The Ukraine war and the Middle East

Ahmed Eleiba
Wednesday 22 Feb 2023

How have the key powers in the Middle East region reacted to the war in Ukraine?


A significant portion of the costs of a war can be borne by countries that play no part in it. And this consideration that has led many analysts to examine the political, economic, and security-related impacts of the Russian-Ukrainian war on the Middle East.

However, it might be useful to shed more light on another perspective, namely how the key powers in the Middle East, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Iran, have viewed and reacted to the war.

In similar contexts in the past, these powers, with the exception of Iran, uniformly aligned themselves with the US even if they were not entirely convinced of the appropriateness of its stance. This applied to the US war against Iraq and its war in Afghanistan, where regional powers played a central, if indirect, role in what was called the Afghan “jihad” against the former Soviet Union.

However, we do not see this type of automatic alignment on the side of the US today, when Washington has pitted its full political and economic weight behind Kyiv. The question is why.

The main factor is the general awareness of the nature of the current global moment, as informed by simultaneous transformations in the international and regional orders. The US has been trying to put this off, but it has arrived nonetheless.

To a considerable extent, the nature of the shift in the Middle East region as a result and the transition towards the multipolar order that Russia advocates will depend on the results that Russia can or cannot achieve in Ukraine, though it is also important not to ignore China’s role as an emergent superpower.

At the regional level, perhaps the most salient sign of change is that several major regional players have been able to advance their aspirations to become middle-weight international powers.

This development has occurred at a time when the map of the Middle East is being reshaped in the light of more than a decade of upheaval since the eruption of the chain of Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, some of which degenerated into armed conflicts, as was the case in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq.

During this period, non-Arab regional powers have attempted to take advantage of the anarchy in the region. Iran and Turkey have manoeuvred to expand their spheres of influence and even their territorial presence. Israel has worked to advance its political and security agendas. Egypt has weathered the storm, regained its strength, and managed to establish certain red lines to check the designs of the non-Arab powers.

Saudi Arabia has become involved in the Civil War in Yemen and, regardless of the results to date, had Riyadh not set certain red lines there, Iran would have engulfed the whole of Yemen rather than negotiate as it is now doing.

The Middle East has been and remains a sphere of competition between the international powers for spheres of influence. However, the main patterns of relations between the actors in the regional and international orders have changed considerably.

Examples of this can be found in the relations between Iran and Russia, in how Turkey is balancing its foreign policy between Moscow and Washington, and in the evolution in the Egyptian and Saudi approaches to their relationships with these two capitals.

With regard to Cairo and Riyadh, there are no longer fixed biases. While Cairo’s relationship with Moscow is flexible and dynamic, after a rough patch with Washington starting in the summer of 2013, the strategic relationship between Egypt and the US may now be healthier than before.

Riyadh has been troubled by Washington’s wavering on the Yemeni crisis. At a critical moment when Riyadh needed defence, Washington withdrew its Patriot missiles from where Riyadh needed them in Saudi Arabia. Nor did the US sufficiently bring the Yemeni rebel Houthi Movement’s main backer, Iran, to account when the Houthis fired missiles across the border at Aramco facilities, airports, and even civilians in some parts of Saudi Arabia.

Ankara has clearly begun to feel let down by Washington’s policies in the region, while even Israel, the US’ staunchest ally, has grown increasingly critical of US policies. The exception, again, is Iran which continues to put all its eggs in the Russian and Chinese baskets.

The second main reason for the shift that helps to explain why the Middle Eastern powers have toed the line with Washington on Ukraine is that the national interests of each of the Middle Eastern powers plays a more important part than ever before in the conduct of their foreign relations.

A concomitant factor is the new approaches that China is bringing to its relationships in the Middle East. Until recently, security cooperation had not been an avenue that it explored in this context. But this changed with the Arab-China Summit meeting in Riyadh in December 2022, when security cooperation entered the dialogue agenda.

The respective interests of the key regional players vary. In advancing its relations with China and Russia, Israel appreciates the weight that the Chinese newcomer brings with its foreign policy towards this region. At the same time, Tel Aviv needs to work with Russia in Syria.

Iran understands that it can use its relations with Moscow and Beijing to obtain certain advantages that would remain out of reach even if it signed a new nuclear accord with Washington. Tehran is preparing to receive its first Russian SU-35 jets, which will shift the military balances of power in the region, especially if they are only the first batch of many.

The longer the war in Ukraine persists, the longer Iran can be assured of more jets as well as more Russian purchases of Iranian-made drones (Shahed-136 and -121 and Mohajer-6) and missiles for its military operation in Ukraine. Chinese purchases of cheap Iranian oil can help Tehran to foot the bill for its weapons purchases.

Saudi Arabia has the chance to turn Western demand for desperately needed energy resources into major development projects at home and opportunities to obtain defence hardware from Washington free of cumbersome strings. At the same time, it is unlikely to cave into the types of oil policies that Washington has been suggesting.

In fact, Riyadh, like Baghdad, has recently received Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who had the opportunity to explain his government’s reasons for its special operation in Ukraine, as the Russians term it.

Cairo has begun to make its mark in the international sphere as a mediator. One of the most significant developments in this regard was the opportunity to host talks between Washington and Moscow on renewing the New START Agreement on nuclear weapons. However, the international political climate made it impossible for the meeting to convene.

Ankara has proven that it can use its good auspices in both Moscow and Kyiv to promote a deal on grain exports. It has also provided Kyiv with Bayraktar drones, but the dynamics of the war in Ukraine have also increased its leverage on Washington with regard to the question of the Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria.

There is nothing immutable in international and regional politics, and the recent conflicts in the Middle East have added two more factors that have shaped the policies of the countries in this region. The first is resilience and adaptability to protracted conflicts. The second is acumen in optimising diverse foreign relations, with the great powers in particular, towards the promotion of national interests.

There is also a third point, which is the need to forge pre-emptive policies in a tumultuous world that is likely to become even more so in the future. Could a new conflict erupt in the Middle East throwing the above-mentioned factors into disarray? Or could tensions spiral out of control in East Asia?

The chances of these alarming prospects occurring may seem low. But it would be wiser for the powers of this region to forge a more forward-looking strategy to pre-empt them, instead of confining themselves to temporary expedients such as adaptation to ongoing conflicts or momentarily optimising whatever opportunities they present.   

Serious thought should be given to how to prevent the fires of conflict from taking hold again in the region and then spreading to elsewhere in the world.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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