Six weeks after Russia's invasion, the war in Ukraine grinds on. The battlefield evokes Syria, with horrific scenes of besieged Ukrainian cities that look like Aleppo. Russia's military is terrorizing civilians and leaving behind harrowing evidence of war crimes.
Internationally, the war has rallied the United States and much of Europe to Ukraine's defense, reviving NATO. But it has simultaneously further hastened the arrival of a "post-American" world, as many countries elsewhere are maintaining what they claim is neutrality and hedging with Russia—from major democracies like India to even supposed U.S. allies and partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The implications of Russia's invasion of Ukraine are especially acute in the Middle East and North Africa, and not just because of the importance of those oil producers in the Gulf as the war has upended global energy markets. Food security loomed over the region before the war, as it is highly dependent on food imports from Russia and Ukraine, especially wheat. The biggest rifts that the war has exposed in U.S. foreign policy also involve some of Washington's closest Middle Eastern allies.
To understand what the war in Ukraine means for the Middle East and North Africa, Democracy in Exile reached out to a wide range of experts, including DAWN's own non-resident fellows. We asked what they expect to be the war's most significant and lasting impact in the region.
More Renegade Statecraft
Like the U.S. invasion of Iraq, whose cascading consequences are still unfolding today, the Russian invasion of Ukraine will catalyze further violent conflict and bad-faith diplomacy in a fragile Middle East and North Africa. The immediate shocks will be enormous enough: disrupted food supplies, spiking energy prices and a sudden diplomatic realignment around pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine blocs. Over the long term, Russia's belligerence will further open the window for renegade statecraft. Plenty of Middle Eastern powers would like to shift the balance in their favor on one issue or another.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq fatally weakened the case for international law and norms. Russia's invasion of Ukraine goes further still in normalizing terrible practices, from large-scale, planned war crimes to global disinformation to an almost pathological disregard for facts. Other scofflaw states will take heart and accelerate their own malignant designs. In the wake of the Ukraine war and the global polarization it triggered, we can expect an even more transactional approach to arms sales and dictatorial misconduct, and a greater momentum for mercantile or authoritarian bargains with bad rulers.
The MENA region already suffers from all these corrosive practices; they will only worsen as a consequence of Russia's openly imperial gambit.
The Spark for a New Wave of Uprisings?
The Ukraine war's reverberations into the Middle East and North Africa could serve as the catalyst for the next significant wave of uprisings among fragile MENA states. Two key drivers emanating from Ukraine could serve as the spark for popular protests and instability across the region. First, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has roiled global food and energy markets, causing sharp inflationary spikes and shortages. These food and fuel shocks have already hit hard in the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt, a major wheat importer, has witnessed significant increases in bread and other food prices, just as Ramadan begins, prompting complaints across social media. In Iraq and Sudan, popular anger has already spilled into street protests. Food and fuel price hikes are deepening Lebanon's economic crisis, with the country teetering on the verge of collapse.
Second, Russia's invasion has also provoked the most rapid displacement crisis since the end of World War II, placing even greater demands on an already-overtaxed humanitarian assistance architecture. Given this increased demand, potential humanitarian funding shortfalls would create even more strain on refugee-hosting countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan. Assistance to refugees and host communities in these countries often serves as the only safety net protecting impoverished families from utter destitution. Without it, the bottom on social welfare will fall out, with unpredictable consequences.
—Mona Yacoubian is a senior adviser to the vice president for the Middle East and Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The Brave New World of Multipolarity
The ripples from Russia's war against Ukraine are already apparent in higher energy demands and increasingly scarce wheat supplies. While these will likely form the most explosive impact in the region, more significant is how this conflict is catalyzing a transition toward greater multipolarity.
The past decade in the Middle East and North Africa was defined by the growth of regional powers culminating in the Abraham Accords and the sense of an authoritarian victory over regional democratic movements. The chaotic aftermath of Russia's invasion provided middling powers prime conduits toward further power and independence. First was diplomatic hedging by those like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Israel, either at the United Nations or via outreach to Moscow. Second was exploiting the energy crisis. Here, Algeria advertised itself to Europe, while Saudi Arabia played hardball, ignoring President Joe Biden and refusing European requests to increase oil supply.
The West's existential perception of this conflict created further opportunity. Turkey and Israel leveraged this through mediation attempts. The UAE used the cover to pursue normalization of Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad, advancing its regional goals of reasserting authoritarianism and preserving Russia as an alternative power. Finally, Western sanctions created unforeseen opportunities to diminish U.S. economic hegemony, which suffocating secondary sanctions on Iran motivated many to do. Symbolic oil sales from Saudi Arabia to China, or Russia to India, through the petroyuan will grow Chinese influence. Meanwhile, Russian oligarchs falling back on havens like the UAE for shadowy financial transactions strengthens avenues to escape future Western sanctions. As such, Ukraine's greatest yet probably most underappreciated impact will be as another hammer blow to the Pax Americana, and another step into the brave new world of multipolarity.
—Tarek Megerisi is a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Russia's belligerence will further open the window for renegade statecraft. Plenty of Middle Eastern powers would like to shift the balance in their favor on one issue or another.
- Thanassis Cambanis
The Middle East Is in a Bind
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is being felt around the world, including in the Middle East and North Africa. While the full scale of the war's impact on the region remains unclear, three spheres of impact need to be tracked that could redefine security and trade relations in the region.
First, ties with Russia. As Russia resurfaced as a major external power in the region over the past decade, MENA states deepened their relations with Russia and adapted to the geopolitical reality of an increasingly multipolar world in which the U.S. and its European allies no longer appear willing to guarantee regional security. However, as Russia invaded Ukraine and the West rallied together, MENA states find themselves in a strategic bind: return to the Western sphere of influence or continue to straddle both spheres. While many MENA states have remained silent on Russia's invasion, the regional and geopolitical status quos have shifted, and they will have to more clearly choose sides.
Second, food insecurity and destabilization. The MENA region being the largest importer of Russian and Ukrainian wheat, it finds itself especially vulnerable. Eighty-five percent of Egypt's wheat is sourced from Russia and Ukraine, which has led to rising prices and delivery disruptions. In the long term, this may have negative impact on the Egyptian public, leading to instability. Egypt's bread riots are known to be catalysts for mass protest.
Third, energy policy. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also impacted energy policy and access to strategic waterways. The neutrality of MENA leaders has so far kept global oil prices high, and the region's strategic straits remain open to Russian ships. However, the status quo maintenance cannot be sustained, and MENA states will increasingly find themselves in a strategic bind, domestically, regionally and internationally.
—Dalia Fahmy is an associate professor of political science at Long Island University and a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University. She is also a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
The Damage to International Law and Norms
The most significant impact will be a further weakening of international law and rules-based norms, leading to more state violence, less rights and greater instability. Certainly, Western leaders have contributed to weakening these laws and norms, through the 2003 invasion of Iraq and by taking no meaningful action against politically inconvenient violations of international law, such as Israel's denial of Palestinian self-determination or the Saudi-led coalition's litany of international humanitarian law violations and likely war crimes in Yemen.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine goes further and offers authoritarians a new and improved model of bad-faith governance, where aggression is not aggression, and facts are not just ignored, but rejected outright for being facts. International humanitarian law violations and war crimes become not an annoyance to dispute, but the preferred approach to waging war.
As autocrats throughout the region look toward Moscow as a hedge to advance their own political objectives, Western diplomacy will begin to resemble Cold War-era transactional politics, where human rights abuses and state repression can be overlooked to maintain good relations with "friendly" tyrants. As was the case then, the citizens of these countries will bear the costs of these failed policies and mistaken approach.
—John Hursh is the program director at DAWN and a visiting scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies at Brown University.
America's Choice in the Gulf
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has made it abundantly clear that U.S. goals diverge significantly from those of certain Arab security partners. From the UAE abstaining from the U.N. Security Council vote to condemn Russian aggression, to the Saudis and Emiratis refusing to increase oil production in order to offset the price spike caused by sanctions on Russian oil, the Saudis and Emiratis have made clear that they prioritize their relations with Moscow over those with Washington, despite their ongoing reliance on the U.S. for security. In terms of the long-term impact of this newfound clarity, the U.S. has a choice: continue to back these rulers despite their clear decision not to support the U.S., or fundamentally rethink the U.S. relationship with these autocratic governments.
The Ukraine war could be the turning point for American policy toward the Middle East, the moment when the U.S. government decided that weapons sales to Arab autocracies should no longer outweigh American values like support for human rights. Or it could be the moment when the U.S. doubled down on a failed strategy of appeasing Saudi and Emirati leaders, despite their disregard for America's goals. If the U.S. chooses the former, it will demonstrate to other partners that U.S. support is not unconditional; if the U.S. chooses the latter, we can expect additional states to act against U.S. objectives, knowing they will experience no consequences.
—Annelle Sheline is a research fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute.
The Emergence of New Regional Power Blocs
The biggest lasting impact of the war that can be seen at this moment is a likely realignment of power and creation of new blocs of power in the Middle East. American demands that its friends join it in sanctioning Russia, and the geopolitical security and energy politics that entails, will likely play out in one of two ways. In one scenario, we could see a return to Cold War-style polarization where countries are forced—or choose—to pick a side and align their policies with one of the major powers' declared interests. In the second and more likely scenario, which we are already seeing take shape to some degree, countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and others may form a regional bloc of their own that is able to resist being pulled too deeply into the orbit of one of the major powers. In this scenario, U.S. influence in the region wanes. Israel, for example, will not be able to become fully independent of U.S. influence, but it would be far less reliant on Washington's support in international fora and other areas where, for much of the past century, there have been few if any alternatives.
—Michael Omer-Man is DAWN's director of research for Israel-Palestine.
A Bifurcated Global Political Economy
In economic terms, the most significant and lasting impact of the Russian war in Ukraine will probably be a move toward bifurcation in the global political economy, between an authoritarian capitalist model and a liberal political economy. This doesn't mean globalization is dead, but it could mean that the way that capital has moved easily will change. Sanctions, and efforts to work-around them, will become part of everyday business operations, and firms will have to compartmentalize and create subsidiaries to perform global operations. We will see more resilience built into supply chains, more national manufacturing efforts, and ultimately higher consumer prices for goods and especially for energy. We are looking at a global shift in economic relations—and for the Middle East, this will profoundly change key aspirations for attracting foreign direct investment and diversification efforts away from hydrocarbon-reliant economies. Ultimately, this is a negative impact on growth, innovation and human capital across the MENA region.
—Karen E. Young is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Economics and Energy at the Middle East Institute.
The Shocks of Food Shortages
The most severe danger to the countries of the Middle East from the Russian invasion of Ukraine comes from the wheat shortages and price hikes caused by the war. Ukraine exports in March were a fourth of normal levels, and American and European sanctions are having an impact on Russian exports. The war itself poses dangers to exports. In early April, Russia reportedly blocked a Ukrainian ship from carrying its cargo to Egypt. Some 80 percent of Egypt's wheat comes from the two warring countries, though nearly 70 percent comes from Russia alone. Not only will global supplies be constrained this year, given that Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly 30 percent of the world's wheat production, but prices are rising.
Economic historians have demonstrated that famines are more often caused by a spike in prices than by the entire unavailability of food. The most vulnerable country in the region is Yemen, where a seven-year-long war has already damaged local food production and the infrastructure for delivering it to market. The World Food Program has warned that it has had to cut the rations it delivers to 8 million Yemenis, and that high wheat prices may make it impossible to provide rations at all. The belligerents in Yemen, the Saudis and the Emiratis, have announced a two-month-long cease-fire with the Houthis. The looming food crisis and potential famine should impel them to call off the war entirely.
—Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
The Ukraine war's reverberations into the Middle East and North Africa could serve as the catalyst for the next significant wave of uprisings among fragile MENA states.
- Mona Yacoubian
An Economic Opening for Iran
Events in Eastern Europe and the West's responses have shaken energy supply patterns that prevailed for several decades. Leaders in Tehran need to realize a unique opportunity is now available for Iran to reclaim prominent roles within the global supply chain, and by extension in regional geopolitics. Iran holds the world's second-largest proven reserves of gas and fourth-largest proven reserves of oil. By accepting a new nuclear deal, Iran can ensure economic sanctions end and move swiftly to take over energy market share currently unfilled by Russia—thereby meeting not only national fiscal needs but also cementing trade with energy-hungry economies like the European Union, China and India. Iran can further enhance its stature as a reliable energy partner within the global system by flexing its regional influence to convince Yemen's Houthis to forego attacks on Saudi petroleum facilities—thereby improving relations with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. If Iran's leaders make prudent decisions now, those actions will be among the Russia-Ukraine war's most significant and lasting impact.
—Jamsheed K. Choksy is Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian and Iranian Studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University and was a member of the United States National Council on the Humanities from 2008 to 2019.
—Carol E. B. Choksy is Senior Lecturer of Strategic Intelligence in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at Indiana University.
How the War Complicates Biden's Iran Diplomacy
One surprising aspect of the U.S.-Russia relationship is how certain joint activities survived more general hostility, at least before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. One of those activities was diplomacy on the Iran nuclear program and efforts to restrain it, namely, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, the nuclear deal signed in 2015 from which Trump withdrew in 2018.
The negotiations to revive the JCPOA did suddenly become swept up in the invasion politics when the United States suggested Russia could not use trade relations with Iran—which would be enabled by lifting of certain sanctions on Iran—to circumvent sanctions resulting from its invasion and occupation of Ukraine. At issue was Russia's participation in building Iran's civilian nuclear capability, a lucrative business for Russia.
After a few days of foot stomping, the issue seemed to subside. "It has been logical to us, and should be logical to all parties, that we would not sanction Russia's participation in nuclear projects that are part of a full return to the JCPOA," said a State Department spokesperson. The issue could become relevant again if indeed Russia were to circumvent Ukraine-related sanctions.
That was not the end to how the Ukraine war affects JCPOA negotiations. Iran is now insisting that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, be relieved of the "foreign terrorist organization" designation imposed by Trump in 2019. It is a sanction that Trump officials still argue is a necessary obstacle to Iranian militancy in the region. It shows, they say, that the United States will stand behind sanctions that cannot be whittled away by other priorities.
Lifting the terrorist declaration has other implications. Among them are those held by powerful Gulf monarchies and Israel, all of whom see the IRGC as a deadly enemy. President Biden is trying to draw Saudi Arabia and others into the coalition against Russia, an important way to increase oil production and alleviate some of the pain felt by Americans at the gas pump. (Russian oil imports are miniscule, but sanctions on Russia do affect the global oil market.) Israel's reluctance to take sides in the Ukraine war is disappointing behavior of such a supposed ally, but it has real consequences in American politics as it exerts its considerable muscle in the halls of Congress and the news media.
And that gets to the most powerful implications of the Ukraine-Mideast entanglement: the political risks for Biden of lifting sanctions on the IRGC, or indeed on Iran generally, while calling for sanctions against Russia. Republicans and the Israel lobby are agitating against the revived JCPOA (before seeing its details) as a capitulation to Iran. This was expected, as they did this in 2015 and gave full-throated approval to Trump's actions against the nuclear deal and the Revolutionary Guards. Most vow to withdraw again if a Republican is elected president in 2024, which makes Iran believe the accord is ephemeral. And now such political opposition in the United States is braced by Biden's delicate dance in Ukraine. Polls of the American public are mixed but broadly support more action against Russia and are skeptical of Biden's war policy.
This political precariousness makes it difficult for Biden to "appease" Iran on the IRGC matter. If he does lift such sanctions, the Republicans will make a lot of noise about it, and such a commotion could have multiplier effects: The 2015 agreement, for example, led to U.S. support for the Saudi- and UAE-led war in Yemen. Similar deleterious effects could follow a JCPOA restoration. Certainly, the Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis will see a new JCPOA as a kind of betrayal and continue to stand militantly against Iran (and continue to be unhelpful with respect to the Ukraine war).
Biden can veto just about any legislation aimed at killing the JCPOA, so the accord would be safe from Republican wrath in the next two years. But the Ukraine war definitely complicates Biden's political calculations—his appearance of weakness, according to some—at a time when he cannot afford such complications and the JCPOA may not withstand them.
—John Tirman is coauthor of Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict, and the executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies. He is also a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The Middle East is one of the main regions in the world that would significantly be impacted by the Russian war on Ukraine. From strategic realignment to energy security and food crisis, major countries in the region are caught between a rock and a hard place. Also, most of these countries are suffering from fragile economies, endemic problems such as corruption, unemployment, lack of good governance and reliance on external imports of basic commodities, such as food, oil and energy.
Russia and Ukraine are major wheat suppliers, and together account for nearly 30 percent of the global supply. Several countries in the region that rely heavily on Russia and Ukraine's wheat supplies, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan, are now bracing for a severe wheat crisis in the coming months as a result of the war. The prices of energy, oil and food commodities have soared and reached new levels over the past few weeks. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund has predicted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would fundamentally reshape the global economy, which is already suffering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, the war would put significant pressure on some countries that might result in a new cycle of political and social unrest across the region.
—Khalil al-Anani is a senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC and an associate professor of political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. He is also a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
A Replay of 2011?
War in Ukraine risks opening up a number of intersectional challenges for the people of the Middle East. While much has been made of the impact on the price of grain and the realignment of regional and global politics, perhaps the most important issue relates to the opening up of long-standing grievances between rulers and ruled. Many similarities can be drawn with the lead-up to the Arab uprisings, where socioeconomic frustrations and a lack of political reform prompted many to take to the streets. In the years that followed, states across the region sought to curtail space for opposition movements to operate, using all manner of technologies of power in pursuit of regime survival. With rising food prices and the imposition of taxes, coupled with a general lack of political reform, the latent anger that caused the protests of 2010-2011 may once more manifest in unrest, with the people of the region once again paying the heaviest price.
—Simon Mabon is a professor of international politics at Lancaster University, where he directs the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianization (SEPAD) project and the Richardson Institute.
The Glaring Moral Contradictions of Western Policy
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is widely viewed in the West as another 9/11 moment. The focus of international relations is now centered on the destabilizing policies of authoritarian regimes and the need to defend democracy, human rights and the right of subjugated peoples to self-determination. Advocates for human rights and democracy in the Middle East should welcome this development. The values articulated by Western leaders in the context of Ukraine also apply to the politics of the Middle East. The challenge now is to exploit this opportunity and to demand the universal application of these principles.
The United States and Europe have already revealed the Eurocentric bias of their new moral calling. The principles at the core of the Ukraine conflict will not be applied to the Middle East. Three events over the past month clearly reveal this.
In mid-March, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet the notorious Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The aim of the visit was to ask for an increase in Saudi oil production to compensate for sanctioned Russia oil that had been taken off the global market. Four days prior to Johnson's visit, Saudi Arabia engaged in an execution spree, the largest in its history, killing 81 people. While Johnson was in Riyadh, three more people were executed. Undeterred, Britain's prime minister continued with his visit. The meeting was akin to a lovefest between these leaders. "I miss you," one quipped. "I miss you more," the other replied.
Two weeks later, Antony Blinken traveled from Europe to Israel. The U.S. State Department announced that the war in Ukraine would feature prominently in his meetings. On Blinken's agenda was participating in a summit of foreign ministers from Arab states—all of them dictatorships—and the foreign minister of the state of Israel, widely viewed as an apartheid state by the human rights community. The goal of the summit was to strengthen regional cooperation between these repressive regimes. The contrast between this event and the principles articulated by Western governments in the context of Ukraine, when judged by the standards of democracy, human rights and international law, was like night and day.
A few days later, Blinken was in Morocco, where he met with the de-facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed. As The Washington Post reported: "Blinken was effusive as they shook hands for the cameras, saying he was 'grateful for the time today, and actually I'm grateful for the time every day, because the partnership between our countries truly matters to the United States.' The UAE, he said, was 'a leader in the region, increasingly a leader in the world.'"
To my knowledge, no one in the mainstream media commented on the glaring moral contradiction between Western policy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Support for authoritarian and repressive regimes in the Middle East is hardwired into the DNA of American and European elite political thinking. This form of "Middle East exceptionalism" has always existed in the Western debate about the region. It has deep historical roots. Challenging this framework remains difficult. The war in Ukraine, however, now makes this a little bit easier.
Joe Biden's deputy national security adviser, speaking about Ukraine, recently affirmed, regarding consequences for countries that try and evade U.S. sanctions on Russia:
"The truth is that there are core principles at stake in our judgement. Core principles that underpin peace and security all over the world, the principle that you can't redraw borders by force, the principles that you can't subjugate the will of the free people, that countries have the right to set their own course and choose their own destiny."
I fully concur with this statement. This is the task that lies ahead—demanding that Western governments live up to their own stated values in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond.
—Nader Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is also a non-resident fellow at DAWN.