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Arab's Dilemma in the Russia-Ukraine Crisis

The so-called “special military operation” which the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, launched in Ukraine, on February 24th, with the hope to seize Kiev over one night, is now stretching to several days of non-stop war. Thanks to the exemplary resistance of the brave Ukrainian people, the unprovoked invasion, which started with a scene where Ukraine stands alone in the face of the giant and powerful Russia, is quickly becoming a historic momentum where Russia is stuck alone in the face of the international community. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is only the beginning of a cluster of political, diplomatic, and economic clashes, between eastern and western world powers, that will eventually change the face of the world as we know it. Despite being geographically distant, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa region are expected to be directly affected by the security and economic consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war. However, most of the countries of the region, either Arab or non-Arab, have the power to change the course of events in their favor, only if they focus on playing the right cards at the right time, rather than simply reacting to the developments of the current global standoff.

What is at Stake for the Arab Countries?

Most of the Arab countries are expected to be affected, at least economically, by the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war. Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, separately, occupy crucial positions in the economy of most Arab countries; either as top suppliers of wheat, which is a high-demand product, or as tourists who flood in large numbers to the sea resorts of the region. Besides, Russia is one of the main resources of armament for several Arab countries, especially at times when the United States, their favorite ally, declines to sell them weapons until they improve human rights conditions. Above all that, Russia is one of the key geopolitical players in the Middle East, since its political and military involvement in Libya and Syria, in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

Egypt is the clearest case where the economic consequences of the Russia-Ukraine could be seen. Egypt is one of the top five importers of wheat, in the world. The Egyptian population of more than one hundred million citizens consumes an average of four million tonnes of wheat per year. In 2021, Egypt produced only 20% of its needs and had to import the remaining 80% from Russia (50%) and Ukraine (30%). The current war between Russia and Ukraine has already caused the prices of wheat to increase to unprecedented levels. Soon, that will be reflected as a huge burden on the Egyptian economy, and may consequently affect the prices of other basic food products. Even after the Russia-Ukraine war comes to an end, the sanctions imposed by Western powers on the Russian economy will continue to affect the food prices in Egypt and several other Arab and African countries which has similar needs and circumstances.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian tourism sector, which is barely recovering from the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, is also expected to be badly affected by the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. A large percentage of the tourists pouring into Egypt, every year, come from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus during the winter season. When the flights between Russia and Egypt were suspended in the period between 2015 and 2021, the Red Sea resorts suffered to keep their business. The Egyptian economy also suffered, as tourism accounts for 9% of Egypt’s GDP. Given the fact that the current Russia-Ukraine war is expected to keep happening for a long time, as French President Macron noted, the Egyptian tourism sector is doomed to go through a similar period of sluggishness, that will eventually echo in other sectors of the Egyptian economy.

The Security Risks in Syria and Libya

Libya and Syria are the two Arab countries that will be particularly shaken by the geopolitical and security consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war, due to their direct linkage to Russia. In fact, Russia’s war on Ukraine is only a more aggressive copy of Russia’s uncalled-for interventions in Syria and Libya, in recent years. Ironically, the claim that “Russia had to defend its national security against the expansion of NATO,” which is currently used by Putin and his media propagandists to justify invading Ukraine, was previously used to justify Russia’s interventions in each of Syria (2015) and Libya (2017).

Still, there is a key difference between the three cases. While state officials in Libya and Syria paved the way for Putin to destroy their countries and kill innocent citizens, in order to keep their political seats; the Ukrainian citizens and their political leadership are standing united in the face of Russia’s aggression in an impressive way that eventually forced the international community to jump in to rescue them. In that sense, it is not a surprise that the Syrian and Libyan political leaderships were the first, among all other Arab countries, to take sharp positions with, or against, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In Syria, where Russia is supporting the Assad regime against his own people, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made public statements to praise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “correction of history and a restoration of balance in the global order.” Ironically, the Assad regime was among the first few to applaud Russia’s recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. In contradiction, Assad may not hesitate to launch a war on the Kurds of Syria, if they ever try to have an autonomy rule in the northern territories, following the example of the Kurds of Iraq. In 2016, a few months after Russia intervened in Syria, Al-Assad publicly said that he was ready to go to war against the Kurdish-led “Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)” to regain Syria’s control over the territories that they live in.

On the other side of the region, and the opposite side of the spectrum of political alignment, Libya’s interim Government of National Unity (GNU), through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, started to reject Russia’s recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. The statement also condemned the practices of Wagner Group (a Russian private military corporation that serves the Russian regime), in both Libya and Ukraine. Russia sent Wagner Group’s militia to Libya, in 2017, to support the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Warlord Khalifa Haftar, in the eastern territories, against the former UN-recognized interim Government of National Accord (GNA).

Since the installation of the current Government of National Unity (GNU), in March 2021, there have been several local, regional, and international calls on Russia and Turkey to withdraw their foreign forces from Libya. Yet, neither Russia nor Turkey, which backs the Tripoli-based government, responded positively. But, in mid-February, Western media reports mentioned that Putin withdrew Wagner Group’s militia from Libya to aid in his war on Ukraine, which started a few days after that.

Unfortunately, the shrinking interest of the international community in solving Libya’s crisis, as it is getting focused on solving the Ukrainian crisis, may widen the scope of conflicts between the eastern and western political leaders, and push the country down the road of civil war, once again.

Collective Arab Action is not Realistic

Most of the Arab states were careful not to side with any of the conflicting parties, at the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war. The flawed Middle East policy of the United States Administration of President Biden is making Arabs hesitant to take the side of the West, their favorite ally, against Russia and the other Eastern powers. The Biden Administration has been taking decisions that empowered Iran and its proxies against national Arab states. One apparent example is the decision to remove the Houthi militia in Yemen from the list of foreign terrorist organizations, while declining to fulfill armament deals with Arab Gulf countries, creating a situation that eventually allowed the Houthi militia to attack Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in January, with Iran-made drones.

Nonetheless, as the situation in Ukraine developed into an actual war that dragged the international community to intervene, Arab states found themselves obliged to announce their position. On February 28th, the fourth day of the war, the League of Arab States called for an extraordinary meeting, on the level of permanent representatives, to discuss the Ukraine crisis. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Arab League expressed concern, in an official statement, calling for resolving the crisis via dialogue and diplomacy, and affirming “the importance of respecting the principles of international law.” Yet, the Arab League’s statement did not condemn Russia for invading Ukraine. The Arab League has never condemned Russia’s military actions against any country, including Libya and Syria, despite being Arab countries.

At the conclusion of the statement, the Arab League made an interesting recommendation about forming a ministerial committee, led by Arab ministers of foreign affairs, to monitor the Ukraine crisis and mediate for a diplomatic solution between the warring parties. Realistically, the Arab League, as a diplomatic body, is not qualified to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, given its record of failing to mediate for peace in any of the old or new conflicts of the Arabs, starting from the decades-long Israel-Palestinian conflict to the post-Arab-Spring civil wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya. However, some of the Arab countries can, individually, play tremendous roles in affecting the course of events in the ongoing standoff between Eastern and Western powers.

Arab’s Winning Cards

As has been the case with all the major events that have been happening since the eruption of the Arab Spring, it seems that the Arab Gulf countries should take the lead on handling and affecting the consequences of the current Russia-Ukraine war in the region.

On one hand, the UAE holds the crucial card of international diplomacy, due to its elected membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the term 2022-2023. This month, March 2022, the UAE shall serve as the president of the UNSC, which will definitely put it at the forefront of influencing international community decisions regarding the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. However, the UAE’s success in this mission requires achieving a level of consistency in its foreign policy approach.

At the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, the UAE abstained from voting on a UNSC resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. Only China and India, who are known for their political alignment with Russia, shared the same position as the UAE, while the other eleven countries supported the resolution. In its statement before the UNSC, the UAE’s representative focused on the humanitarian crisis that is expected to result from the war and urged “all parties to implement their obligations under international law, including by allowing humanitarian aid to reach those in need and to refrain from targeting civilians.” The UAE’s statement neither supported Ukraine nor condemned Russia, which made observers think that the UAE is keeping a neutral position, similar to the majority of Arab countries.

Then, on the fifth day of the war, March 1st, the UAE leadership exhibited greater alignment with the Russian side. According to an official statement by Russia’s Kremlin, Putin had a phone conversation with UAE’s Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, wherein Bin Zayed "reaffirmed that Russia has the right to ensure national security," and promised to continue coordinating with Russia within the framework of OPEC+. A few hours later, the Swiss-based company of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that extends from Russia to Germany, announced that it fired all of its employees and is filing for bankruptcy, due to the recently imposed economic sanctions on Russia. That perhaps explains why Putin called Bin Zayed, on that day, to confirm his country’s status in the OPEC+, before his citizens and his enemies.

That takes us to the critical card of energy resources, which Saudi Arabia and Qatar possess. Saudi Arabia is the top producer of crude oil in the region, and the third in the world after the United States and Russia. Meanwhile, Qatar is the top producer of natural gas in the region and the top third in the world after Russia and Iran. As European countries are determined to boycott Russian gas and oil, they should be looking for Saudi Arabia and Qatar as potential alternative resources. So far, neither Saudi Arabia nor Qatar has taken a biased position on the Ukraine crisis. Both of them are strong allies of the United States. Recently, the US gave Qatar the status of a non-NATO strategic ally. However, it seems that both countries are still waiting for the right time to throw down their most powerful energy cards.

Nevertheless, despite being a giant producer of natural gas, Qatar alone cannot realistically replace Russia in fulfilling Europe’s needs. Europe’s average consumption of natural gas exceeds 400 billion cubic meters per year, while Qatar’s annual production of gas is an average of 180 billion cubic meters, most of which is contracted to Asian countries. From an optimistic point of view, this could be a ripe opportunity for the countries of North Africa to expand their presence in the European energy market, alongside Arab Gulf countries. Their advantageous geographic location in the south of the Mediterranean improves their potential in that regard.

Since 2018, Egypt has emerged as a regional hub, in the eastern Mediterranean, for producing, liquifying, and exporting natural gas to Asia and Europe. Since the last quarter of 2021, Egypt officially started to ship cargos of liquified natural gas (LNG) to Turkey and southern Europe. In January 2022, for the first time, Egypt shipped LNG cargo to the Netherlands, in northwestern Europe. The current standoff between Europe and Russia may enhance Egypt’s gas industry in impressive ways. There is a catch, though. For Egypt to hunt this ripe opportunity, it has to cooperate with its North African neighbors, Libya and Algeria on liquifying and selling their oil in the Egyptian offshore plants, the same way it is currently doing with Israel.

Libya possesses the highest volume of proven oil reserves in Africa and is the fourth top exporter of natural gas to Europe, via the GreenStream offshore pipeline (length: 540 km) extending from Mellitah Port in Libya to the shores of Sicily in Italy. Meanwhile, Algeria is the top regional exporter of natural gas to Europe via the Maghreb-Europe pipeline (length: 1400 km) that runs from Algeria, through Morocco, to ends in Spain. However, the unsettling political conflicts in Libya and Algeria are hindering their potential to seize this opportunity. In Libya, the extreme divisions among the political elite in the eastern and western territories are delaying the government funds needed to operate natural gas facilities and keep reserves and production at stable levels. In Algeria, its renewed conflict with neighbor Morocco over the Western Sahara led to the abrupt termination, in November 2021, of the contracts governing their use of the Maghreb-Europe pipeline, and thus affected the volumes of gas flow from Algeria to Europe.

After the War

On the seventh day of the war, on March 2nd, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) convened an extraordinary session to seek member states to vote on a draft resolution to scold Russia over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. At the opening of the session, the United Nations officially condemned Russia’s “choice of war” and called upon Moscow to withdraw its military troops from the sovereign state of Ukraine. Eventually, the resolution received a historic support of 141 out of the total 193 member states. Out of the 22 Arab countries, 13 voted in support of the resolution. They are Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, UAE, and Yemen.

The surprise, here, is that all the four key pillars of the Arab region (namely; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar) voted against Russia. Also, all of the six Arab Gulf countries, who literally hold all the winning cards in the current international turmoil, voted in support of the UN resolution to condemn Russia. That included the UAE which a few days before that abstained from voting against Russia at the UNSC session. The significance of this voting trend among the Arab countries is that it is a clear message that the Arabs will be more inclined to their favorite Western allies of Europe and the United States, in the future. Actually, it seems that Russia has already committed a mistake that may end its legacy forever.

For Arab public observers, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, blinded by his arrogance and desire to flex his muscles before the weakened West, is reminiscent of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, in 1990. As the war period is lengthening, Russia’s economic and political losses are increasing, while the United States and Europe are getting relatively stronger. Most likely, Putin will commit the same mistake as Saddam Hussein by refusing to admit that he is already losing the war and should withdraw his forces. Rather, he will continue to fight, in a brutal way, in order not to hurt his own pride. This means he may eventually cause Russia to lose its position as an international or even a regional power.

In any case, the transformation process of our world has already begun. It will take years to shape into a stable format that portrays the features of the new world order. In the middle of that process, all the countries of the world – no exception – are going to face varied degrees of political and economic challenges. While the majority are expected to suffer, some lucky countries are expected to survive and grow throughout these crises. Many of the Arab countries have the potential to be among the lucky ones, only if they succeed in managing the scope of their interactions with the current clash of world powers in Ukraine.

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