Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine came as a shock to the Arab states. After all, most of them maintain close economic ties with both Moscow and Kyiv. A serious food crisis is looming in many countries as a result of the invasion and the sanctions imposed on Russia.
About 70 percent of Russia’s and 40 percent of Ukraine’s exports of wheat, corn and sunflower oil go to the Middle East and Africa. In Egypt, the price of bread is currently rising so much that the country has already asked the IMF for help – also against the background of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar by around 18 percent.
The economic priorities of the individual countries reveal which developments are having the greatest impact there: In the Gulf monarchies, it is above all the instability in the energy market. In the Emirates and Egypt in particular, there is also great concern about the lack of tourists and possible impairments to the supply situation.
The war in Ukraine is widely reported in the Arab media. Many try to reflect the positions of Moscow and Kiev equally. Major pan-Arab media – notably the London-based newspaper Ash-Sharq al-Awsat or the United Arab Emirates’ broadcaster Al-Arabiya – are also giving more explicit assessments of what is happening. There, experts comment on the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and on the breach of international law by Russia.
Qatari television channel Al Jazeera has sent several correspondents to Ukraine. His reporting is often critical of the West. For example, the double standards of Western countries in relation to the new refugee movement are discussed. It is well remembered that in 2015 people from the Middle East had great difficulties entering the EU – some states refused admission outright. “The Ukrainians are Europeans, we are not. Western countries hear them, but not us,” notes Lebanese journalist Hazem Sagie in the Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Some analysts have compared Russia’s actions in Ukraine to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, recalling the muted European response to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Traditionally, the Arab states have not exactly been characterized by unity in their foreign policy positions. Accordingly, there is no common position on the Ukraine war either. A certain reluctance can be felt in most states. The exception is Syria, which is heavily dependent on the Kremlin. Damascus immediately backed the independence of the so-called Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics and welcomed Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Arab League issued a cautious statement on February 28. Russia is not even mentioned in it. The invasion of Ukraine territory is described as a “crisis” that should be “diplomatically resolved”. In their official statements, the governments of many Arab states also mainly limit themselves to calls for de-escalation and emphasize the need for a ceasefire. In addition to relations with Moscow, one reason for this reluctance is distrust of the West, especially the USA. This has intensified after the hasty withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan last year.
In addition, some heads of state in the Gulf region maintain friendly relations with President Putin. It remains important for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to comply with the agreements of OPEC+, the cooperation platform with non-OPEC countries such as Russia. These represent a key to the economic recovery of the oil-producing countries. States such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq, which depend on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine, apparently see a neutral stance as the best way to avoid impacts on their to minimize the food situation.
At the same time, there are forces that openly criticize the Kremlin’s actions. On February 24, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry condemned Moscow for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity and demanded an “immediate cessation of the military operation.” A few days later, Libyan government officials also accused Russia of violating international law. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are trying to mediate between the warring factions. The foreign ministers of both countries regularly call their counterparts in Moscow and Kyiv. However, the negotiations in Istanbul remain the only promising platform for a possible peace agreement.
The countries of the Middle East are currently receiving a lot of attention from the EU, which is looking for alternatives to the energy supply from Russia. On March 20, the German Vice-Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection Robert Habeck traveled to Qatar to negotiate a long-term economic partnership, specifically the supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Germany. Qatar’s Energy Minister Saad bin Sharid al-Kaabi had already stated in advance that the country was not yet able to replace Russian gas supplies to the EU. Qatar became the world’s largest LNG producer last year. However, a large part of the production is sold to customers in Asia under long-term contracts. According to the Qatari authorities, only 10 to 15 percent of the country’s liquefied natural gas can be diverted towards Europe in the short term – and then only after approval by Asian importers. Qatar is currently planning to invest 30 billion US dollars in doubling its production capacity. However, this project will not be completed before 2025.
Libya and Algeria could also represent alternative sources of oil and gas for the EU. Algeria is already one of the five largest LNG producers for the European market. But here, too, large investments are needed to increase production capacity. One problem is that Germany does not have dedicated LNG terminals. The plants in Brunsbüttel and Wilhelmshaven, which the federal government decided to build after the outbreak of war, will not go into operation until 2026 at the earliest.
The possible failure of the invasion diverts the attention of the Russian leadership from other areas of its foreign policy. This also includes Syria. The activities of Russian troops in Syria have recently declined noticeably, for example, airstrikes in the border area with Iraq, where remnants of the IS still operate.
Amid deteriorating relations with the West, Moscow could veto an extension of UN Security Council Resolution 2585. This currently still allows humanitarian aid to be delivered to northwest Syria via Turkey. That could significantly aggravate the humanitarian situation on the ground – not to mention the already existing supply disruptions to Russian food. The weakening of Russian influence could embolden Turkey to further gain a foothold in northern Syria.