Deep impact of Ukraine-Russian war on Middle East, North Africa geopolitics

By Dr Nishakant Ojha

Countries from the Middle East and North Africa have started to feel the heat from the war in Europe on their food security, energy prices, and job markets. They are torn between sympathising with Ukrainians fleeing their homes and cities destroyed by Russian weapons and remembering how the world looked away as the same weapons were wrecking havoc on Syria and Libya only a few years ago.

Meanwhile, regional governments, including the United States of America‘s previous allies, are hedging their bets between Russia and the US-led Western camp, playing on time to better evaluate the impact of the war and to ease the restraints it is imposing on the fragile economies and the social fabric of the region.

Photo: Devastation left behind by the Russia-Ukraine war.

In 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained about the Black Sea turning into a ‘Russian lake’ and cited NATO‘s insufficient presence. Turkey‘s relations with Russia, however, have warmed considerably since then. Nowadays, Ankara prefers to stay mute on the issue in view of Erdogan’s soft corner for Russia.

That said, Russia’s invasion has upset Turkey’s plans to widen its engagement with Ukraine, including in the defence industry. The Turkish economy is in crisis, and Turkey is exposed to Russian antagonism through both its energy dependency and, crucially, Moscow’s ability to pull strings in Syria, handicapping Ankara.

Turkey has nevertheless stood firm and called Russia’s invasion an act of war, rejected the premise of its invasion, and even closed the Turkish Straits to naval vessels. It has, however, been careful to stay away from sanctions so as not to burn the bridges with Moscow.

This is understandable but does not obviate the need for Turkey to strategise against Russia’s extended reach in the Black Sea. It can do so without escalating, in three ways:

  1. Continues enforcing and closing the straits – Russia will test Turkey’s resolve, and Ankara will have to stand by its decision as long as a state of war exists. It could also serve Turkey well to scrutinise Russian attempts to abuse the provisions of the Montreux Convention on submarine transits.
  2. Enhance the mechanism and efforts to collate and share data with allies – Maritime and air situational awareness in the Black Sea have become even more critical.
  3. Filling the gaps in NATO capability and utilising the shortfalls – Turkey can help fill gaps in NATO’s standing naval forces that patrol the Black Sea and support NATO deployments in the future according to the Montreux Convention.

Regional Implications of War

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is impacting the Middle East and North Africa region in three major thrust areas: political negotiations and military action, humanitarian aid and food security, and gas and oil supplies.

Politically, the crisis has not yet forced any significant realignments. Rather, various countries, including the Gulf and Israel, are hedging their bets between the United States and Russia and seeking to maximise gains in key areas of interest.

However, long-term sanctions on Russia will be challenging for Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, all of whom have been diversifying their defence industries and seeking greater cooperation with Russia.

Syria and Libya, the two arenas where US-Russia cooperation is most needed for sustainable political outcomes, are likely to suffer. Today, that cooperation is less probable than ever before.

Russia’s considerable military footprint in both countries and its increasing political and economic isolation may drive it to be a disrupter of ongoing efforts to address political divisions in Libya and to be even more supportive of the Syrian and Iranian regimes than it has been in the past.

For Europe, a sizable Russian military presence on its southern flank in Libya is worrisome. Meanwhile, both Turkey and Israel are troubled by the prospect of future Russian action in Syria.

Turkey is concerned that Russia could increase pressure in the rebel enclave Idlib, triggering an influx of refugees. Syria’s Kurdish population is worried that a US-Turkey trade-off in this larger geopolitical tussle would come at their expense. Israel is concerned with growing Russia-Iran cooperation and possible limits on its aerial bombardments of Iranian targets in Syria.

There are also increasing major concerns over humanitarian aid and food security in the said region, especially in already sensitive countries. The growing number of Ukrainian refugees and the ballooning costs of post-conflict reconstruction are raising concerns that critical humanitarian aid may be diverted from the Middle East and North Africa to address the fallout from the Ukraine conflict.

For the millions of Palestinians, Lebanese, Yemenis, Syrians, and others, who live in countries experiencing conflict, catastrophic economic meltdowns, and increasing humanitarian needs, this would be equivalent to shutting down critical life support.

This crisis is also aggravated by significant concerns around food security, especially in countries like Lebanon and Egypt, which rely on Russia and Ukraine for their wheat supplies (comprising 96 percent and 85 percent of supplies respectively). This crisis is likely to worsen as food and energy prices skyrocket globally. In time, this may drive people back to the streets in protest.

The future of gas and oil supplies is very critical. Europe will likely seek to build up alternative gas supplies, and therein lies an opportunity for Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean countries.

Gulf countries are currently gaining from the increase in oil prices and are leveraging this situation to renegotiate their strategic relationship with the United States and to pursue political gains in places like Yemen.

The question here is: Will this drive East Mediterranean countries to speed up some agreements on promising gas supplies with the hope of becoming a key partner for Europe in the future?

Much remains to be seen in this conflict, whose trajectory has indicated a long-term shift in global relations. What will Russian President Vladimir Putin’s future actions be if he feels more isolated and maligned internationally — and will he try to leverage various pressure points in the region to get what he wants elsewhere?

Region’s Geopolitical Changes

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing embargo of Russian products—which includes its oil exports—have brought oil prices to pre–August 2014 levels, well above $100 a barrel. With other oil producers’ production capacity also hampered for various reasons, oil prices may remain high for some time. This development is perhaps most important geopolitically for countries in the Middle East.

Oil-producing countries in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia, have been forced in recent years to adopt long-needed economic reform measures to move away from rentier economies and a welfare state model.

Indeed, the question for them remains whether their newly accumulated financial reserves will turn the clock back on economic reform in favour of short-term political gains — or whether the lesson will be learned that economic reform is a must, regardless of oil prices.

Oil-importing countries from the region will also be severely affected. While high oil prices will pose further risks to already adversely impact economic conditions, some of these challenges were mitigated in the past through grants made possible by oil-producing countries.

It is not clear whether such grants will be resumed as political alliances have shifted, plunging some oil-importing countries like Jordan into increased economic peril.

Ironically, the official position of most Arab countries at the United Nations was to condemn the Russian invasion, but the general public reaction has been mixed. Some of them have justifiably wondered why there have not been equally strong international reactions against the Israeli occupation of Palestinians or the US invasion of Iraq.

Some comments made in the West — that Ukrainian refugees are “like us” — have also elicited justified accusations of Western racism. Such shadowed reactions from the Middle East, while understandable, have so far ignored the fact that selective condemnation of the use of force to occupy other nations is a two-way street.

For example, Israel could use this discrepancy to justify its occupation of Arab land. This reaction also ignores the plight of the Ukrainian people, who are also suffering from war and occupation.

Hence most of the countries in the region, including Israel, have attempted to tread carefully and have exhibited a subdued reaction against the invasion. Maintaining such a position will become increasingly difficult as the war and its repercussions will continue.

(The writer is an expert on counter-terrorism in the Middle East)

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