The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, which is likely to last for some time has negatively impacted the Middle East on many fronts. So has lack of clarity regarding the future of the entire world order. On this understanding, Egypt has been involved in intensive diplomacy in an attempt to contain the negative effects of the war, both politically and economically.
Over a month after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the “special military operation” or “invasion” of Ukraine, key world institutions, such as the United Nations and the IMF, have warned that several Arab nations are already suffering the economic consequences and a looming food crises since they depend on imports of basic commodities, such as wheat and oilseed, from Russia and Ukraine.
The coronavirus pandemic and consequent logistical challenges had already raised wheat prices by 80 per cent since April 2020. On February 24, the day military operations started in Ukraine, wheat futures in Paris rose 16 per cent. Even the World Food Organisation has complained that they now have to pay an additional $70 million dollars for the same amount of wheat they need in their humanitarian operations. The same will definitely apply to many Arab countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq and Yemen, who depend on wheat imports to meet the needs of their populations.
The development of military operations, human loss, and flow of millions of Ukrainian refugees to several European nations as well as serious security fears, and oil and gas price hikes, have all added tremendous pressure on the world economy. Worse, it turned the world’s attention away from acute humanitarian crises in the Middle East and Africa. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has recently pointed out that world concern with the situation in Ukraine has sharply reduced contributions to provide much needed food and aid for millions in Yemen, Syria and other war-torn nations.
On the political front, several Arab nations find themselves in an awkward situation, particularly those who have historically attempted to maintain positive ties with both the United States and Russia. Indeed we are not living through the Cold War, when countries had to pick which side they were on: the United States, or the former Soviet Union. The logic since the end of the Cold War has been that the world has been heading towards a multi-polar order, where business and trade would replace political polarisation and ideological differences. Many Arab countries have thus developed close economic ties with both the US and Russia. Historic ties between several Arab nations and the former Soviet Union have also been a factor in the attempt to maintain a balanced relationship between the US and Russia, even though Putin’s Russia is no former Soviet Union.
This has obviously turned out to be wishful thinking, and the world is once again being divided over Cold War lines, even if there is no socialism involved. Russia, together with China, has been clear in their rejection of a US-dominated world order. This seems appealing to several Middle East regional powers that have also been badly hurt by US sanctions, such as Iran.
Turkey, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to affirm its regional influence by playing the role of mediator, hoping to maintain that same difficult balance, considering that Ankara is a NATO member, and has maintained friendly relations with Moscow. Both Russia and Turkey are jointly involved in Syria and Libya, all fronts where the Ukraine war is likely to resonate in the case of a wider confrontation between Moscow and Washington.
Considering this complicated scene and the possible long wait for a final outcome, Egypt has been working non-stop in consultation with the United States and key Arab partners to prevent the situation from worsening in many of Arab hotspots. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri took part in the unprecedented summit in Naqab, hosted by Israel’s foreign minister, together with counterparts from the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, to stress one key point: that stability and security in the Middle East region should not deteriorate further.
In addition, key powers involved in the war in Ukraine should not ignore the negative economic consequences this war has had on many countries in the region, and provide much needed assistance on that front.
In statements following consultations with his Qatari counterpart on Monday, Shoukri stressed that the Naqab meeting was not aimed at forming a front against any particular regional power. Meanwhile, it was an important opportunity to remind the host, Israel, that amid the complicated world scene and the expected agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme in Vienna, the rights of the Palestinian people must not be forgotten. In Naqab, Shoukri affirmed the need for a return to peace talks between Israel and Palestine, ending up with two states: Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital along the 1967 war borders and according to UN Security Council resolutions, as well as Israel.
The situation had already been disastrous in Arab countries such as Syria, Libya, Yemen and Lebanon, long before the war broke out in Ukraine. As a key regional power, working alongside world and regional allies, Egypt feels obliged to do the utmost to reduce harm in our troubled region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.