Middle Eastern countries did not join the broad military alliance formed by the West and Nato against Russia when it invaded Ukraine.
Non-Arab Iran backed Russia while Israel and Turkey sat on the fence. Syria stood with Russia while the other Middle Eastern Arab countries adopted military non-involvement with a political tilt toward Moscow.
All Middle Eastern countries eschewed western sanctions against Russia. A year on they remain committed to these policies.
Ahead of the Ukraine war, Turkey sold Ukraine 20 armed Bayraktar TB2 drones and dispatched internationally banned cluster bombs to Kyiv at the end of 2022.
Turkey hosted two failed rounds of peace talks between Ukraine and Russia, and helped broker a mid-year deal for the shipment of Ukrainian and Russian grain to global markets.
Although Turkey is a Nato member, its increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has pivoted toward the east in recent years, partnered Russia in ending major fighting in the Syrian war, angered the alliance by buying Russia’s S-400 air defence system, and shelved his country’s pursuit of European Union membership.
While pressed by the US to do more than condemning the Russian invasion, Israel, a prolific arms exporter, has refused to provide Ukraine with its air defence systems. Israel argues Moscow, which has military forces in Syria, could counter Israeli attacks on that country and retaliate against Russia’s Jewish community.
On Washington’s Responsible Statecraft website, US ex-diplomat Charles W Dunne wrote that most regional governments “see no advantage in entangling themselves in what they view as a European fight in which they have few stakes. More importantly, they are reluctant to alienate Russia, with which many of them maintain significant diplomatic, military and economic links.”
He pointed put that Arab leaders have “come to see Washington as a mercurial and unreliable partner, a position dating to the George W Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and continuing through Barack Obama’s announced intention to execute a ‘pivot to Asia’.” This policy was also adopted by the Biden administration, leaving longstanding Arab allies resentful.
During his 2022 visit to Saudi Arabia, US president Joe Biden failed to warm relations, reduce the price of oil or promote an Arab Nato.
On Ukraine, Arab rulers appear to be looking after their own interests while taking a stand approved by Arab citizens. When Arabs surveyed from Morocco to the Gulf were asked what is “the greatest threat” to their countries, 38 per cent put Israel first, 21 per cent the US, and 3 per cent Russia, according to the Washington- based Arab Centre’s Opinion Index for 2022.
While most Arab rulers wield absolute power, they learned during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that public opinion matters.
This has been partly formed by the history of Soviet support for Algerian and Yemeni anti-colonial struggles, and political backing and arms for Egypt and Syria in wars with Israel.
Iraq developed close ties with the Soviet Union after the British-backed monarchy was ousted in 1958. It became a major importer of eastern bloc weaponry in the 1970s. Russian and Iranian intervention during Syria’s 12-year civil and proxy wars has bolstered President Bashar al-Assad.
Western portrayal of the Ukraine war as a conflict between democracy and autocracy is said to have disturbed formerly western-aligned Arab autocrats, several of whom enjoy warm relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Arab autocrats point out that democratic Brazil, South Africa, India and Indonesia also back Russia.
Economic as well as political interests play a major part in policies adopted by regional trend-setters.
Saudi Arabia and Russia dominate the export and pricing policies of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries while Riyadh has large investments in the Russian oil sector.
The United Arab Emirates has maintained business as usual with Russia by safeguarding Russian assets and hosting Russian oligarchs.
Egypt has a $25 billion contract with a Russian firm for a nuclear power plant and purchased 41 per cent of its arms from Russia between 2016 and 2020. Cairo is eager for the war to end so Russian and Ukrainian tourists can return to its resorts. Tourism accounts for 12 per cent of Egypt’s gross domestic product and provides employment for nearly three million Egyptians.
Emirati commentator and visiting Harvard fellow Abdulkhalaq Abdullah told Paris’s Institut Montaigne website that the winners in the region “are the six Arab oil-and-gas-producing countries (especially Saudi Arabia). Their value has risen both financially and strategically.” He said Europe would need more Gulf oil and gas in coming years. He identified as losers Egypt and Lebanon, which depended on Ukrainian wheat.
While Arab governments and citizens oppose invasion and occupation in principle, they accuse the West of double standards since the principle is not applied to counter and sanction Israel’s actions in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria or the US conquest of Iraq.
Early in the Ukraine war, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal told the Saudi daily Arab News, “Aggression is aggression, whether it is committed by Russia or by Israel, and yet there has been no such effort to sanction Israel.”
Saudi daily Al-Jazirah columnist Ahmad al-Farraj tweeted: “If you think that Putin is a criminal because he moved militarily against Ukraine, and you do not think the same about [George] Bush jnr [and officials in his administration] who occupied Iraq, your brain cells are malfunctioning.”
Western media have been castigated as racist by some commentators for focusing on European Ukrainian war victims while ignoring the sufferings of non-European Arabs. Pakistan-born US human rights lawyer Qassim Rashid tweeted: “This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan. [Kyiv] is a relatively civilised city where you wouldn’t expect this to happen.”
Ahead of the one-year war anniversary of the war, Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan revealed that the kingdom has engaged with Moscow, Kyiv and others to promote dialogue. He said on Bloomberg TV: “Our main objective is to find a way to end the conflict. And I think everybody agrees that the only way this conflict will end eventually is at the negotiating table.”