[On 24 February 2022 the Russian military invaded Ukraine, immediately setting off a global crisis that continues to escalate. In the Middle East, most governments were slow to adopt a clear position on the conflict, and their policies often seemed at variance with their foreign alliances. Hesham Sallam, Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Mouin Rabbani, Jadaliyya Co-Editor and Editor of Quick Thoughts, to get a better understanding of the region’s responses to the crisis, and how it resonates within a region that has seen its share of war and upheaval.]
Hesham Sallam (HS): What explains the initially cautious approach that longstanding US allies in the Middle East like Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia adopted towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine? How have their positions evolved since?
MR: The countries you mention are not only longstanding US allies but regional client states that depend upon Washington for their security and, in several cases, their very survival. Without the US strategic investment in these relationships Israel would not exist, Saudi Arabia would be known by a different name and perhaps different borders, and Egypt’s government would look rather different. Their relations with Russia are by contrast more recent, more transactional, and more balanced.
Given the above, one might have expected these governments to instinctively make Washington’s wish their command. That they did not do so reflects some factors these states have in common and others specific to each case. Among the common factors is that governments are often more sensitive to the short-term needs of transactional relationships than to those of stable long-term alliances. Secondly, it may also be the case that they initially viewed this as a conflict in which Russia is a direct participant but the United States is not, and thus paid greater heed to their relations with Moscow than would otherwise have been the case.
If we take these governments individually, much has been made of Israel’s fear of jeopardizing understandings with Russia that allow Israel to routinely bomb Syria without challenge by Russian air defenses stationed in that country. That is undoubtedly a factor, as are the sentiments of the large Russian population in Israel that forms an important electoral constituency. One could also point to the close ties many Russian oligarchs, a number of whom have Israeli citizenship, maintain with Israel. An additional but often overlooked factor is the habitual impunity Israel enjoys in Washington. In practice, the US political class has given Israeli leaders every reason to believe the latter can do as they please, and ride roughshod over not only United Nations resolutions, international law, and Palestinian rights, but also US interests and priorities as defined by Washington. Israeli sales of advanced US military technology to China, for example, a matter the Americans take very seriously, do not elicit more than a stroke on the wrist.
Unsurprisingly, the Israeli press has been replete with reports that its leaders expect that this storm too shall pass without significant damage. Washington has over the years ingrained such attitudes in Israel and given its leaders every reason to reach such conclusions. How else to explain that Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, found it perfectly appropriate to appeal to the United States not to sanction Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich? In this broader context press reports claiming Washington enlisted Israel to lobby the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to condemn the Russian invasion are laughable and cynical in equal measure. Claims that fears of stoking anti-Semitism in Russia and/or Ukraine are an important factor in Israeli policy are also not serious, and are put forward to legitimize Israel’s rejection of US appeals to provide arms to Ukraine and Israeli non-participation in Western sanctions against Russia.
Saudi Arabia’s position, as so much else in that country today, appears to additionally reflect the whims of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Global oil supply is since 2016 to a great extent a function of Saudi-Russian consensus formalized in a series of agreements known as OPEC+. When MBS decided he could teach Russia a lesson by launching a price war at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, crude prices crashed and for the first time in history descended below zero, and the United States threatened to sever military relations with Riyadh. Keeping Russia within the OPEC+ framework is thus a priority for a chastened MBS, and responding to US appeals to increase production will not sit well with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As the recent puff piece about MBS in The Atlantic makes clear, MBS is nostalgic for the days of Jared Kushner and resents the cold shoulder he has been receiving from US President Joe Biden. So he is not going to do Biden any favors, and may additionally be calculating that oil’s disproportionate contribution to rising inflation can damage Biden politically and electorally.
In Egypt’s case, many have pointed out that the country is the world’s largest importer of grain and that seventy percent of this is supplied by Russia (an additional ten per cent is purchased from Ukraine). Given that these imports are going to be severely disrupted regardless of Egypt’s stance on account of the financial sanctions enacted against Russia, this is only part of the story. More broadly, President Abdel-Fattah Sisi has in recent years assiduously cultivated relations with Putin, who has provided military and policy support to the Egyptian ruler, for example in Libya, where the United States has demurred.
Egypt called for an extraordinary meeting of Arab League foreign ministers to discuss the Ukraine crisis, which on 1 March pointedly declined to condemn the Russian invasion. It instead called for all sides to demonstrate restraint, avoid further escalation, and engage in dialogue to enable a diplomatic solution. Cairo and its counterparts were at this point clearly more concerned about not alienating Moscow than doing Washington’s bidding. At the same time, a show of independence from the United States by parroting the language the latter has deployed for decades to shield Israel from accountability for its atrocities against Arabs was guaranteed to go down well with the Egyptian public. Given the growing criticism of Sisi in Congress, and the Biden administration’s recent decision to withhold USD 130 million in aid citing human rights concerns—a purely symbolic measure given that a USD 2.5 billion arms deal had just been approved, but a political embarrassment nonetheless—Cairo appears to have also considered this an opportune moment to remind Washington not to take it for granted, and that US diplomacy is undermined when it lacks the enthusiastic support of an influential regional ally like Egypt.
The most interesting, and in my view purely transactional case in this respect is actually that of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Currently serving on the United Nations Security Council, the UAE raised many eyebrows when it together with China and India abstained on the draft resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The same eyebrows ascended once again and even higher the following day, when Russia voted for a resolution designating Yemen’s Houthi movement as a terrorist organization, an Emirati initiative Moscow had previously warned against but suddenly embraced. More broadly, and particularly in the wake of Switzerland’s decision to adopt European Union sanctions against Russia and questions about the continued viability of the London financial laundromat, the UAE is anticipating a financial windfall as blacklisted Russian oligarchs like so many before them park their illicit riches in Dubai. As logistical hubs Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as Doha in Qatar are also expected to benefit substantially from the sanctions regime, for example serving as transit points for air travel between Europe and East Asia that can no longer utilize Russian or Ukrainian airspace.
What we are therefore seeing is these states not taking positions on the basis of Russian-Ukrainian or even US-Russian relations, but rather on the basis of their own and very different relationships with Russia and the United States. It bears mentioning that this is only the beginning of this conflict. If it persists and intensifies there will be growing US pressure on its client states to fall into line in both word and deed. I anticipate that Israel will do so formally while maintaining an open line to Moscow on the pretext that it is uniquely positioned to mediate a resolution of the crisis; that Egypt will seek US and European assistance with grain supplies; and that MBS will indicate he can only act if asked personally by Biden, in order to obtain the recognition he clearly craves. The height of the stakes will determine the price Washington is prepared to pay and level of pressure it will bring to bear. As a UN Security Council member, the UAE will remain in the hot seat. It may well conclude that it has already achieved its objectives and is not in a position to incur further Western disapproval, and will adjust its voting behavior accordingly while doing its best to maintain a welcome mat for Russian funds.
This is in fact what we are already seeing. Israel refused an American request to co-sponsor the Security Council draft resolution condemning Russia (as did every Arab state except Kuwait). The UAE, currently the only Arab member of the Security Council, abstained in the subsequent vote. Yet several days later Israel, Egypt, and all six Gulf Cooperation Council states voted for the adoption of a similar resolution by the UN General Assembly. Having initially secured their interests with Moscow, these governments can now virtue signal on the international stage about the evils of military aggression and foreign occupation, and the sanctity of civilian life and international law together with the Western powers supporting their destruction of Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. The technical term for such conduct is “win-win”.
Of similar interest are the positions of regional states aligned with Russia. Syria, whose government owes its survival and the defeat of the armed opposition to Russian military intervention that commenced in 2015, unconditionally praised the invasion of Ukraine, apparently taking the view that Putin has dealt a mortal blow to those ranged against the government in Damascus. It is in fact the only Middle Eastern state that has taken an unambiguous position since the Russian military entered Ukraine. Iran has been considerably more circumspect. In words, its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, laid responsibility for the crisis squarely at the feet of the United States. Yet indeed, Iran has abstained from openly supporting Russia’s actions. As negotiations on renewed US participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear agreement, reach their moment of truth, Tehran apparently considered it prudent to not needlessly provoke the Europeans.
HS: How has Russia's engagement in the Middle East evolved in the preceding decade and how has it challenged Washington's interests?
MR: With the end of the Cold War Russian influence in the Middle East was initially on a consistently downward trajectory, The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a particularly close ally of the Soviet Union, ceased to exist and merged with the Yemen Arab Republic. Another long standing Soviet partner, Iraq, was in 2003 invaded, occupied, and effectively destroyed by the United States. In North Africa, Muammar al-Qaddafi traded Moscow’s patronage for that of Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Silvio Berlusconi. Russian-Iranian relations had since 1979 always been complex, and on the region’s periphery Russian influence in Afghanistan and Ethiopia was effectively eliminated. That left only Syria, a comparatively poor state whose regional influence diminished considerably after the 2000 death of Hafez al-Assad. Perhaps the only benefits Russia reaped from the collapse of the Soviet Union was the 1992 restoration of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, which Riyadh had severed in the late 1930s, and with Israel in 1991, which Moscow had broken off in 1967. The mass emigration of Soviet citizens to Israel during the early 1990s also furnished Russia with a constituency of sorts and degree of political influence in the politics of a key regional state.
The 2011 NATO attack on Libya and subsequent murder of Qaddafi is often viewed as the nadir of Russian influence in the Middle East. Not because Libya was a Russian client state, but on account of the contempt with which the United States and the Europeans treated Moscow by using the latter’s support for a United Nations Security Council resolution establishing a no-fly zone over Libya as a license for regime change. That at least is how the Kremlin experienced it, even if others concluded Russia was primarily a victim of its own naïveté.
Libya is also seen as a turning point for Russian engagement in the Middle East, in that it subsequently resolved to ensure the Syrian government, its remaining ally in the region, would not go the way of Iraq and Libya.
Syria is however only half the story. By the time Russia in 2015 became a direct participant in the Syrian conflict and effectively dictated its outcome, it had already developed extensive relationships in the Gulf on the strength of its role as a major player in global energy markets that would lead to the OPEC+ agreements. It had formed a similar relationship with Qatar within the framework of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) established several years earlier. By this time Russia was also a producer of numerous tycoons investing or laundering their riches in Dubai, and to a lesser extent Israel, and was a key participant in the negotiations that in 2015 resulted in the Iranian nuclear agreement (a role it is once again performing today). In recent years Moscow has developed closer relations with Egypt than at any time since the early 1970s, sells advanced weapons systems to NATO member Turkey, counts Khalifa Haftar, one of the main warlords in Libya (and a former CIA asset) as its protégé, maintains relations with both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and is steadily expanding its relations and influence throughout the region.
Russia is once again a major player in the Middle East. If we take Syria as a case study it demonstrates that compared to the United States, Russia has the advantage that its coalitions tend to be smaller, less unwieldy, and more unified in purpose, and that Russia is prepared to commit the resources and political capital required to achieve its objectives. Due to the West’s policies of imposing comprehensive political and economic sanctions on those who reject its dictates, Moscow has the additional benefit that its clients do not have serious alternatives in the marketplace for powerful international partners.
The above notwithstanding, Russia is with few exceptions not an arbiter of the region’s affairs in the manner the United States has been in recent decades. Rather it has extended and expanded its role on account of US policies that have in one way or another diminished US influence or prevented it from engagement with key players. Washington’s failure to meet expectations in its response to the 2019 Iranian drone and missile barrage against vital oil infrastructure in eastern Saudi Arabia, and more recently with respect to the Houthi attacks on the UAE, are said to have contributed to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s desire to send a message to Biden by placating Putin. US leaders regularly trumpeting a “pivot to Asia” and away from the Middle East also encouraged them to take greater account of their relations with Moscow.
Thus far direct Russian challenges to US interests in the Middle East have been few and far between. The most likely arena for such a challenge is energy policy. The recent Russian-Saudi agreement to maintain rather than increase oil production is an indication of what might be in the offing. If reports that Moscow is demanding written US guarantees that its trade with Iran will not be sanctioned in the context of a resumption of US participation in the Iran nuclear agreement are accurate, this may mask a Russian attempt to delay an agreement in order to keep Iranian oil supplies off the market for the time being. It could also provide Russia with an important loophole against economic and financial sanctions.
HS: How would you characterize and explain the coverage of Pan-Arab media outlets of Russia's attack against Ukraine?
MR: It is very difficult to generalize about Arab media and popular responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. To the extent that this is viewed as a Russian-Ukrainian conflict it is often presented as an illegitimate invasion of a country by a larger and more powerful neighbor that cannot claim the right of self-defense, and in the course of doing so is producing massive human suffering and a refugee crisis. To the extent it is viewed as a geopolitical contest in which Russia and the West are engaged in a proxy war to the last Ukrainian, there is a mixture of sympathy for the Ukrainian people, for Russia’s determination not to have NATO on its doorstep, and against Russia’s self-proclaimed right to dictate the foreign relations of a foreign state.
Many applaud the bravery of the Ukrainians for resisting in the face of what appear to be overwhelming odds, others feel the Ukrainian leadership needlessly allowed their country to be used as a pawn in a great power conflict, particularly since NATO from the outset made clear it would not defend Ukraine. There are of course also concerns about further escalation, and potential ramifications in the region. Once you get beyond empathy for the civilian victims of this conflict, much like anywhere else, positions often reflect political affiliations and pre-existing geopolitical views. As a general rule there is little love for Russia, particularly among those who oppose its role in Syria, but the United States is actively reviled throughout the region.
It bears recollection that the images of suffering, destruction, forced displacement, and exile are realities that for a significant proportion of the inhabitants of the Middle East are experiences they have personally endured, in many cases for decades or since birth. The images therefore often resonate with them in personal ways.
Another main theme has been the extraordinary hypocrisy in the way Western governments have responded to this conflict and the way Western media are reporting it. This of course refers to governments that conducted or participated in the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq but are now pontificating about international law, and to the United States getting all high and mighty about a veto at the United Nations Security Council and then claiming a General Assembly resolution has real meaning. It’s similarly difficult to take US and British moralizing about Ukraine’s suffering seriously when one considers their direct complicity in inflicting war, pestilence, famine, and death against Yemen for the past seven years.
This actually goes back to 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea and the West discovered that annexation of foreign territory is actually something to be opposed and sanctioned. Yet the annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which at that point every state sanctioning Russia considered illegal and null and void, had for decades been allowed to stand without consequence. To the contrary, it was increasingly normalized by the West, a process which culminated during the Trump presidency with US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and a proposal for additional Israeli annexation of West Bank territory that was routinely referenced as a peace initiative in Western media. For the record, Biden has not reversed the US recognition of either Israel’s annexations, or of the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara.
Virtually every aspect of this crisis – correction: every aspect of it without exception – is a case study in Western hypocrisy and double standards, and more often than not of racism as well. For example, Russia is entirely correct to assert that Ukraine is germane to Russian history and the development of Russian culture and identity. Yet no one in their right mind believes that these indisputable realities endow Russia with political rights in Ukraine, give Russia the right to invade and occupy even a square inch of Ukrainian territory, let alone seize the entire country and claim it as its own. Yet in the case of Palestine, it is in the West considered self-evident common sense that the presence of Israelites in that territory several thousand years ago, and the abiding Jewish religious attachment to Palestine should translate into exclusive territorial rights and even statehood.
Suddenly the calls for mutual restraint, the denunciation of suicide bombers, the demands to spend decades in a negotiation chamber, the condemnation of fighters defending their towns and cities as cowards hiding behind civilians, the murderous pursuit of desperate refugees on the Polish and Hungarian borders, have given way to not only a warm embrace of the victims of conflict and aggression, but the glorification of armed resistance – including that of ordinary civilians participating in assembly lines to produce Molotov cocktails that if used properly burn their targets to death, and of a soldier who blew himself up to stop an enemy advance.
Until 24 February the party line was to keep politics out of sport, and Israel within the international soccer federation FIFA, while Israeli military snipers shooting Palestinian players through the knee was neither here nor there. Yet within days of invading Ukraine Russia has been expelled from not only FIFA but every competitive sport on the planet. Until 24 February those who would boycott a state because it occupies another people were being criminalized and hounded out of their jobs and positions with increasing frequency. Yet within days of the invasion of Ukraine these same denizens of freedom commenced with the destruction of stocks of vodka produced in Latvia, banned the teaching of Dostoevsky and recital of Tchaikovsky, and even outlawed the participation of Russian felines from exhibitions, while their governments imposed no less than 5,530 separate sanctions on Russia, far exceeding those applied to Iran and North Korea.
Until 24 February the United Nations Human Rights Council was routinely denounced for having the temerity to inquire about the human rights of the Palestinian people. Suddenly, it has become a valued institution precisely because it condemns foreign occupation and the violations inherent in this state of affairs.
In his 1 March address to the Council, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken managed to denounce Russia, affirm that no state is beyond accountability, and demand the Council stop investigating Israel within the space of two minutes, and did so without blushing or batting an eyelid. Those who believe the international response to Ukraine will make the West more sensitive to Palestinian rights, international law in the Middle East, or the region’s refugees need only read his words to understand that this is an illusion. It did not happen after the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and it will not happen in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.