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Russia-Ukraine war: Why Middle Eastern leaders will not take a stand

Neither Moscow nor western governments have the necessary clout to force most regional capitals to toe their line
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on 18 March, 2022 (AFP)

Why are most Middle Eastern governments fence-sitting on the Russia-Ukraine war? While Russia’s staunch ally Syria has unsurprisingly endorsed President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, other regional governments have been notably muted.

Barring Damascus, all either approved or abstained on a symbolic UN General Assembly resolution calling for Russia’s withdrawal, but none have joined the West in sanctioning Moscow. This is not just Washington’s enemies like Iran, but long-standing allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The latter two have even refused to raise oil production to stabilise rising prices due to the war.

Also at play are regional matters, with several Middle Eastern governments seeing the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to be taken advantage of

What explains this relative neutrality? One factor is geopolitics. Some have argued the fact that none (barring Syria) has endorsed Russia’s actions, despite its many years wooing Middle Eastern governments, indicates a rejection of Moscow. Others have argued the reverse: that Washington’s inability to persuade key allies to turn on Putin shows the lessening of the West’s influence in the region.

Both are true, but neither should be overstated. Western relative power has declined, but a full withdrawal is highly unlikely. Western allies, especially in the Gulf, still base their security strategies on the assumption that the US will remain in its various bases for the foreseeable future, even if its appetite for military adventures and interventions, such as those in Iraq and Libya, has diminished.

The relative decline of the West might make its allies more willing to challenge the former hegemon, but they’re careful not to push this too far.

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Ideological considerations

Similarly, Russia is likely to remain a player in the Middle East for some time, barring a disaster in Ukraine that could lead to Putin’s removal. But Russian investment in the region is modest and dwarfed by the American presence, restricted to a handful of bases in Syria and enhanced diplomatic ties with Israel, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and the Gulf. It makes little sense, then, for these governments to either turn on Putin or fully back him.

But geopolitical concerns are only a partial explanation. Also at play are regional matters, with several Middle Eastern governments seeing the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to be taken advantage of.

Riyadh, for example, expects US President Joe Biden to roll back his criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and increase support for his position in Yemen before considering increased oil production. Similarly, the UAE proved receptive to boosting production only after the US promised further defence support in its conflict with the Houthis.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pictured in Riyadh in December 2021 (SPA/AFP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pictured in Riyadh in December 2021 (SPA/AFP)

From the other side, Iran is nervous that the decline in Russia-US relations will derail the renegotiation of the nuclear deal, possibly tempering its usual pro-Russian position.

There is an ideological component too. For some, long-standing anti-Americanism has prompted sympathy for Russia, leading Algeria, Iraq and Iran to abstain from the UN General Assembly resolution. For others, there is a quiet autocratic solidarity with Putin. Western leaders have framed the Ukraine war as one of democracy against autocracy but, of course, most Middle Eastern governments are the latter, actively opposing the spread of democracy in their own region for the past decade.

This may not prompt them to paint “Z” on their tanks, but it might make some ambivalent over the prospect of a decisive Ukraine victory in the name of democracy.

Violating sovereignty

Related to this is the issue of state sovereignty. Putin’s invasion is on a scale unseen for decades, but his justification for conflict is familiar: arguing for the right to interfere in a neighbouring state perceived as a threat.

Western governments are somewhat hypocritical for condemning Moscow’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, given they have done this themselves regularly in various theatres.

Russia-Ukraine war: The West is in no position to lecture Turkey on peace talks
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That said, military interference in neighbouring states is a favourite policy option in the Middle East, with Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all indulging in the past year alone. Some of these governments might see western condemnation of Putin as self-righteous and hypocritical, and hope the war doesn’t lead to any impediments to their own future violations of sovereignty.

Reviewing these reasons for neutrality, it is, in many ways, surprising that the West expected anything else from Middle Eastern governments. Regional players’ various interests simply don’t align with either the West’s or, with the exception of Syria, Russia’s. Nor do Russia or western governments have the clout to force most Middle Eastern capitals to toe their line, making the fence-sitting seen thus far the most likely outcome.

These positions might change if either Russia, or more likely the US, find new ways to persuade their allies off the fence - but this won’t come cheaply. Careful neutrality might therefore end up handsomely rewarding some Middle Eastern players.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Christopher Phillips is a professor of international relations at Queen Mary, University of London, where he is also a deputy dean. He is the author of The Battle for Syria, available from Yale University Press, and co-editor of What Next for Britain in the Middle East, available from IB Tauris.
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