His last visit to Jeddah to attend the Arab League summit held in May 2023, helped him to press the point about support for the Ukraine despite the fact that the Arab world already made its position clear on the issue.
He was invited by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, and his attendance was seen as a reflection of the Arab desire to stay neutral in his war with the Russians. But his presence also stressed the fact, and contrary to what the media has portrayed, is the relations that has been built up between the Ukraine and the Arab world, as well as the Gulf countries with an intention of a trade deal between the UAE and Ukraine as just one area of cooperation.
In addition to that, and during the meeting, the Saudi Crown Prince reiterated his support to mediate between Russia and Ukraine in the conflict. He said the mediation would be similar to the successful ones Saudi Arabia made when it negotiated the release of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine in September 2022.
Thus, with all these developments going on, it would be difficult to say the Arab world is sitting on the fence and refusing to intervene in finding a solution to the dreaded conflict but the point is that other than political maneuverings can do little because of the interlocking sides in the war in the current global system of international relations.
International politics aside, the ongoing Ukraine war has accentuated the issue of food security as this region is effectively seen as the breadbasket of the world. Russia and Ukraine controls 30 percent of the global wheat exports with the former standing as the number 1 exporter while the Ukraine as number 5 in the world according to figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Further, 50 countries around the world depend on the wheat exports from these two countries. Their dependence vary between 30 percent and 60 percent which makes Russia and Ukraine as strategic countries in terms of food security.
The same goes for the Arab world with most countries of the region depending on these northern neighbors for their food security. These include Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Libya and Tunisia but excludes Jordan, whose 90 percent of its imports is from Romania. The former countries buy more than 60 percent of their wheat from abroad and about 80 percent come from Russia and Ukraine.
The issue becomes more critical for Lebanon which despite its long-running economic crisis imports 50 percent of its wheat from the Ukraine. The same goes for Libyan which imports 43 percent of wheat from there and Yemen.
All this makes the two northern countries critical for the Arab world which may have a greater stake in seeking to end what has become a global conflict. But this because of the rising prices of wheat globally which increased by 55 percent in the first week before the start of the Russia-Ukraine war on 24 February 2022.
However, the prices continued to spiral upwards as the war continued. Before the war it was between $320 and $350 per ton. Soon after it increased to around $500 per ton. It stabilized thereafter by an international agreement dubbed as the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed in July 2023 to allow Ukraine to deliver wheat and other grains to the world through a safe passage across the strategic waterway.
Everyone benefited from the last initiative including countries in the Arab world like Egypt and which has a population of 100 million people and which had been hard-hit by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This is also especially because of the rising international prices, including oil and transport which means that wheat imports will continue to rise in most acute ways adding to the economic crises experienced in those countries that include Lebanon, Yemen and Tunisia.
The war is still raging in that part of the world and it's very difficult to see when it will end. Just before of the conflict, many western leaders, like Macron feared that the war would be a long one.
It seems he is right as we approach the end of the second year and start the third annum of conflict come 24 February, 2024 and because of the current escalation with Ukraine missiles landing on Moscow.
In July 2023 Moscow was hit four times by what are deemed to be Ukraine missiles. The Ukraine government never admits to the fact that its targeting Russian cities but the Moscow Ministry of Defense put the blame on them. Reaching Moscow would point to new escalation that the war is not going to end anytime soon.
So the situation looks dismal, globally, and in the Arab world – and everyone is likely to continue to look for solutions to end what has become a pandora's box.
© Dr Marwan Asmar 1.9.23
DR MARWAN ASMAR, Chief Editor in the ATHENA Project (JORDAN)
Jerusalem upside down!
Dr Marwan Asmar 10.11.23
Visiting Jerusalem two weeks before the war