Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a watershed moment for the West, prompting unwavering transatlantic support for the Ukrainian people in fighting back and the making of detailed contingency planning for every eventuality.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year, the West has committed billions of dollars in security assistance that has been indispensable to Ukraine not only in withstanding Russia’s military might, but also in enabling a surprisingly robust series of Ukrainian counteroffensives that have allowed it to retake significant chunks of the land it lost in the invasion’s early months.
But for many outside Europe, though anxious about the risks that could result for international geopolitics, attention has been largely focused on how the prolonged war in Ukraine could shape their own regions.
For the Arab world, not far from the battlefield in Europe, the situation has cast a disturbing retrospective light on the question of what impacts the war could have on a volatile region that already has more than its fair share of existing conflicts.
As the region witnesses the end of the tenth month of the most brutal conflict in Europe since the end of World War II, the Arabs are watching a new reality emerging and asking what it could mean for their countries’ politics, economies, and future.
Further complicating the picture has been the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought to mind the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74, which was one of the most consequential conflicts for the shaping of the modern Middle East and the Arab world.
That war, one of the most decisive conflicts of the 18th century, resulted in a larger and stronger Russian Empire and reflected the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Following the end of World War I, the Western powers occupied the former empire’s southern territories, subjecting the Arab region to European colonialism.
As a result, beyond the global spillovers of the current war in Ukraine, the Arab countries with direct geopolitical exposure to the conflict will feel additional pressures colliding with the complex challenges of the contemporary era such as the diplomatic fallout of great power rivalries.
This matters because much anticipated shifts at the global level may affect how the great powers vie for influence in the Middle East, altering the foundations of the order that has been in place in the region over the past century and calling into question whether it will remain central today.
The economic impacts of the war have been direct and consequential.
As has been the case in many parts of the world, the war in Ukraine and the Western sanctions against Russia have dealt major blows to the regional economy that have hurt growth and raised prices.
While the energy producers of the region have profited immensely as the fighting in Ukraine rages on, adding hundreds of billions of dollars to their coffers, the conflict has hit the low-income countries badly, dimming their prospects of a post-pandemic economic recovery.
The economies of the non-oil producing countries continue to be weakened by the war through significant disruptions in trade, tourism, and investment. In many countries, food and fuel price hikes have contributed to high inflation and tighter financial conditions.
But long term economic challenges also loom in the energy-rich countries that have benefited from the price boom caused by the Ukraine crisis due to the lack of pressing structural reforms and the absence of diversified economies.
One of the major impacts of the war on the Arab countries has been its effects on the import of grain from Ukraine and Russia. Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Lebanon, and Tunisia, among the world’s top importers of wheat, have been among the hardest hit. They will need to use more of their financial resources to secure wheat supplies and avoid threats to their food security.
Among the other economic casualties has been tourism, as the war has caused chaos in the energy markets as well as rampant inflation across the globe. Egypt is expected to see fewer visitors, especially from Russia and Ukraine, and to see their spending shrink.
Rising food and other prices may raise social tensions in some countries, such as those with weak social safety nets, few job opportunities, limited fiscal space, and political instability.
BALANCING ACT IN UKRAINE
As the conflict in Ukraine continues, it has prompted much soul-searching in the Arab world.
The Arab countries, which have different wartime experiences, alignments, geopolitical interests, and public attitudes, have become increasingly concerned at the short-term and long-term impacts of the conflict.
Arab public opinion was clearly divided when the invasion took place between those who backed the Western position on the war in Ukraine and those who favoured Russia. Much of the fault line is rooted in Cold War attitudes and the rejection of Western policies and consequently a distrust of Western narratives.
While the collective diplomatic stance was best summed up by the 22-member Arab League, which issued a statement that failed to condemn the Russian invasion, the different Arab governments took their time in reacting to it, pausing just long enough to leave messages for all the parties who have chosen a side in the war in Ukraine.
Three camps later emerged, with one group of Arab countries at odds over the question of what their response to the invasion should be, a second staking out a position further from the United States, and Syria clearly supporting its ally Russia.
The UAE, a key US ally and the only Arab member of the UN Security Council, abstained when the divided body voted on a resolution sponsored by the Western nations to condemn Russia on 25 February.
When the subsequent UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia passed overwhelmingly, the Arab countries were again divided, with Syria rejecting the move, Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan abstaining, and the rest voting reluctantly in its support.
The Arab governments did not sign on to the sanctions imposed by Washington and its partners on Russia’s leaders or institutions or on closing airspace to Russian flights. Crucially, they also did not join US-led policies of isolating Moscow.
Moreover, key Arab oil producers led by Saudi Arabia shunned the US Biden administration’s request to increase production and offset rising petrol costs as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Instead, Saudi Arabia and its allied oil producing nations in the OPEC+ group that includes Russia agreed to a reduction in supplies in October, pushing prices up and creating a deep rift with Washington which accused Riyadh of “coercing” other producers to cut production.
In reaction to US President Joe Biden’s declared intention to reevaluate the US relationship with Riyadh, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said its decision was “purely economic” and accused the Biden administration of “attempts to distort the facts” about its motives.
The decision to stick to the oil output targets was reinforced by the group on 4 December as the oil markets remained struggling with uncertainty over demand and supply.
When the Arab leaders met for their annual summit meeting in Algiers in November, their reactions to the Ukraine invasion were far less about Russia than they were about the West and its double standards in the region.
In their final communiqué at the meeting the leaders rejected “the use of force” in the dispute and voiced their support for “working out a political settlement in line with the UN Charter, while taking into consideration the security concerns of the parties.”
Significantly, however, they noted that the “rising tension in the international arena underscores now more than at any other time the structural imbalance” in the world order and called for “an approach that ensures equality between all states.”
To put it bluntly, the Arab leaders demanded a seat for their countries at the world table with others in order to forge “a new world order in the post-Covid and post-Ukraine war world.” They said the Arab countries “possess both the will and the potential” to be an “active party in building the new world order.”
In a sense, the remarks reflect increasing views in the Arab world that the war in Ukraine serves as a bookend to a sharp decline in the world order that the region should be prepared to deal with.
Such views are not entirely confined to politicians or talking heads. Arab commentators and political analysts have been drawing lines in the sand suggesting the end of the post-Cold War Pax Americana and a transitioning to a new multipolar world order.
The most significant aspect of this transition is the largest shift in the global balance of power since the end of World War II, marked by Russia’s and China’s ambitions to create their own spheres of influence.
One potential threat is a Russia-China-Iran axis that could evolve amid the rising disorder. The three countries have close political and economic ties, and they also have joint geopolitical interests, especially in seeking a Middle East free from Western influence.
Though the Arab countries have close relations with China and Russia, the tripartite axis would leave them at geopolitical disadvantage to Iran.
The Arab nations hope that the state visit to the Middle East in December by Chinese President Xi Jinping to attend a China-Arab summit meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh will further strengthen Sino-Arab relations and regional security.
By cementing their ties with China, the Arab heavyweights hope to offset the waning US influence in the region and lure China away from Iran.
Meanwhile, there has been a growing sense in the region that the West in general, and the US in particular, is no longer a reliable partner in the eyes of many Arabs, who watch them showing little interest in Arab concerns, noticeably with Iran’s rising influence and its growing endeavours to create instability in the region.
However, the Arab countries and especially the US allies have no choice but to weigh continued reliance on Washington against other alternatives.
In the face of the geopolitical tumult triggered by the Ukraine war, forging a doctrine or strategic vision for the Arab world in a multipolar world order seems to be the key challenge of the next decade as the international disorder increases.
Perhaps most worrisome is the fact that the Arab countries have thus far failed to show how they will collectively approach cooperation on this challenge.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly