Summary: It’s about managing oil prices, bread prices, and strategic partnerships
Citizens of the Middle East and North Africa are feeling the impacts of the war in Europe on their food security, energy prices, and job markets.
They are torn between sympathizing with Ukrainians fleeing their homes and cities destroyed by Russian weapons and remembering how the world looked away as the same weapons were recking havoc on Syria and Libya only a few years ago. Meanwhile, regional governments, including America’s traditional allies, are hedging their bets between Russia and the U.S.-led Western camp, playing on time to better evaluate the impacts of the war and to ease the restraints it is imposing on the fragile economies and social fabrics of the region.
Carnegie experts take a look at how countries across the Middle East and North Africa are responding to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Russian war in Ukraine has presented the Egyptian government with two major, immediate challenges.
First, Egypt, the world’s top importer of wheat, sources 85 percent of its wheat supplies from Russia and Ukraine combined. Predictably, the disruption in Ukrainian wheat production and export chains, as well as the severe impacts of the sanctions imposed on Russian economic and trading activities, have sent wheat prices soaring. The Egyptian government will need to use more of its financial resources to secure wheat supplies and avoid threats to the country’s food security. This is partially due to the country’s high inflation, which is forecasted to rise 2.3 percentage points to 7.5 percent this year, and to the recent devaluation of the local currency. Another factor is the rising prices of basic goods, including bread, whose price is increasing due to previously announced subsidy reforms. Additional financial resources will probably be devoted to controlling bread prices for a population that suffers from a poverty rate of approximately 30 percent. The recent government announcement to expand wheat cultivation to 2 million acres by the end of 2024 is a viable medium-term strategy to bolster Egypt’s food security. It does not, however, ease the population’s immediate vulnerability resulting from the Ukraine war.
Amr Hamzawy is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Program. He studied political science and developmental studies in Cairo, The Hague, and Berlin.
Second, the Egyptian government has developed close ties to Russia in recent years, comprising arms sales, cooperation to build a nuclear power plant in the northwest of Egypt, and growing economic and trade ties. Egypt has also found points of strategic convergence between its policy choices in Syria and Libya and the policy interests of the Russian government. Indeed, the Egyptian government has silently endorsed Russia’s military intervention in Syria and accepted its political objective: the continuation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The two governments have furthermore supported General Khalifa Haftar and his allies in Libya and aided them militarily and financially.
However, Egypt’s growing ties with Russia and their policy convergence in Middle Eastern conflict zones have nonetheless not undermined the country’s strategic partnership with the United States and the European Union. The war in Ukraine has forced the Egyptian government to walk a fine line between Russia and the West, and diplomatic maneuvering has been high on the agenda of Egyptian policymakers in recent days. A few hours after its vote in the UN General Assembly to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Egyptian government issued a statement highlighting the urgent need to address the legitimate national security concerns of Russia in relation to Ukraine and criticizing the sanctions that the United States and Europe had imposed on Russia, citing them as illegitimate from an international law perspective. If the confrontation between Russia and the West continues to escalate, the Egyptian government will most likely see its ability to maneuver between the two sides diminish—with the necessity of a binary choice ultimately becoming more imminent.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine introduced a last-minute plot twist in the negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Given that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has prohibited Iranian diplomats from negotiating directly with the United States, Moscow has over the last year served as a key intermediary between Washington and Tehran, shepherding the nuclear negotiations to what had appeared to be a conclusion.
Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.
Amid the sudden and severe global pressure campaign against Russia, however, Moscow reassessed its facilitation role and implicitly threatened to imperil the Iran nuclear deal to secure its own interests.
Russia—which has now eclipsed Iran as the world’s most sanctioned nation—wants the world to feel the economic pain of an embargo against Russian oil. A nuclear deal that ends the embargo against Iranian oil would mitigate the global financial consequences of Russia’s isolation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also understands that reviving the Iran nuclear deal means much more to U.S. President Joe Biden than it does to him. Putin does not feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear advancement, and Tehran’s isolation has served Russian interests: Iran is dependent on second-rate Russian technology, is an adversary to the United States, is unable to exploit its vast energy resources, and is neglectful of its historic competition with Moscow in Central Asia. Indeed, one of Russia’s top scholars of Iran, Rajab Safarov, said in a recent interview that “a Western-oriented Iran would be worse for Russia than a nuclear-armed Iran, and would lead to Russia’s collapse.”
These Russian machinations have revived the historic mistrust that many Iranian citizens feel toward their predatory Russian neighbor to the north. In the 1800s, imperial Russia forcefully seized vast territories in the Caucasus from Iran. In 1946, Soviet forces occupied and sought to annex Iran’s northwestern province of Azerbaijan, only to be expelled thanks to the efforts of then U.S. president Harry Truman. Indeed, it is an anomaly of history that today Russia and Iran are strategic partners, while the United States and Iran are bitter adversaries.
Despite speculation that mutual mistrust of Russia may foster greater U.S.-Iran cooperation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not triggered any major geopolitical realignments but rather has served to strengthen existing global alliances. Absent a change of leadership in Moscow or Tehran, the two countries’ mutual isolation and aggrievement toward the West will ultimately make them more dependent on one another, not less.
Until Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s surprise three-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 5, Israel’s reluctance to condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine—and mention Putin by name—had been attributed to its desire to avoid alienating Putin in Syria as well as its concern over the security and well-being of Russia’s 150,000 Jews. Almost since the beginning of the crisis, Israel had sought to hedge its bets. Jerusalem had parried Ukraine’s repeated requests for weapons, refused to join a UN Security Council resolution condemning the invasion (though it later joined an UN General Assembly vote), and refrained from making public statements denouncing Russia. Indeed, Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid, who had been initially critical of Russia, refused to condemn the country by name in the wake of the attack on Kyiv that also damaged the Holocaust Memorial at Babyn Yar. Bennett, on the other hand, hasn’t condemned Russia since the invasion began. Israel, in response to growing U.S. pressure last week, issued more forceful condemnation of Russia and agreed to staunch the parade of Russian oligarchs coming in and out of Israel.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, focusing on U.S. foreign policy.
It now seems clear that part of Israel’s fence-sitting has been driven by Bennett’s desire to leave open the possibility of Israel playing a mediating role in the crisis. Indeed, both Zelensky and Putin have met with him numerous times. But if Putin were interested in a deal, it’s highly unlikely he’d allow Israeli officials to deliver it, preferring instead to extract concessions from the United States and NATO. Bennett, moreover, needs to be wary of becoming a pawn in Putin’s game of lies and fabrications. Nonetheless, Israel’s interest in straddling the Putin-West divide is likely to continue. Syria remains a key interest, and Russia has been a central actor in affording Israel a wide margin for action against Iranian and Hezbollah assets there.
Israel’s balancing act in response to the Ukraine crisis, however, may grow more untenable over time. Several U.S. partners in the Middle East, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are also hedging and remain concerned about alienating Putin. But these countries aren’t democracies, nor do they have the history of persecution that has linked the state of Israel and the Jewish people to Europe’s bloody past. As a close U.S. ally, Israel may well be forced to choose—especially if Ukraine should somehow devolve into conflict between a U.S.-led NATO alliance and Russia.
—Aaron David Miller
In Libya, the Ukraine crisis will have far-reaching geostrategic, political, and humanitarian effects—and it comes at an especially fraught moment in the country’s post-revolutionary era.
The 2019–2020 civil war saw Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, along with regular military personnel, intervene on behalf of eastern-based militia commander Khalifa Haftar. The war ended with thousands of Russian fighters, along with advanced warplanes and other military equipment, firmly ensconced around oil fields and in air bases across the country.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
In the midst of the Ukraine conflict, these Russian forces—counterbalanced by hundreds of Turkish advisers and thousands of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries in western Libya—have not withdrawn in large numbers. For one, they now provide Russia with strategic leverage on NATO’s southern flank, as well as the ability to hold at risk oil production. Moreover, their presence on Libyan territory has given Moscow a springboard for disruptive power projection into the Sahel countries to the south. That said, as Russia’s losses in Ukraine continue to mount, it will likely be compelled to transfer Wagner Group personnel and military hardware from Libya to the Ukraine front.
Russian-Turkish coordination in Libya has been one of the checks on the eruption of another round of nationwide fighting among Libyan factions. In the short term, this arrangement is likely to endure, as both Moscow and Ankara still have an interest in using diplomatic maneuvering to secure their economic and political goals in Libya. And Turkey, despite its military support to Ukraine, is leery of opening additional theaters of confrontation with Russia and has recently positioned itself as a mediator. Over the long term, however, this restraint could diminish in Libya, especially if Russia decides to escalate, if Turkey takes a harder line due to a reinvigorated NATO, or if competing Libyan camps eventually resort to military force. This latter risk has increased with the recent standoff in Tripoli between two rival claimants to the office of prime minister, though for now jockeying and dealmaking carry the day.
Beyond these strategic effects, the prolongation of the Ukraine war will cause mounting economic hardships for Libyan citizens. This is especially evident in growing food insecurity: Libya imports about 75 percent of its wheat from either Ukraine or Russia and, with limited wheat reserves, it will be forced to pay a premium to lock in alternate suppliers like Brazil and Argentina. The resulting spike in bread prices could put additional public pressure on the already ineffective government in Tripoli.
On the energy front, initial expectations for increased demand for Libyan crude stemming from the war in Ukraine have been offset by the projected slowdown in global economic growth, as well as the periodic weaponization of oil flows by Libyan factions, evident recently in the brief shutdown of two major oil fields by an armed group.
Palestinian reactions to events following the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been conflicted.
Certainly, Palestinians experienced a sense of solidarity with Ukrainians. Palestinians in Gaza, in particular, know all too well the horror of watching an occupying army reduce apartment buildings to rubble or what it means to be deprived of water, electricity, and communications infrastructure as collective punishment. And most Palestinian families have either seven decades of experience living as refugees or have experienced repeated forced displacement and the pain of having to flee from homes with children, not knowing when or if they would return.
Zaha Hassan is a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Though Palestinians naturally identified with Ukrainians, they could not relate to the swiftness and clarity with which the international community responded to Russian aggression, not in the affirmation that Ukrainian resistance—in all its forms—was legitimate and heroic nor in the acknowledgment that the international community has a responsibility to take countermeasures. In fact, the United States has actively opposed civil society–led boycotts supporting Palestinian human rights as well as diplomatic and legal initiatives at the UN and the ICC to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.
The incoherency of U.S. policy was illustrated most recently at the UN Human Rights Council when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken found himself calling on the council to lay off of Israel while also demanding accountability against Russia. Only days into the Russian invasion, the United States imposed export controls over Russian oil refiners, banned Russian airliners from U.S. airspace, made plans to seize assets of Russian oligarchs, and supported ICC action against Russian officials. Some congresspersons also want to deny visa benefits to Russian students. Yet, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration continues to not only import goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements—effectively contraband—but it does so duty-free with the label “Made in Israel.” The United States also grants tax-exempt status to NGOs that support settlements in the occupied West Bank. Not only does the Biden administration oppose boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movements against Israel, but it has also embraced a definition of anti-Semitism that treats criticism of Israel’s occupation policies as a form of hate speech.
The politicization of accountability and the exceptionalization of Israel, even while it further entrenches apartheid, has not been lost on Russia. This is likely to challenge Biden’s efforts to restore respect for the rules-based international order and the normative framework upon which it was built.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to lose a partner in Moscow for the sake of its friends in Washington. After the launch of the current Russian war in Ukraine, Saudi leadership is more than hedging to send a message to U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, and it isn’t oblivious to the price of taking sides in this conflict. Although the decision to diversify the kingdom’s group of international partners was made in a period of post–Iraq invasion tensions with the United States, it has become an established policy that concerns the West as well as Russia.
For example, in 2007 Vladimir Putin became the first Russian leader to officially visit Saudi Arabia. Ten years later, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud became the first Saudi king to officially pay a state visit to Russia. Other visits and bilateral meetings led by his son and crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, followed. When Putin revisited the kingdom in 2019, relations between the two countries were advancing slowly but surely. Noticeably, the visit came at a time when Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West were extremely strained over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In 2021, the two countries signed an agreement on military cooperation.
Yasmine Farouk is a nonresident scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The progress in Saudi-Russian relations, however, was always in the shadow of the kingdom’s relationship with the United States, as shown by the unfulfillment, at least so far, of Saudi Arabia’s 2017 plan to purchase Russian defense systems. Saudi Arabia shares incomparable vital interests with the United States, yet its political value system is closer to Russia’s, despite the significantly lower density and slower pace of economic, political, and military relations between them. Washington’s reactions to Saudi Arabia’s policies over the past two years, as well as the current identity framing of Russia’s war on Ukraine as “the battle between democracy and autocracies,” put the kingdom in the same camp as Russia.
Beyond a harmony between like-minded authoritarian strongmen in Riyadh and Moscow, the two countries have compatible sovereign national interests and few but significant foreign policy positions, like in Yemen. Most important among those is the OPEC+ agreement that the two governments are leading and that has two significant consequences for Saudi Arabia: First, it is fueling a rebound from the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, it is the foremost Saudi leverage in an uneasy relationship with Biden.
As Saudi Arabia struggles with trust issues in its relationship with the United States, it also can’t completely count on Moscow. Putin has indeed proven to be a reliable ally to his authoritarian friends, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad—while the United States let Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak, and the shah of Iran before him, fall. But Putin is not willing to sacrifice Russia’s relationship with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s staunchest enemy, and has proved willing to pressure Saudi Arabia in the oil market. If push comes to shove, Saudi Arabia will continue to choose the United States over Russia, but Riyadh is making sure that Washington will no longer take it for granted.
The war in Ukraine is a deep blow to relations between Russia and the West, and there will be no going back to the way things were. However, its impact on Syria will be very limited in geostrategic and security terms. That said, what is now more certain than before is that Russia’s presence in Syria is not a mere strategic interest for Moscow but an existential necessity.
Russia’s military presence in western Syria should be considered in two contexts: the first is the context of the Syrian war and its regional dimensions, and the second is Syria’s position overlooking the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Kheder Khaddour is a nonresident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. His research centers on civil military relations and local identities in the Levant, with a focus on Syria.
In Syria, the Kremlin has played a role as both mediator and negotiator in recent years. The UN-sponsored political process was carried out with Russian facilitation, which Moscow offered in order to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to engage in talks with the opposition. Russian officials simultaneously pushed for a new framework for a security settlement between Ankara and Damascus along the Turkish-Syrian border. These two tracks—political and security—have both stopped now, and the Syrian conflict has entered a period of stalemate.
Meanwhile, since 2015, Russian military presence in the Hmeimim air base in Syria, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, has been highly strategic. Not only does it overlook gas exploration projects in the eastern Mediterranean, but it also allows Russia to exert influence outside the former Soviet republics, representing a break in Russia’s isolation from the international community. This area is also located in the heart of the Middle East and is in direct contact with regional countries, including the Gulf Arab states, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey.
Both the political process in Syria and the Russian military base afford Moscow major importance in the Middle East which cannot be ignored. The Kremlin has become increasingly involved in the Arab region through its protection of the Assad regime and its regional alliances, all of which will have deep consequences in the long term. But at the same time, this involvement comes at a cost. The region is facing a significant transformation in its political order, creating an unstable security environment that will put additional pressure on the Kremlin and compel it to become more engaged on a local level.
Tunisia has felt the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine in two primary ways: economically and diplomatically. Tunisia, whose economy is already under tremendous strain, receives nearly 80 percent of its wheat from Ukraine. As a result of the conflict, wheat prices in Tunisia are the highest they have been in fourteen years, making it even harder for Tunisian families to afford bread and other staples. Tunisians are also feeling the pain of the global rise in oil prices. The Tunisian government, which subsidizes fuel, planned its budget around an oil price of $75 per barrel. But with oil prices around $100 per barrel, the government was forced to raise fuel prices twice in February in an attempt to rein in the country’s massive budget deficit.
Sarah Yerkes is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa.
Tunisia is in the midst of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a package that would help address these and myriad other economic challenges facing the country, such as skyrocketing unemployment. But President Kais Saied’s July 25, 2021, power grab and subsequent authoritarian backsliding has put the country on thin ice with Western donors, complicating IMF negotiations. Furthermore, Saied’s relationship with the West has been made worse by Tunisia’s diplomatic response to the Russian invasion. Tunisia, like many of its Arab neighbors, is attempting to walk the fine line between maintaining a good relationship with Russia, upon whom it relies on heavily for tourism as well as trade, and avoiding alienating the United States and Europe, whose financial and diplomatic support will be crucial to keep Tunisia’s economy afloat.
On the diplomatic front, Tunisia’s failure to vociferously oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine has drawn the ire of the West. On February 28, the EU ambassador to Tunisia called out Tunisia’s attempt at neutrality, stating that “remaining neutral between the aggressor and the victim is taking a stand.” Tunisia did vote in favor of the March 2 UN General Assembly resolution denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But upon receiving the new Russian ambassador to Tunisia a few days later, Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi highlighted the importance of the bilateral relationship between the two countries and Tunisia’s desire to strengthen that relationship—not exactly the cool reception the West is seeking for Russia.
Saied’s government should carefully consider what price it is willing to pay for continuing to cozy up to Russia in the face of a united and strong Western opposition. At such a delicate time, Tunisia’s waffling on Russia might bear a cost the country cannot withstand.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, a central feature of its strategy has become clear: controlling the Black Sea coastline. This would landlock Ukraine; establish continuity between Russia and the breakaway Transnistria region in Moldova, where Russian forces are already present; and ultimately tilt the military balance in the Black Sea further in Russia’s favor.
Prior to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia had already fortified its naval presence in the Black Sea and, after annexing Crimea in 2014, deployed anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and missile systems there, largely establishing superiority in the maritime and air domains. Now, it is reaching for greater dominance.
Alper Coşkun is a senior fellow within the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research focuses on Turkish foreign policy, especially in relation to the United States and Europe.
As a regional NATO ally, Turkey should be wary of this. Both imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire have a history of military confrontation. While announcing his decision to invade Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his point by referencing Russia’s defeat of the Ottomans and conquest of the lands surrounding the Black Sea.
In 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan complained about the Black Sea turning into a “Russian lake” and cited NATO’s insufficient presence. Turkey’s relations with Russia, however, have warmed considerably since then; nowadays, Ankara prefers to stay mute on the issue.
That said, Russia’s invasion has upset Turkey’s plans to widen its engagement with Ukraine, including in the defense industry. The Turkish economy is in crisis, and Turkey is exposed to Russian antagonism through both its energy dependency and, crucially, Moscow’s ability to pull strings in Syria, handicapping Ankara. Turkey has nevertheless stood firm and called Russia’s invasion an act of war, rejected the premise of its invasion, and even closed the Turkish Straits to naval vessels. It has, however, been careful to stay away from sanctions so as not to burn bridges with Moscow. This is understandable but does not obviate the need for Turkey to strategize against Russia’s extended reach in the Black Sea. It can do so without escalating, in three ways.
- Rigorously enforce closing the straits.Russia will test Turkey’s resolve, and Ankara will have to stand by its decision as long as a state of war exists. It could also serve Turkey well to scrutinize Russian attempts to abuse the provisions of the Montreux Convention on submarine transits.
- Enhance efforts to collate and share data with allies.Maritime and air situational awareness in the Black Sea have become even more critical.
- Fill in NATO capability shortfalls.Turkey can help fill gaps in NATO’s standing naval forces that patrol the Black Sea and support NATO deployments in the future according to the Montreux Convention.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is impacting the Middle East and North Africa region in three principal areas: political negotiations and military action, humanitarian aid and food security, and gas and oil supplies.
Politically, the crisis has not yet forced any significant realignments. Rather, various countries, including the Gulf and Israel, are hedging their bets between the United States and Russia and seeking to maximize gains in key areas of interest. However, long-term sanctions on Russia will be challenging for Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, all of whom have been diversifying their defense industries and seeking greater cooperation with Russia.
Yahya is director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research focuses on citizenship, pluralism, and social justice in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.
Syria and Libya, the two arenas where U.S.-Russia cooperation is most needed for sustainable political outcomes, are likely to suffer. Today, that cooperation is less probable than ever before. Russia’s considerable military footprint in both countries and its increasing political and economic isolation may drive it to be a disrupter of ongoing efforts to address political divisions in Libya and to be even more supportive of the Syrian and Iranian regimes than it has been in the past. For Europe, a sizable Russian military presence on its southern flank in Libya is worrisome. Meanwhile, both Turkey and Israel are troubled by the prospect of future Russian action in Syria. Turkey is concerned that Russia could increase pressure in the rebel enclave Idlib, triggering an influx of refugees. Syria’s Kurdish population is worried that a U.S.-Turkey trade-off in this larger geopolitical tussle would come at their expense. Israel is concerned with growing Russia-Iran cooperation and possible limits on its aerial bombardments of Iranian targets in Syria.
There are also increasing concerns over humanitarian aid and food security in the region, especially in already fragile countries. The growing number of Ukrainian refugees and the ballooning costs of post-conflict reconstruction are raising concerns that critical humanitarian aid may be diverted from the Middle East and North Africa to address the fallout from the Ukraine conflict. For the millions of Palestinians, Lebanese, Yemenis, Syrians, and others who live in countries experiencing conflict, catastrophic economic meltdowns, and increasing humanitarian needs, this would be equivalent to shutting down critical life support. This crisis is also aggravated by significant concerns around food security, especially in countries like Lebanon and Egypt, which rely on Russia and Ukraine for their wheat supplies (comprising 96 and 85 percent of supplies respectively). This crisis is likely to worsen as food and energy prices skyrocket globally. In time this may drive people back to the streets in protest.
The future of gas and oil supplies is critical. Europe will likely seek to build up alternate gas supplies, and therein lies an opportunity for Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean countries. Gulf countries are currently gaining from the increase in oil prices and are leveraging this situation to renegotiate their strategic relationship with the United States and to pursue political gains in places like Yemen. The question here is: will this drive East Mediterranean countries to speed up some agreements on promising gas supplies with the hope of becoming a key partner for Europe in the future?
Much remains to be seen in this conflict whose trajectory has signaled a long-term shift in global relations. What will Russian President Vladimir Putin’s future actions be if he feels more isolated and maligned internationally—and will he try to leverage various pressure points in the region to get what he wants elsewhere?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing embargo of Russian products—which includes its oil exports—have brought oil prices to pre–August 2014 levels, well above $100 a barrel. With other oil producers’ production capacity also hampered for various reasons, oil prices may remain high for some time. This development is perhaps most important geopolitically for countries in the Middle East.
Oil-producing countries in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia, have been forced in recent years to adopt long-needed economic reform measures to move away from rentier economies and a welfare state model. Indeed, the question for them remains whether their newly accumulated financial reserves will turn the clock back on economic reform in favor of short-term political gains—or whether the lesson will be learned that economic reform is a must, regardless of oil prices.
Oil-importing countries will also be severely affected. While high oil prices will pose further risks to already dire economic conditions, some of these challenges were mitigated in the past through grants made possible by oil-producing countries. It is not clear whether such grants will be resumed as political alliances have shifted, plunging some oil-importing countries like Jordan into increased economic peril.
While the official position of most Arab countries at the UN was to condemn the Russian invasion, public reaction has been mixed. Some have justifiably wondered why there have not been equally strong international reactions against the Israeli occupation of Palestinians or the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Some comments made in the West—that Ukrainian refugees are “like us”—have also elicited justified accusations of Western racism. Such reactions from the Middle East, while understandable, have so far ignored the fact that selective condemnation of the use of force to occupy other nations is a two-way street: for example, Israel could use this discrepancy to justify its occupation of Arab land. This reaction also ignores the plight of the Ukrainian people, who are also suffering from war and occupation.
Thus, most countries in the region, including Israel, have attempted to tread carefully and have exhibited a subdued reaction against the invasion. Maintaining such a position will become increasingly difficult as the war and its repercussions continue.