War in Ukraine: where does the Middle East stand?

The war has brought to light the divergence of interests between some States in the Middle East and the West. The aim of this article is to analyse how these different positions might redraw geopolitical balances

The war in Ukraine, together with its devastating consequences on the life of millions of people, has led to new power bargains, which go beyond Ukraine and Russia and open to the possibility of new power relations and developments at local and regional level. Withing this context, the Middle East is a region worthy to analyze. What are the consequences of the conflict in this area and the positions of some of its countries?

The Gulf countries and the battle for oil

The war in Ukraine has reopened the divisions between the United States and its major allies in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The relations between the three states were already strained as the two oil-monarchies believe that the US did not support them sufficiently during the recent Houthi attacks and did not appreciate Biden’s decision to reopen negotiations with Iran. With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Biden tried to pressure these two countries to end cooperation with Russia and increase oil production. However, the two countries refused to speak with the American president on the phone, reiterating their commitment to respect the quotas established within OPEC+, composed of oil producing nations and led by Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The UAE also abstained from voting on the resolution condemning the invasion at the UNSC few weeks ago. Moreover, Mohammed Bin Salman sent two clear provoking signals to the West using the aspect of respecting human rights, often evoked by Western countries to advance relations with the monarchy: the government executed 81 people convicted of terrorism last week and three others during Johnson's visit to Riyadh to discuss oil with national authorities. However, Western authorities barely reacted to these events in order not to further strain the relations. Johnson, during his visit, even said that human rights are improving in Saudi Arabia. Concurrently, these actions do not entail that the Gulf countries consider Russia a strategic partner, rather they advance opportunistic decisions in a new multipolar world order, avoiding the costs of a strategic alignment.

The Iranian nuclear

Since the beginning of the crisis, Iran also made it clear that it is not aligning itself with Russia or Ukraine. This is because Russia did support it during its confrontation with Israel and Trump administration. Additionally, an alignment could compromise a new nuclear agreement and the possibility to have the US sanctions removed. If sanctions were removed (an eventuality that bothers the Gulf countries), Iran could supply the West with oil. It seems that new talks about the nuclear agreement are underway, despite the launch in recent days 12 ballistic missiles from Tehran of in northern Iraq, with the aim of hitting a structure of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, after the killing of two Iranians in Syria by Israel. Iranian Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian flew to Moscow, and underlined that Russia will not undermine the negotiations. This position was later corroborated by Lavrov, who communicated to have received requested guarantees from the United States.

The possible interlocutors

Turkey is showing signs of a renewed centrality in the international scene thanks to its attempt of mediating the conflict, with Erdogan hosting the meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine organized in Antalya few weeks ago. Yet the Turkish President is careful to provoke Putin either, since any Russian punitive measures could hurt Turkish fragile economy, which is why he refrains from imposing any sanctions on Moscow. On his side, Putin is already warning Ankara by blocking the shipment of sunflower oil from Ukraine and Russia to Turkey via the Black Sea. This decision could lead to a shortage of this commodity in the Turkish market. However, Putin needs to be cautious too since Turkey could become a possible destination for Russian capital and tourists seeking to escape sanctions. Thus, Russian military intervention in Ukraine is unlikely to lead to a major rupture between Moscow and Ankara, or to a decisive Turkish realignment with the West.

Also Israel plays a peculiar role, given its ties with both Russia and Ukraine, where lots of Israelis come from and Jewish people live. The Prime Minister Bennet was the first foreign leader to meet Putin since the outbreak of the war, showing the country’s commitment to become the mediator of the crisis. In terms of public statements, Israel supported the sovereignty of Ukraine but abstained from sending weapons and military equipment to the country. Though, Zelensky's recent speech in front of the Israeli parliament and his comparison between the war Ukraine and the Holocaust has aroused more than a little controversy in front of the assembly. Additionally, the reason why Israel does not want to become an enemy of Russia is linked to the fact that Russia controls Syrian skies, used by Israel to conduct airstrikes to block the passage of weapons and military linked to Iran.

The food insecurity

The conflict in Ukraine undoubtedly opens new scenarios of strategic balance, but it also shows its consequences on food supply in other parts of the world. As for the Middle East, this leads to new scenarios of food insecurity linked to the increase in prices, particularly for wheat, and fuel. The spike in the cost of wheat could force some governments to cut subsidies for bread. Egypt is among the affected countries, since it is the largest importer of wheat in the world, with 70% of these imports coming from Russia and Ukraine. The government immediately decided to block exports of wheat, flour, pasta, beans and lentils for at least three months, in order to strengthen the strategic reserves of Cairo. A worrying scenario for these countries, also considering the increase in prices that have already occurred due to inflation linked to the pandemic and climate change that makes agriculture even more difficult.

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