Russia’s military assault on Ukraine has come as a shock to Arab states, most of which have close economic ties with Moscow and kyiv. About 70% of Russian exports and 40% of Ukrainian exports of wheat, corn and sunflower oil go to the Middle East and Africa. Thus, following the invasion and the sanctions imposed on Russia, many countries are now facing a serious food crisis. In Egypt, the price of bread is rising so sharply that the country has already asked for help from the IMF – also because the Egyptian pound has fallen by around 18% against the US dollar.
The economic priorities of each country reveal the developments that have the most impact: in the Gulf monarchies, it is mainly the instability of the energy market, while in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, the lack tourists and potential supply disruptions are of serious concern. .
The media denounces double standards
The Arab media do a lot of reporting on the war in Ukraine, and many of them try to present the positions of Moscow and kyiv. Main pan-Arab media – especially those based in London Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper and the emirate Al Arabiya international broadcaster – explicitly assess the events, with experts commenting on Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and violation of international law.
“Ukrainians are Europeans, we are not. Western countries listen to them, but not us,” writes Lebanese journalist Hazem Sagie in Ash-Sharq al-Awsat.
The Qatari television channel AlJazeera, often critical of the West, has dispatched several correspondents to Ukraine and is now attacking the new movement of refugees and the double standards of Western states: that Middle Easterners have had great difficulty entering the EU in 2015, and that some states rejected them completely remains a vivid memory. “Ukrainians are Europeans, we are not. Western countries listen to them, but not us,” writes Lebanese journalist Hazem Sagie in Ash-Sharq al-Awsat. Some analysts compare Russia’s actions in Ukraine to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and recall the timid European response to the Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank.
Arab states are not known for adopting unified positions on foreign policy – and do not have a common position on the war in Ukraine. Most show notable restraint, with the exception of Syria, which depends on the Kremlin. Damascus immediately welcomed the independence of the “People’s Republics of Lugansk and Donetsk” and welcomed Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.
A call for peace
On February 28, the Arab League released a cautious statement that did not even mention Russia. He describes the invasion of Ukraine as a “crisis” that should be “resolved diplomatically”. Many Arab governments have limited their official statements to calling for de-escalation and stressing the need for a ceasefire. This is not only due to their relationship with Moscow, but shows their distrust of the West, especially the United States – which has increased following the hasty withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Last year.
Moreover, some Gulf leaders maintain friendly relations with President Putin. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia consider it important to respect the agreements of OPEC+, which represents OPEC members and 10 non-OPEC states, including Russia. Energy contracts are essential to the economic recovery of oil-producing countries. Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq depend on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine and apparently see a neutral stance as the best way to minimize the impact on their food situation.
Yet some are openly critical of the Kremlin’s actions. On February 24, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry condemned Moscow for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity and called on Russia “to immediately cease military operations”. A few days later, the Libyan foreign minister also accused Russia of violating international law by invading Ukraine. Saudi Arabia and Qatar seek to mediate between the warring parties, with their foreign ministers regularly calling their counterparts in Moscow and kyiv. However, the only promising platform for a possible peace agreement is the negotiations in Istanbul.
Growing European interest
Since the war broke out, countries in the Middle East have been courted by the EU as it seeks to replace Russian energy. On March 20, German Vice Chancellor and Minister of Economics and Climate Protection Robert Habeck visited Qatar to negotiate a long-term economic partnership and liquefied natural gas (LNG) for the Germany.
However, Qatari Energy Minister Saad bin Sharid al-Kaabi had said in advance that his country could not immediately replace Russia’s gas exports to the EU. Although Qatar became the world’s largest LNG producer last year, most of its production is destined for Asian customers under long-term contracts. Qatari authorities say that in the short term, only 10-15% of the country’s LNG can be diverted to Europe – after approval from their Asian importers. Qatar plans to invest 30 billion dollars to double its production capacity. But it will take until 2025.
Although Qatar became the world’s largest LNG producer last year, most of its production is destined for Asian customers under long-term contracts.
Libya and Algeria could also be 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. And then there’s the annoying fact that Germany doesn’t have dedicated LNG terminals. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the German government decided to build facilities in Brunsbüttel and Wilhelmshaven. But they won’t be in service until 2026 at the earliest.
Russian leaders are distracted from other areas of foreign policy by the possible failure of their war against Ukraine. This includes Syria, where Russian troop activity has recently noticeably decreased, for example airstrikes in the border area with Iraq, where IS remnants still operate. UN Security Council Resolution 2585 authorizes the delivery of humanitarian aid to northwest Syria via Turkey. But as relations with the West deteriorate, Moscow may veto its extension. This would seriously worsen Syria’s humanitarian disaster – on top of the current disruptions to Russian food supplies. Weakening Russian influence could encourage Turkey to make further inroads into northern Syria. Stay tuned: the war in Ukraine may well trigger chain reactions across the region.