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28 Feb, 2024 15:25

What the Arab world thinks of Russia’s military operation against Ukraine

Two years after the start of the conflict, Moscow’s partnerships in the Middle East continue to develop
What the Arab world thinks of Russia’s military operation against Ukraine

On February 24, 2022, President Vladimir Putin announced the start of Russia's special military operation (SMO) in Ukraine. Many experts call this date a turning point in world history, and some saw it as Russia becoming the military spearhead of the “global South” in the fight against the fading world order based on the destructive hegemony of the West. The Ukraine crisis has triggered a breakdown of the system and principles of international security that was formed after the end of the Cold War.

An analysis of the conflict in Ukraine reveals two dimensions that complicate the process of its potential settlement. These are the two dimensions that the well-known Russian expert Fyodor Lukyanov wrote about in one of his recent articles. First, there are the issues of national self-identification - the “historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, about which Putin wrote in his 2021 article. Second, there are the guarantees of military-political security for Russia in view of the permanent expansion of NATO and its hostile rhetoric towards Moscow.

It seems obvious that for Moscow, the military scenario was a forced step, brought about by the unwillingness of Washington and its allies to hear out Russia’s concerns. Even after February 24, 2022, Moscow showed its readiness to participate in diplomatic discussions, as evidenced by the talks in Istanbul at the very beginning of the conflict. Russia’s readiness to defend its interests is unquestionable, and everyone understands this, but Moscow is ready both to continue the military scenario and to resume the negotiation process. 

However, it is most likely that the Western elites have one goal - to weaken Moscow at any cost, even if it requires the life of every Ukrainian. This goal was to be achieved by pumping the Armed Forces of Ukraine with weapons and financing, as well as through the West’s efforts to bring about the global political, economic and cultural-humanitarian isolation of Moscow.

This is exactly how the Russian military operation is perceived by the majority of the public in the Arab countries. They are sure that this is Russia’s confrontation not with the Ukrainians, but with the Western bloc headed by Washington. But at the same time, the Arab countries have demonstrated a variety of reactions to the Russian military operation. These reactions range from open support to strong condemnation, while some countries have taken a neutral or moderate stance, seeking to balance their geopolitical interests and international obligations.

Some Arab countries have expressed support for Russia or taken a cautious position, explaining this by citing their historically established relationships with Moscow and their desire to maintain strategic partnerships. Syria, for example, has unequivocally supported Russia’s actions, which is not surprising given Russia’s military support for President Bashar Assad during the Syrian civil war. In a similar vein, other countries with close economic and military ties to Russia have also expressed an understanding regarding Russia’s actions, emphasizing the need to respect the sovereignty of states and the inadmissibility of interference in their internal affairs. 

On the other hand, some Arab countries have condemned the Russian military operation in Ukraine on the basis of their support for international law and the principles of sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states. These countries call for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and emphasize the need to protect civilians. For example, Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have spoken out on the international stage for upholding international law, although they have not joined in adopting Western sanctions and continue to cooperate with Moscow.

Many Arab countries have chosen the path of neutrality or a moderate reaction, seeking not to worsen relations with either side of the conflict. They have called for dialogue and a peaceful settlement of the situation through international organizations such as the United Nations. These countries emphasize the importance of diplomacy and international cooperation in resolving global conflicts.

How the Ukraine conflict affects the Arab world

The conflict in Ukraine has sent shockwaves around the globe; the Arab world is no exception. Despite the geographical distance, the conflict has had a significant impact on the region, both economically and politically.

The Arab world is largely dependent on wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia, which account for more than 60% of the needs of some countries. The war has disrupted supply chains and led to rising prices, threatening food security in many countries. Since the start of the active phase of the conflict, wheat and corn prices have increased by 35%, while overall food prices worldwide have increased by more than 15%.

The conflict has pushed oil and gas prices to record highs, which benefits oil-producing Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, for countries that rely on imports, the higher cost of fuel has led to increased transportation costs and inflation, exacerbating existing economic struggles. Since the Russian Federation is the world’s second largest oil exporter and the largest exporter of natural gas, the conflict and subsequent sanctions pushed oil prices to a peak of $125 in the first week of March 2022. Although oil prices have since fallen, Brent crude is now trading in the $80 range, above the $70 average. This constitutes a major financial burden for oil-importing countries.

The hostilities have weakened tourism in several Arab countries, especially those popular with guests from Russia and Ukraine. This sector makes a significant contribution to the region’s economy, so the decline in revenue from tourism is another blow. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has revised down its forecast for global economic growth in 2022 from 4.9% to 4.4% due to the struggle. Analysts have estimated the losses to the global economy at almost $600 billion. Rising global food and fuel prices have led to a 3-percentage point increase in global inflation in 2022 and a 2.3-percentage point increase in 2023.

The economic fallout from the global turmoil caused by the Russia-West standoff could exacerbate existing internal tensions in some Arab countries, especially those which already face social unrest or political instability.

The Ukraine conflict has highlighted the vulnerability which comes with dependence on external sources of food. Some Arab countries are exploring ways of increasing domestic agricultural production and diversifying their import sources. In addition, the energy crisis could accelerate the transition to renewable energy in the region, contributing to long-term energy security and reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

The conflict has already led to a reshuffle of regional alliances, as Arab countries seek new partners and reconsider their relations with major powers, particularly the US. Leading Arab countries are today expanding their ties with non-Western countries, including Russia, China, India and other countries of the global South.

The Ukraine crisis is a complex issue with far-reaching consequences. While the Arab world faces significant challenges, it also presents opportunities for long-term transformation. The region’s response to the crisis will be determined by its ability to navigate the economic and political complexities while ensuring its own security and stability. 

Russia and the Arab world strengthen cooperation 

Russia’s ties with the Arab world remained largely stable, with no major shifts observed. Despite significant pressure from Western powers, particularly Washington, the trend towards closer relations continued. Countries have increasingly demonstrated their commitment to neutrality and, in some cases, sought integration into non-Western alliances, emphasizing their unique paths of sovereign development in the face of geopolitical upheaval. Notably, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were admitted to BRICS as members in August 2023.

The past two years have been favorable for Russia’s engagement in the Middle East. The country’s economic, political, military, and cultural influence in the region have continued to grow. This trajectory is expected to continue in the foreseeable future as Russia seeks to solidify its presence in the region.

In 2023, despite constant pressure from Washington, OPEC+ members, including Saudi Arabia, supported oil production cuts, with Riyadh pledging to cut output by 1 million barrels per day in early 2024. This move, while perceived as anti-Western by the West, underscores the protection of national interests by Middle Eastern countries. Balanced oil prices ensure stable budget revenues, contributing to economic stability and development. Moscow has also reaped financial benefits, as evidenced by increased oil and gas revenues. The extension of OPEC+ agreements until 2024 underscores their mutual benefit. Energy ties between Moscow and its Middle Eastern partners are flourishing, demonstrating trust and a commitment to cooperation in the face of Western pressure. 

Throughout the past year, Middle Eastern leaders have actively participated in various Russian forums, showcasing growing interaction between the regions. Notably, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was the guest of honor. Following discussions, Putin noted the fruitful bilateral relations, while Al Nahyan emphasized that the UAE expects to receive over a million Russian tourists and offers support in settling the conflict in Ukraine.

In June, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune paid a state visit to Russia, culminating in his participation in the SPIEF. During the forum, Tebboune outlined his vision of Russia’s global role and the role of Africa, stressing the importance of strategic partnership. Similarly, the second Russia-Africa summit was held in St. Petersburg in July, where Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met with Putin to mark the 80th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Moscow’s cooperation with Cairo goes beyond economics and encompasses the military and political spheres.

In October, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al-Sudani took part in Russian Energy Week, highlighting the multifaceted cooperation between Moscow and Baghdad, especially in the energy sector. Finally, in December, the “Russia Calling!” forum welcomed Oman’s Crown Prince Theyazin bin Haitham bin Tariq Al Said. His remarks reflected an aspiration for a more just world order, signaling Muscat’s readiness to contribute to the new paradigm. 

In early December, Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on working visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This was his first visit to these countries in four years, and the talks covered a wide range of bilateral issues. The global media widely covered Putin’s reception in Abu Dhabi, which more closely resembled a state visit than a working visit.

Trade and economic relations between Russia and the UAE are expanding, with the UAE being the largest regional investor in Russia. In addition, humanitarian cooperation between the two countries is deepening. They are also expanding cooperation in the energy sector and on military and political issues. 

After his visit to Abu Dhabi, Putin traveled to Riyadh, where he held talks with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. Their talks covered a wide range of issues, including the regional situation, global problems, bilateral cooperation, the North-South international transport corridor, Ukraine, and OPEC+ agreements. 

The concluding event of the past year related to the Arab world took place during the plenary session of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum in the historic city of Marrakech, Morocco. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was warmly welcomed by his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita, who stressed the importance of the forum in strengthening relations between the Russian Federation and the Arab world. This meeting, the sixth of its kind since the first was held in 2013, was devoted to considering various regional and global problems, with a particular focus on the challenge of an unjust world order.

Following the discussions, a draft “Marrakech Declaration” was prepared, reflecting the common positions and goals of the countries involved on key regional and international issues. It also outlined a specific plan of action for the 2024 - 2026 period within the framework of Russian-Arab Cooperation.

On the way to a new world order: Russia and the Arab world

The meeting in Marrakech highlighted the commitment of both Russia and the Arab world to cooperation in forming a more just global order. It highlighted the growing coincidence of interests between the two sides as they seek to reduce dependence on Western influence. Moreover, against the backdrop of the ongoing Ukraine crisis, this meeting provided Russia with an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to cooperation with the Arab world and demonstrated Russia’s growing importance in the Middle East.

Although there have been no major changes in relations between Moscow and the Arab countries since the start of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, the bilateral agenda remains full. The countries of the Arab world have not only maintained a positive position of neutrality towards Russia, but have also tried to act as intermediaries in the Ukraine conflict. This has strengthened trust between Russia and the Middle Eastern countries and contributed to the development of various ties, including trade and economic, humanitarian, and military-political relations. Together, Moscow and the Middle Eastern countries are united in their desire for a new and just world order, seeking to end the hegemony of Washington and its allies, who have been destroying countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Libya for decades.

The participation of the Arab world in mediating the conflict in Ukraine signifies broader international efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The League of Arab States and several Arab countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have sought to play their part in reducing tensions and promoting dialogue between the conflicting parties. Despite their geographical remoteness from the region, these countries recognize the importance of stability in Ukraine and its implications for global peace and security.

The mediation efforts of the Arab countries generally involve diplomatic initiatives aimed at encouraging dialogue, facilitating negotiations and promoting mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution. While the specifics of their involvement may vary, their common goal is to facilitate dialogue and find a mutually acceptable solution that takes into account the interests of all parties involved. 

These mediation efforts reflect the Arab world’s commitment to international peace and stability, as well as their recognition of the interconnectedness of global conflicts. By participating in mediation, the Arab countries are demonstrating their willingness to make a constructive contribution to the settlement of conflicts outside their region and to uphold the principles of diplomacy and dialogue. 

Thus, the reaction of the Arab countries to the Russian military operation in Ukraine reflects the complexity of international relations and the different interests that they seek to balance. While some countries express support or understanding for Russia’s actions, others condemn them and call for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Most of them, however, seek to avoid direct involvement in the conflict, emphasizing the importance of diplomacy and international cooperation.

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