Ukraine, the Middle East, and Hedging

This quick take is part of our Crisis Crossroads series, which highlights timely analysis by CSIS scholars on the evolving situation in Ukraine and its security, economic, energy, and humanitarian effects.

Middle Eastern states have been reacting cautiously to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Syrian and Iranian leaderships have shown solidarity with Russia against Western hostility. On the other side of the ledger, no state has condemned the invasion outright, regardless of close ties to the United States and Europe. As they look at a U.S. rebalance away from the Middle East and seek to avoid being drawn into great power competition, most see the crisis as full of peril for them yet beyond their ability to actually influence.

The oil-exporting states are reluctant to alienate Russia. The United Arab Emirates, which has sought to establish itself as the United States’ most capable and reliable Arab partner, abstained on the February 25 UN Security Council vote condemning the invasion. Saudi Arabia, which often has had scratchy relations with the Biden administration, has neither condemned the Russian invasion nor pledged to replace Russian oil in global markets should production fall. They will all enjoy a windfall from higher oil prices.

Israel has complicated ties to Russia, not least because about 10 percent of the Israeli electorate is made up of Russian immigrants. In addition, Israel and Russia see eye to eye on a wide range of regional issues, including a deep distrust of political Islam. The government’s message has been mixed, and only the foreign minister has condemned Russian actions.

For many of the region’s moderate-income countries, Russia’s invasion threatens their food security. Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, relying heavily on both Russia and Ukraine. About 30 percent of Egypt’s population lives in poverty, and subsidized bread baked with imported wheat is a vital part of the social safety net. Other regional states import Ukrainian and Russian grains for bread and animal feed. Higher food prices and higher energy prices represent a one-two punch for them.

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 Studie in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program