At first glance, the Arab countries might seem to be facing various economic impacts in terms of their policy responses to the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The energy-producing countries will benefit from an oil and gas export surge, and the low-income nations risk higher commodity costs.
That take, however, may be an oversimplification or even misleading. The Arab world will see its fair share of the war’s global geopolitical changes, and key lessons will stand out that could steer the Arab countries past another historical crossroads.
Amidst the news of the horrific reality of the Ukraine conflict and its global prospects, questions abound on whether the Arab world, or at least its major power centres, has developed plans, visions, or strategies to get by.
Nearly a month after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, provoking renewed concerns over his global ambitions, the Arab world’s reaction has remained largely wrenched in an uncertain direction and one defined by a very Arab way of coping with a major crisis.
Initially, public statements from the region stayed largely neutral, calling for an end to the violence and respect for the sovereignty of all countries while urging “self-restraint.” Reactions to the UN Security Council and General Assembly votes on the crisis demonstrated the spectrum of regional stances.
Yet, the region faces particular risks in its foreign policy responses to the fallout from the war in Ukraine, and all eyes are now on the regional Arab powerhouses and the major challenges the crisis is posing for them on several fronts.
Regardless of how the war ends, the outlook for the regional security environment in the coming years or even decades is becoming increasingly volatile amid expectations that the conflict in Eurasia will create a new world order.
To put the situation into perspective from a historical standpoint, the modern Arab world is largely the product of the two World Wars as well as of the Cold War. At heart, its regional security structure over nearly a century has been enforced and reshaped by Western influence.
Many dramatic events have since made the region pivot and even sometimes remake itself before the world’s eyes, but Western influence, most of the time led by the US, has remained critical.
Today, with the war in Ukraine changing the world strategic environment and unsettling regional politics, the degree to which these changes will disrupt US power is a highly consequential question for the entire Arab world.
A cautious announcement by the foreign ministers of the 22-member Cairo-based Arab League on the crisis earlier this month calling for a “diplomatic solution” merely reflected the group’s wish not to offend any side in the war. It cannot be seen as a policy statement.
The voting by the Arab countries in the UN Security Council and in the emergency session of the UN General Assembly in response to the Ukraine crisis may be more indicative of how the regional bloc’s members are grappling with conflicting interests.
Many regional heavyweights, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, seem to be recalibrating their stances driven by an instinct that understands the Ukraine crisis largely through the lens of the unprecedented moment of geopolitical change brought by the war and its momentous consequences.
However, in order to rethink their policies, these key Arab countries, which have historically been in the US-led western orbit, may now have to choose sides based on scenarios about winners and losers in the Ukraine war.
So far, there have been no flagrantly partisan attitudes in major policymaking or turning against Russia after it invaded Ukraine in the Arab world, but some positions have been indicative in sending messages to Washington.
Saudi and UAE leaders have declined calls with US President Joe Biden, who has been soliciting support against Russia in the Ukraine crisis and may have hoped that he could win a moral reward and possibly even charge a strategic price.
The two Gulf monarchies, among the world’s top oil producers, signalled that they will not help to ease surging oil prices after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelled to the region last week in efforts to press them to pump more oil to ease the skyrocketing prices that threaten global recession after the Russian offensive in Ukraine.
Another sign of defiance came last Friday when the UAE received Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, shunned by the West over atrocities committed against his own people and for inviting the Russians into his country.
The visit sent the clearest signal yet of a willingness to strengthen ties with Syria and to re-engage Al-Assad despite the wish of the US and other Western nations to keep his regime in isolation until a solution is found to the Syrian conflict.
The US criticised the previously unannounced trip, saying it was “profoundly disappointed and troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimise” Al-Assad, who is a close ally of Russia and Iran and is under severe Western sanctions.
The ties of Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Washington have also been under strain for multiple other reasons, including Washington’s efforts to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and what both countries see as its flagging support for their war in Yemen.
Both countries also suffer from nonpolitical glitches in their relationship with London and Washington, the UAE over allegations and court cases against Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Saudi Arabia over the 2018 assassination of the US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In addition, their “disengagement” with Washington, also felt in some other Arab capitals, is due to some bigger issues, particularly the larger review of Biden administration policy towards the region.
Since Biden came to power last year, the US has continued to implement his election promise of downgrading US military commitments in the Middle East, avoiding direct engagement in its conflicts and downplaying traditional US regional policies.
The US intention to disengage militarily from the Middle East has not unexpectedly reawakened China’s and Russia’s ambitions in the region and pushed them to reassert their goals and seek to challenge US interests and fill the strategic gap.
As many Arab countries become increasingly apprehensive and vocal in their criticisms of the new US approach to their region, their attention has turned towards Moscow and Beijing for new alliances that they have seen as becoming more relevant.
The Ukraine invasion has now happened just as the crisis-ridden Arab world is undergoing one of its most turbulent periods, with its multiple conflicts intertwined with regional and world powers.
Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East and China’s increasing assertiveness are sandwiching the region in a fierce competition between the world’s major powers.
In the short term and while the war in Eurasia is still unresolved, attempts at balancing policy in the crisis will probably be attainable, even though the economic cost of the conflict will remain potentially high for most of the Arab countries.
But in the longer term, a prolonged conflict will force the Arab countries to face the hard question of how far and how safely they can venture to continue sitting on the fence or play the game of equidistance between the US-led alliance and Russia.
By and large, the Ukraine war will reshape the world geopolitical landscape, including the Middle East order which has already reached the limits of its erstwhile policy of geopolitical balancing between national, regional, and international interests and policies.
The fallout of the conflict will of course vary depending on its outcome, but it will also necessitate the Arab countries making tough choices towards the new order. They need to start asking themselves about their priorities, strategic interests, and the risks they are willing to take to face up to the new reality.
Unfortunately, the answers to these and other questions that should drive the Arabs’ decision-making when it comes to the day after the end of the conflict do not seem to be available, at least not for now.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly