Hedging, Hunger, and Hostilities: The Middle East after Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
The effects of Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine will ripple throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It will reveal new geostrategic alignments, compound food insecurity, and threaten to spark new military confrontations. If the confrontation between Russia and much of the rest of the world is prolonged, as seems likely, the more serious impacts may be in the longer term rather than the shorter term.
Q1: How have Middle Eastern states responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
A1: Iran and Syria took predictably anti-Western stances. Bashar al-Assad declared that Syria would recognize the independence of two Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, and Iran’s foreign minister said that crisis is “rooted in NATO’s provocations.”
But key U.S. allies and partners in the region have been cautious. While Israel’s foreign minister condemned Russia, its prime minister notably did not. Israel sees Russia as an important partner, and Russian emigrants are an important constituency in the Israeli electorate. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar all see Russia as an important fellow energy producer and as a potential source of arms, investment, and other goods. They have expressed concern but avoided placing the blame on Russia. The Qatari emir is attempting to leverage relationships with parties on either side of the conflict to mediate.
The refusal to condemn Russia’s attack is a stark reflection of regional powers’ new strategy of hedging to remain aligned with the United States but simultaneously avoid a confrontation with China or Russia.
Q2: How will rising oil prices affect Gulf states?
A2: The price of oil surged above $100 per barrel for the first time since 2014 after the invasion. For oil-exporting states in the region, higher prices will provide welcome budgetary relief in the short term after the economic hit of Covid-19.
Counterintuitively, in the longer term, sustained higher oil prices could accelerate the energy transition by making renewables and electrification more economically attractive. While there is always pressure among oil-exporting states to channel windfalls into public salaries and subsidies, some Gulf governments may use a portion of the newfound profits to invest in efforts to diversify their energy investments, in particular in renewables and in hydrogen.
Although Gulf states will struggle to navigate their relationships with Russia and the United States, some could benefit politically from the crisis. Saudi Arabia in particular has thus sought much deeper U.S. political engagement, and the leadership reportedly has been frustrated that senior U.S. officials are reluctant to engage with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A global energy crisis may strengthen the Saudis’ hand in this regard.
Q3: How will the conflict affect food security in the Middle East and North Africa?
A3: Global commodity prices have shot up because Russia and Ukraine combine to constitute about a quarter of global wheat exports. The pandemic and resultant logistics challenges had already boosted wheat prices 80 percent since April 2020; wheat futures in Paris rose 16 percent on February 24. In addition, Russia has cut off exports of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Several countries in the Middle East are particularly vulnerable to higher prices and disrupted supplies.
Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat, and many of its imports come from the Black Sea area. Although the government attempted to diversify its supplies in the run-up to the invasion, signs of supply shortages are already apparent. Egypt received a large number of bids for a wheat tender last week, but this week canceled a tender after receiving only one high-priced offer. Its strategic stockpile of wheat will last for less than five months. Approximately 30 percent of Egypt’s population lives in poverty, and many of the poor rely on subsidized bread for nutrition. Elsewhere in North Africa, the price hikes and supply disruptions coincide with severe droughts. The economic challenges come at a difficult time for President Qais Saied of Tunisia, who is in a renewed effort to consolidate power after dismissing parliament last summer, and who faces increasingly stubborn economic stagnation.
Wheat shortages will hit fragile states in the region even harder. Lebanon’s economic crisis has already undermined its population’s ability to buy food, with prices increasing by 1,000 percent in less than three years. Lebanon imports wheat to meet most of its needs, with about 60 percent coming from Ukraine. The country has approximately a month’s worth of wheat in storage.
War-torn Libya and Yemen are similarly vulnerable to wheat shortages.
Q4: How could worsening relations between Russia and the West play out in the Middle East?
A4: President Putin promised “consequences you have never seen” to countries that interfere with Russia’s operations in Ukraine. Russia has several options to inflict pain on the West in the Middle East in retaliation to sanctions.
Tensions could result in Russia acting as a spoiler in Syria. The new CENTCOM commander, Lieutenant General Michael Kurilla, warned that Russia has increasingly violated deconfliction protocols with the United States in eastern Syria in recent months. If relations deteriorate further and Russia shuns deconfliction mechanisms, the risk of a more serious confrontation will rise.
Some regional countries also fear that Russia will lack the resources to sustain its role in Syria, leaving a vacuum that Iranian forces will fill—especially if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) is revived and higher oil prices put even more money in the Iranian treasury.
Russia will have a clear opportunity to undermine the West in July when the UN Security Council votes on the renewal of UN cross-border humanitarian operations into opposition-held areas in northwest Syria. A Russian veto would imperil the 4 million Syrians who depend on the life-saving assistance, sharply increase pressure on Turkey, and could prompt a large wave of forced migration in the eastern Mediterranean. The Biden administration has emphasized humanitarian diplomacy, and a Russian veto would likely quash any hopes of serious cooperation on the Syria file between the United States and Russia.
Russia could seek to increase pressure on Europe by stoking conflict in Libya at a fragile time for the peace process. Russia could similarly instrumentalize the threat of irregular migration from Libya to destabilize Europe just as it grapples with refugees from Ukraine.
Finally, Russia could complicate international diplomacy on the Iran nuclear file. While the invasion of Ukraine has not derailed JCPOA negotiations in Vienna up to now, successful negotiations will still require a delicate process of implementation, and Russia could seek to play a disruptive role.
Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Will Todman is a fellow in the CSIS Middle East Program.
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