Mohamed ‘Arafa, Professor of Law at Alexandria University Faculty of Law in Egypt, discusses the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on the Middle East and how the Arab countries are responding to the crisis...
The Russian-Ukrainian crisis started to deteriorate in early 2021 when Ukraine arrested pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk on allegations of conspiring a coup d’etat, and Russia initiated military exercises near the Ukrainian border. Russia is the second-largest oil producer, trailing only the United States, and the third-leading oil exporter, behind Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Middle East and North Africa (MENA), apart from Turkey which is Russia’s only major trading partner in the region, account for just 5.36% of Russian exports (mostly fuel and consumer goods). Likewise, Russia was the second-largest natural gas producer (behind the US and ahead of Iran), and the top exporter in 2020, although the US has moved into the top spot. Most significantly, it was the second leading exporter of arms to the Middle East between 2016-2020, behind the US, and the leading importer of Russian weapons is Algeria.
The Biden administration is working around the clock, seeking support from allies/partners in the Middle East for severe US-led sanctions on Russia for its attack on Ukraine. In the Gulf, the US is observing the oil producers for a boost in energy exports to alleviate the market interruptions as of the conflict. How have Middle Eastern countries responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Iran and Syria took unsurprisingly anti-Western stances. Bashar al-Assad acknowledged that Syria would recognize the independence of two Russian-backed separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine, and Iran said that crisis is “rooted in NATO’s provocations.” But crucial US allies in the region have been vigilant. While Israel’s foreign minister condemned Russia, its prime minister remarkably did not. Israel sees Russia as a significant ally, and Russian migrants are a significant constituency in the Israeli electorate. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar all see Russia as a vital fellow energy producer and as a possible source of arms, investment, and other goods/services. They have articulated deep concern but evaded placing the blame on Russia. These autocratic regimes are endeavouring to leverage relations with parties on either side of the conflict to mediate/negotiate. The denial to condemn Russia’s invasion is an unambiguous reflection of regional powers’ new strategy of circumventing to remain associated with the US but concurrently evade a clash with China or Russia.
How is the United States-Russia Showdown Over Ukraine Playing Out in the Middle East?
Russia’s military interference in Syria over the past decade changed the Russian army, particularly its use of airpower, prophesy aspects of its attack on Ukraine. The Syrian movement has become an imperative preparation for Russian armed forces to confront tougher enemies rather than the small Georgian army or the Chechen separatist guerrillas. It was not sure whether the equipping of the Russian military that began after 2010 could meet contemporary requirements, and the Syrian campaign became a test site for testing these weapons in combat situations. With its more sophisticated use of power in Ukraine and Syria, Moscow is sending a signal to NATO that its military competence includes the Middle East.
Following the conflict, expect Russia to strengthen its ties to the Middle East, to “circumvent sanctions” in return for security aid and mediation services in the field of conflict resolution, as in Yemen. Meanwhile, an open escalation, for instance, in Syria can barely be in Moscow’s interests now, as it generates further risks, which will be more problematic to respond to, due to Russia’s participation in the conflict in Europe. And no surprise that Syrian dictator President Bashar al-Assad is all-in with Putin’s actions in Ukraine. In a phone call on February 25, 2022, he told Putin that “Syria supports/stands [with] the Russian Federation . . . based on its conviction of its right stance [the correctness of its position] that repelling/confronting NATO expansion is Russia’s right, because it has become a global comprehensive threat to the world and has turned into a tool to achieve the irresponsible policies of Western countries that seek to strike stability in the world . . . Russia today defends not only itself but also the world and the principles of justice and humanity.” Additionally, Israel must position itself within the American camp, the question is to what extent it will have to identify with it and take a positive stand. The collaboration and coordination between the Israel Air Force and Russian forces in Syria is a unique strategic asset for Israel. Given the enhanced speed of nuclear agreement negotiations in Vienna between world powers and Iran, Israel cannot afford to give up its unencumbered access to Iranian targets on its northern border. That is why it must keep Russian President Vladimir Putin calm.
While Russia’s relations with the West are failing swiftly on the European front, Russian diplomats continue to work with others on the Iranian dossier. No changes yet, at least, but Russia could complicate international diplomacy on the Iran nuclear file. There are some persons who publicly call to start ruining the US on any occasion, including numerous diplomatic efforts not related to the Ukrainian issue, but it doesn’t look like they embody any line close to the real one. The anticipation of reinstating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal, may just be days away. It is uncertain if the Russian assault will affect Iran’s decision one way or the other. Iran’s foreign ministry, not suddenly, blamed the Ukraine war on “provocative moves by NATO spearheaded by the US.” Unfolding developments reveal the insignificance of Turkish foreign policy, confronting [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s ostensible prospects to paint his country as a regional dynamo. If his new openings to the Gulf and Israel bear fruit, Erdoğan can live without playing a key role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Turkey’s Foreign Minister said “Ankara cannot bar Russian naval forces travelling the Black Sea under the 1936 Montreux Convention, and Ukraine had requested that Turkey consider a blockade.”
Middle Eastern reactions to the Ukrainian crisis continued as Egypt has called for an emergency meeting of the Council of the Arab League to discuss the enduring developments in Ukraine. Egypt is following with deep concern the developments regarding the Ukrainian crisis and stressed the importance of giving urgency to dialogue and embracing diplomacy as well as to efforts that would speed up the political settlement that preserves global security and stability. Moreover, it called for avoiding the worsening of the humanitarian and economic circumstances and their impact on the region and the world. The Egyptian’s position is stable on the fundamental principles of the UN, international law, the sovereignty of states, and denial of military operations, as stubbornness from both sides will only lead to more violence. In other words, Egypt’s position on and eagerness to implement the United Nations Charter and the recognized principles of international law norms (international human rights law and international humanitarian law), comprising the commitments under the Charter to settle international conflicts in peaceful ways, refrain from the threat or use of force, and stand by the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of states. Similarly, the need to ensure the safety of civilians should be considered a top priority.
Egypt is already suffering a decline in tourism as a result of the crisis. Meanwhile, Egypt has assured the international community that the war in Ukraine will not affect traffic in the Suez Canal, but they should be ready for all possible scenarios resulting from the ongoing tensions and their impact on global navigation. The Suez Canal is the fastest sea lane linking Asia and Europe (120 miles). It should be noted that the Canal’s team is studying the essential plans to preserve the revenues and take preemptive measures in relation to the Moscow-Kyiv crisis and its possible repercussions on international navigation. The tension per se would not directly affect the Suez Canal. But, in case of war, this would impact the entire globe, including the canal, but to a minor or maybe positive extent since the ships that usually sail the Russian Northern Sea Route would have to divert their course to pass through the Suez Canal as the fastest and safest passage, which means more revenues. The Suez Canal – as a national security interest for many countries – is very protected and secured via the tight security of the military over the navigational channel and the managerial competencies and expertise of the Canal’s team in dealing with crises. However, it could lead to an increase in energy and oil prices as well as cause swift European nations to look for a source of gas other than from Russia, which is something constructive for the Suez Canal as it means more vessels passing through it.
Oil Prices and Food Security Affecting the MENA?
The price of oil pushed above $100 per barrel for the first time since 2014 after the attack. For oil-exporting states in the region, higher prices will offer welcome financial relief in the short term after the economic hit of the COVID-19 pandemic. However – in the long run – continued higher oil prices could accelerate the energy transition by making renewables and electrification more economically attractive. While there is constant pressure among oil-exporting countries to channel payouts into public salaries and subsidies, some Gulf governments may use a portion of the newfound profits to invest in efforts to expand their energy investments (especially renewables). Although Gulf states will struggle to navigate their dealings with Russia and the US, some could benefit politically from the crisis. Saudi Arabia has sought much deeper US political engagement, and the leadership apparently has been frustrated that senior US officials are reluctant to engage with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A global energy crisis may strengthen the Saudis’ hand in this respect.
Global commodity prices have shot up because Russia and Ukraine combine to constitute about a quarter of worldwide wheat exports, the prices hike and supply disruptions coincide with tough deficiencies. Numerous Middle Eastern nations are chiefly susceptible to higher prices and disrupted supplies. Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat, and many of its imports come from the Black Sea area. Though the government tried to vary its supplies in the run-up to the attack, signs of supply shortages are now ostensible. Approximately 30% of Egypt’s population lives in poverty (the poverty line is at around $2.00 daily), and many of the poor rely on subsidized bread for nutrition. The economic challenges come at a difficult time for President Qais Sa‘ied of Tunisia, who is in a transformed effort to consolidate power, and who faces progressively persistent economic stagnation. Wheat shortages will hit fragile countries in the region even harder. Lebanon’s economic crisis has already destabilized its population’s ability to buy food, with prices increasing by 1,000% in a very short period of time. Lebanon imports wheat to meet most of its needs, with about 60% coming from Ukraine. War-torn Libya and Yemen are also vulnerable to wheat shortages.
How Could Worsening Relations Between Russia and the West Play Out in the Middle East?
President Putin promised “consequences you have never seen” to states that intervene with Russia’s operations in Ukraine. Russia has numerous decisions to impose pain on the West in the Middle East in reprisal to punishments. Stiffnesses could result in Russia acting as a spoiler in Syria. It should be noted that Russia has increasingly breached deconfliction protocols with the US in Eastern Syria. If relations deteriorate further and Russia shuns deconfliction policies, the risk of a more serious conflict will increase. Additionally, some Arab countries fear that Russia will lack the resources to maintain its role in Syria, leaving a vacuum that Iranian forces will fill – especially if the JPCOA is revived – and higher petrol prices putting even more money in the Iranian reserves/treasury. Russia will have a chance to destabilize the West when the UN Security Council votes on the renewal of UN cross-border humanitarian actions into opposition-held areas in Northwest Syria. A Russian veto would jeopardize millions of Syrians who depend on the life-saving assistance, abruptly increase pressure on Turkey, and could prompt a large wave of forced migration in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Biden administration has stressed humanitarian diplomacy, and a Russian veto would possibly quash any optimism of serious collaboration on the Syria file between the US and Russia. Russia could pursue to increase pressure on Europe by strengthening conflict in Libya at a delicate time for the peace process and equally instrumentalize the threat of illegal migration from Libya to threaten Europe just as it contends with refugees from Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Qatar – a “major non-NATO ally” – publicly failed to take sides in the conflict, but only expressed concern over escalation and its consequences and urged all parties to exercise restraint and resolve the conflict via constructive dialogue and diplomatic means, and settle universal disputes through peaceful paths, and to avoid anything that would lead to further escalation. On its part, Jordan underscored the significance of the international community and all parties concerned to exert maximum efforts for self-restraint, de-escalation, the peaceful settlement of the dispute, rebuilding peace, and the restoration of security and stability in the region via dialogue and negotiations at this critical time.
US officials have often justified their military support for Middle Eastern nations in terms of great power competition and national security interests; if Washington backs the Arab monarchies, the logic goes, it is supposed to keep them in America’s corner – at least theoretically – against key rivals like China and Russia. The US and Europe have united in backing Ukraine against a Russian attack, offering Kyiv weapons, economic and diplomatic support as Russia massed troops along the border. But in the Middle East, US-backed states apparently helped shield President Putin from attempts at deterrence. The Biden administration asked Israel permission to support Ukraine with air defence systems, and Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production. Both states rejected, leaving America with fewer cards to play as Russian missiles slammed into Ukrainian cities. Middle Eastern partnerships represent a “unique comparative advantage” for America’s affairs in the region. But amid the worst US-Russian conflict since the Cold War, it’s blurred how much help Washington has truly earned from its Middle Eastern allies. Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia have received generous US military (purchasing weapons) and economic support (foreign aid) over the past few decades. On the other hand, Arab countries have formed crisis teams that comprise representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Transportation, Health and Human Services, and airlines coordinating with Ukrainian authorities, neighbouring countries, and international humanitarian organizations to prepare for the evacuation of Arab and African nationals – who have not been able to leave Ukraine – from the country.
In sum, the Middle East just demanded that Russia stop its invasion, calling the operation a “grave violation of international law” and a “serious threat” to global security. But, all Arab nations initially declined to name Russia in statements and rejected to openly endorse the UN Security Council resolution about the conflict but ultimately denounced Moscow’s “serious violation of the international order” after the invasion. The UAE – having a temporary seat at the Security Council – refrained from voting on a US-backed resolution to condemn Russia and refused to name it as the aggressor or Ukraine as the victim, however they cited “the serious developments in Ukraine, we will agree, undermine the region’s peace and security . . . [the Arab World] restates its commitment to the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of [all nations], and [we] urge for immediate de-escalation and cessation of hostilities.”
World on Edge: Sound Familiar?
It should. Although some revisionists discuss the “intelligence failure” that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a more precise description would be an “honesty failure,” or more directly: The Bush administration lied about the scope of the Iraq arms (and that Saddam Hussein has mass destruction) program. With the former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worrying about a “smoking gun” that could be a “mushroom cloud”, Bush claiming that Iraq was training al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization, Donald Rumsfeld confirming everyone that Saddam already had chemical weapons and was close to having bombs, and Colin Powell’s tragic speech at the UN, the Bush regime beat the drum for war with lies and gross hyperboles. That’s not the only equivalent between the Bush validation for the Iraq assault and Putin’s lies about Ukraine. Further, Bush and his partners cited Hussein’s oppression of his own people to legitimize the war. Yet, as a 2004 Human Rights Watch report clarified, that was basically pretextual. In fact, Saddam was a cruel autocrat, but most of his foulest misuses happened long before the 2003 attack, within during periods when he was considered a US ally against Iran.
Putin also claims false humanitarian grounds for his premeditated and provocative attack on Ukraine. Those reasons are much less significant or substantial than those presented by Bush for the Iraq war, because Saddam Hussein was undeniably a violator of human rights, whereas Putin and the Russian propaganda apparatus have basically been lying about fictional Ukrainian attacks on Russian dissenters in Eastern Ukraine. Still, the use of the pretextual playbook is ostensible. Putin is a brutal monster. The assault on Ukraine is horrendous and should be condemned and fought in every way possible short of igniting an all-out main power conflict. Maybe Putin would have endeavoured what he’s doing now had the US Supreme Court, the highest court of the land, never made George W. Bush President and thereby released a war of choice that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. But in that alternative world, there’s at least a prospect that the international law system would have been robust and hence better able to respond to obvious transgressions of the UN Charter.
The former US President Donald J Trump frequently lied by saying that he was against the Iraq combat from its start. Joe Biden has unconvincingly tried to diminish the significance of his 2002 Senate vote to authorize the Iraq invasion. The coming World War III will with no doubt violate international law and the impact of a war of doubtful legality may be the sustained erosion of respect for the free world, if not standing, committed to rule of law and principles of justice under law. President Bush says that he is justified in using military might because his cause is unbiased. To much of the rest of the globe, though, it looks the other way around: that the US and its partners act as they wish because, in the American perspective, might makes right. Might does not make right. Neither do two wrongs. Thus, President Biden is justified in condemning (to the fullest extent possible) resisting Putin’s ego and aggression. The United States and its allies should not even be a little bit susceptible to a charge of hypocrisy.
Mohamed ‘Arafa, LL.M., SJD, is a Professor of Law at Alexandria University Faculty of Law (Egypt) and an Adjunct Professor of Law and the Clarke Initiative Visiting Scholar at Cornell Law School.
Suggested citation: Mohamed ‘Arafa, Beat the Drum for War: Vladimir Putin Through a Middle Eastern and Arab Looking Glass, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 14, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/mohamed-arafa-vladimir-putin-middle-east/.
This article was prepared for publication by Ananaya Agrawal, JURIST South Asia Bureau Chief. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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