How does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impact the Middle East?

Middle East leaders are not eager to see either the US or Russia declare a decisive victory in their confrontation over Ukraine.

Counting the Cost - OPEC
Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Saudi Arabia''s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan June 29, 2019. [Yuri Kadobnov/Reuters]

The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reverberated around the world, and the Middle East is no exception. Regional leaders, who have been appeasing both Washington and Moscow for almost a decade, are now being pressured to pick a side – but they still seem reluctant to do so. Most of them have publicly condemned the Russian invasion but refrained from taking any punitive measures against Moscow.

They have varied economic expectations – energy and wheat importers are bracing for the worst, while oil producers are anticipating a bump in revenues. But beyond the economy, the outcome of this conflict could have significant geopolitical implications for the region, including reshuffling alliances and re-charting gas pipeline routes.

Calculated neutrality

Since Joe Biden’s election as US president in November 2020, Middle Eastern leaders have been working to reduce regional tensions by rekindling strained bilateral relations. Turkey, for example, has opened channels of communication with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel; there are also talks between Qatar and Egypt, and between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

These governments do not want Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to invalidate these efforts and trigger a new wave of polarisation. They also do not want Russia to experience a major defeat, which would reinforce American unilateralism and make it difficult for them to diversify their alliances.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration and Arab leaders have conflicting priorities.

Washington is currently focused on deterring and isolating Moscow and is working towards a possible nuclear agreement that might end Iran’s economic isolation. In contrast, Arab governments want Russia to remain strong so it can continue to help contain Iran’s ambitions to expand its influence over the region.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s relations with the Biden administration remain strained – especially as they believe the US did not support them sufficiently over recent Houthi attacks on their territories. This has affected how they have responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The UAE, for example, abstained from voting on a draft resolution condemning the invasion at the UNSC on February 25.

The Saudis and Emiratis have re-adjusted their positions in recent days (on March 2, for example, the UAE voted in favour of a UNGA resolution denouncing the invasion) and begun to talk with both Russian and Ukrainian leaders and to call for de-escalation. However, Riyadh will most likely not concede much to Washington on this issue before Biden actively engages Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman beyond merely requesting that he increase his country’s oil production. The Emiratis, for their part, have been distancing their foreign policy from Washington since the Biden administration embarked on a rapprochement with their arch regional rival, Qatar. They would also likely require more engagement and alignment of interests to move towards the US side.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine also demonstrated the fragility of Russia’s alliance with both Turkey and Iran. Due to its newfound economic isolation, Moscow has become more dependent on Turkish and Iranian trade, which has caused it to lose some leverage over the two.

If Russia captures the entire Ukrainian coast, it will tighten its control over the Black Sea, which would represent a challenge to Turkey. Still, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long benefitted from the tense relationship between Washington and Moscow, sees an opportunity in this new conflict and believes he can turn it to its advantage. Yet he also does not want to provoke Putin, since he knows that any punitive Russian measures could damage the already fragile Turkish economy. Thus, Ankara publicly supports Kyiv and provides drones that the Ukrainian army effectively uses against Russian forces, but refrains from imposing any sanctions on Moscow.

But it is likely that Putin is taking notes on the balancing game Turkey is playing in Ukraine, and may later be less accommodating of Ankara’s needs and demands on other issues – he is already subtly punishing Ankara by blocking the shipment of sunflower oil from Ukraine and Russia to Turkey through the Black Sea, a move that could lead to a shortage of this basic product in the Turkish market.

However, Putin now needs Erdogan more than before, as Turkey could serve as a good destination for Russian capital and tourists looking to escape US sanctions. Thus, it is unlikely that the Russian military intervention in Ukraine will lead to a major falling out between Moscow and Ankara, or a Turkish realignment with the West.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Iran also made it clear that it is not going to pick a side. There are three main reasons for Iran’s decision to remain neutral: First, Moscow did not stand decisively with Tehran in its confrontation with the Trump administration and Israel; second, Iran’s priority is to revive the nuclear agreement and lift US sanctions and therefore it does not need a confrontation with Washington; third, the Iranian political class is divided on the war with some blaming the US for the escalation and others issuing statements in support of Ukraine and demanding an end to Russian aggression.

Russian attempts to disrupt Iran’s ongoing nuclear negotiations with the US in Vienna showed once again the contradictory interests and priorities between the two parties, and the mistrust, despite the strategic partnership that binds them. If efforts to revive the nuclear agreement ultimately fail, Tehran’s rapprochement with Moscow will be strengthened, and if a nuclear deal is reached, Iran will most likely distance itself from Russia. Thus, Russia’s attack on Ukraine may transform into an incentive for the Biden administration to quickly revive the nuclear agreement with Iran, if the right conditions prevail.

Israel too is playing a balancing game between Russia and the US over Ukraine. After the Israeli government issued a statement supporting “the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine”, Russia condemned the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. Israel, however, did not go as far as Turkey and declined a Ukrainian request to send weapons and military equipment. The official Israeli concern, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal, is that if Israel becomes militarily involved with Ukraine, Moscow may respond by limiting its air movement over Syrian territory to deter Iran and its allies.

Energy policy and food security

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will also have a significant impact on energy policy, access to strategic waterways and food security in the Middle East and North Africa. The neutrality of the region’s leaders has so far kept global oil prices high, and its strategic straits remained open to Russian ships, including the Suez Canal and the Bosphorus/Dardanelles. Riyadh is adamant about keeping to the current OPEC plan of increasing oil output gradually, but Abu Dhabi has recently shown some flexibility on this matter. The Biden administration, meanwhile, is scrambling to find alternatives to Russian oil, even attempting to cut deals with Venezuela.

While the oil sector is so far standing its ground, it seems the invasion may have a prominent, long-term impact on the gas sector. As the Nord Stream 2 project (which would carry Russian gas to Germany via Ukraine) was suspended and after Washington withdrew its support of the East-Med pipeline project (carrying Eastern Mediterranean gas from Israel through Cyprus and Greece to Italy), it seems like the Russian invasion of Ukraine could open new route possibilities for gas pipelines to Europe.

One of Turkey’s motives for maintaining diplomatic neutrality on Russia and Ukraine is to maintain bridges with the Europeans to ensure eastern Mediterranean gas can be transported to Europe via Turkey instead of Greece if the opportunity arises. Ankara also wants to hold on to the option of connecting the Turk Stream pipeline between Russia and Turkey to Europe in a scenario where the Nord Stream 2 project is never revived.

Iran is also aware that it can fill the Russian gas vacuum if Putin’s international isolation increases and becomes a burden on his allies. After Russia benefitted for a long time from the US and international sanctions against Iran, things may be reversed if the nuclear deal is revived, as Tehran could potentially be the beneficiary of Moscow’s new isolation. However, Iran requires logistical and diplomatic arrangements – which may take time – in order to transport its gas to Europe. Moreover, Tehran does not seem too willing to challenge Russia on this matter for now.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio visited Algeria on February 28 aiming to increase gas supplies from North Africa through the “Trans-Mediterranean” pipeline that connects Italy to Algeria via Tunisia, fearing a decline in Russian natural gas supplies, but Algeria also does not have the logistical capacity to fill the void.

Beyond gas exports, the economic impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is mixed in the Arab world. It is having a negative impact on food security in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon, but offering some economic benefits to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Iraq. The Russian attack disrupted energy and wheat supplies, which means a rise in oil and bread prices that may lead to social unrest in some Arab countries if the crisis is prolonged, especially in Egypt, where a large segment of the population is dependent on government-subsidised bread. There is an urgent need to find alternatives in the Arab countries that import wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the impact of the conflict on Iraq is limited, because since 2003 it has been importing its wheat from Australia, Canada, and America, and its gas from Iran as part of a pre-set American exemption from sanctions. Meanwhile, as an oil exporter, Iraq will also benefit from high oil prices just like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Among the countries that will likely benefit economically from the Russian invasion of Ukraine are also Turkey and Iran, as their trade exchange with Russia may be enhanced despite US sanctions. The UAE, meanwhile, may secure further benefits as a financial and commercial centre for Russian investors.

All in all, this conflict will have a significant impact on the way Putin is perceived in the Middle East. Over the last decade, Putin’s Russia repeatedly demonstrated that it is capable of effective political and military interventions. The outcome of his adventure in Ukraine can, however, change that. And even if he does not experience a complete military defeat, the impact of Western sanctions on Russia’s economy could reduce its ability to trade with Middle Eastern nations and reduce its influence over regional governments.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tested both Washington and Moscow’s leverage in the Middle East. The fact that regional leaders opted for a balancing act and chose to remain neutral showed that despite its withdrawal from Afghanistan and efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal – both seen as a sign of retreat by Arab leaders – Washington remains highly influential in the region.

Whether these leaders will remain neutral in the long term, however, will depend on the outcome of the military battle, most notably around Kyiv. If either side comes out as a clear winner, they will adjust their positions accordingly to secure their economic and geopolitical interests. Whatever eventually happens, however,  it is already clear that Middle East leaders are not eager to see either the US or Russia declare a decisive victory in their confrontation over Ukraine and beyond.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.