Analysis: What would war in Ukraine mean for Arabs?

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 28 Jan 2022

The conflict in Ukraine is part of a renewed Western-Russian geopolitical rivalry, but it also has huge implications for the Arab world.

An instructor trains members of Ukraine s Territorial Defense Forces photo: AP

As the rhetoric between the US and Russia over Ukraine grows more bellicose amid warnings that Russian President Vladimir Putin could at any point send tanks rumbling into the country, attention has been focused on Europe since the continent is spiralling towards its worst security crisis in decades. 

But in the Arab world the crisis is also raising questions about what the Arab regimes and public think of the current tensions, especially if they escalate into a fully-fledged war. 

Whether because of competition between rival global powers or its proximity to the Middle East, a war in Eastern Europe would have far-reaching consequences for the region and the Arab world’s security order. 

For many analysts, the situation in Ukraine is bad, and war is increasingly becoming a possibility. The grim assessment comes as Russia continues to send troops to Ukraine’s eastern border and neighbouring Belarus and the US and its Western allies are upping weapon supplies to Ukraine. 

US President Joe Biden last week triggered the alarm by saying that he expected Putin to order his troops into Ukraine. Biden warned that any movement of Russian units across the Ukrainian border would be taken as an invasion. 

For now, the US and Russia have agreed to keep diplomacy alive in their standoff over Ukraine, even as both sides continue to raise the military stakes on the ground and step up the rhetoric. 

The escalation has attracted global attention with most of the concern centred around Europe and its security. Little attention has been given to the costs that could be paid by other parts of the world if there is an uptick in military activities and possibly a war. 

One of these vital areas is the Arab world, where the rising tensions have ignited little debate as to whether the region risks becoming embroiled in a terrible quagmire in case of a flare-up in Eastern Europe.  

In the larger Middle East arena, Iran, Israel, and Turkey are facing similar consequences, and the three countries seem to be trying to figure out what the crisis could mean for their strategic choices.   

History could be useful in understanding these implications, since the Middle East suffered tremendously from the geopolitical rivalries of the major powers during the 20th century, particularly during the two world wars when the consequences for the Arab region were dire. 

More than a century after the end of World War I, its impact still echoes across the region both militarily and geopolitically and reverberates in the Arab world’s politics.  

The experience of both wars in the Arab region was far-reaching, and their political, social, and economic effects were deep and devastating. 

The former Ottoman Empire, which included most of what is now the Arab world, joined Germany through a secret alliance before World War I. Its objective was to recover territories lost during the Russo-Turkish wars and to thwart attempts by the British-French alliance to seize its Arab provinces.

The impact of the war is still exceptionally strong in the region and was demonstrated in the political arrangements entered into immediately afterwards that eventually led to the emergence of the modern Arab states as well as to the aborted birth of the state of Palestine.  

Many of the newly independent states attained their present borders as part of the post-war colonial arrangements between the victors, and that carve-up has continued to haunt the region. 

During World War II, the Middle East again became an active theatre for some of the major battles between the allied forces and the Rome-Berlin Axis because the allies thought the Germans might invade the region. 

The war witnessed a major shift in the major powers’ strategic orientations towards a region which had increasingly become vital to their national security and other political and economic interests. 

With the Axis defeated and the armies of the wartime allies no longer on the field, the Cold War started, and the former allies began openly to disagree about the design of the post-War map and their strategic global outreach.  

The Arab world found itself sandwiched between competing agendas and interests as the superpowers vied to expand their influence, spread their ideological preferences, and achieve long-term ambitions in the region. 

The Cold War may have had various goals, but in the Middle East the US and its Western allies had a fairly straightforward objective: to entrench their influence as the dominant external power in the region and to prevent or limit the influence of the former Soviet Union.  

This history helps the Arabs to understand how this violent past is responsible for the current turmoil in the Middle East and that the current crisis in Eastern Europe cannot be taken for granted. 

However, the Arab world seems to be sitting out the growing crisis between the US and Russia, leaving the conflict to solve itself and prevent a war on its doorstep. 

There are debates on social media, but little attention is being paid by governments or experts on what a war over Ukraine could mean for the Arab world and the region’s choices. 

The Arab countries seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place on the US-Russian standoff, and their diplomacy is attempting to walk a fine line amid the complexities of the Middle East’s new geopolitics and foreign-policy challenges. 

No one knows how the Arab regimes will assess the risks to their countries and the possible implications if the negotiations fail and Russia invades Ukraine.

While a full-scale invasion will have serious consequences on a region that is not far away from the theatre of operations, even a limited war will remain consequential. 

Apart from the military actions, the conflict could also play out in any number of ways, including so-called cyber-attacks, hacking, and disinformation campaigns that could signify a return to Cold War policies implicating the Arab world. 

With a strong military, political, and economic presence in many Arab countries, Russia enjoys extensive ties in a region where it presents itself as an alternative partner compared to the Western powers that have been the predominant external actors and security guarantors over the past century.

While the Arab governments have so far been reluctant to respond to the Ukraine crisis publicly, apparently to safeguard their bilateral relations and economic interests with both parties, many in the Arab street have been more receptive towards Russia. 

This attitude does not express a realistic calculus or reflect favourably on Russia but rather indicates a tendency to review Washington’s Middle East policies negatively and a desire to see the US challenged by a rival superpower.   

The ambiguity in the official Arab position on the Ukraine crisis will certainly end if no diplomatic solution is found, in which case the Arabs will find themselves obliged to choose between the US and its Western allies and Russia. 

There is the question of how the Arab countries will react if the Western alliance imposes strict economic sanctions on Moscow, since Washington will expect these to be forcefully applied by its allies worldwide and they will have negative impacts on the Arab economies. 

The Arab countries should think about the broader consequences of the conflict and how it could affect their security and stability, not precluding the much-talked-about Putin’s quixotic quest to restore a Russian empire that could expand further south into the Mediterranean. 

Whether as a result of its naval strategy or its military outposts in Syria, its outreach in Libya, and its growing role in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East is becoming an integral part of Russia’s strategy for the wider theatre and its broader global ambitions. 

The conventional wisdom also dictates that the Arabs should also weigh up their options if the US and its allies get an edge over Russia in the crisis in the Balkans. 

The Arabs have always been divided on confronting challenges and safeguarding their common and national interests, but it is now time that they put aside their differences and took collective stands on the dangers posed by a looming international conflict on their doorstep.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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