Impacts of the war in Ukraine on the Middle East and North Africa

Pierre Razoux, FMES Academic and Research Director.

The countries of the Middle East and North Africa are reluctant to take sides so as not to jeopardize their growing cooperation with Russia; Israel, Turkey and Iran find themselves in a particularly delicate position. While Turkey seems to have temporarily joined NATO, Israel is becoming increasingly isolated. Iran, for its part, fears that the agreement painstakingly negotiated with the United States will be called into question by Russia.

The war in Ukraine has caused wheat prices to soar, but above all hydrocarbon prices, which is excellent news for OPEC countries. The gas exporting countries could restore their image in the eyes of the West by taking the place of Russia, particularly Algeria, Qatar, and Libya. Algeria could take advantage of this to reverse its alliance with Germany and Turkey. Countries with large populations, weak economies and no hydrocarbon resources will suffer; they could be destabilized by food riots. Countries that are very close to Russia or have Russian bases on their territory may have to take a clear position, at the risk of being isolated. Those who are waiting for large deliveries of arms from Russia (Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iran) may well have to pay the price and wait for their delivery.

All the countries in the region have their eyes on NATO and the European Union, whose sudden reaction has surprised them. Any sign of pusillanimity in the management of the exit from the crisis risks being interpreted as a sign of weakness and will only reinforce the hostile and revanchist discourse, as well as the determination of those who wish to further weaken the Europeans.

INITIAL FINDINGS

The massive invasion of Ukraine by Russia (February 24th, 2022) has surprised the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, placing them in a very uncomfortable situation. Most of them maintain close relations with Russia in many fields (energy, arms, agri-food, tourism) and are perfectly comfortable with the autocratic and revisionist discourse of the master of the Kremlin. Their leaders as well as their population have not been insensitive to his provocations against the Americans and the Europeans; no doubt some of them secretly hope for a Russian victory that would only further weaken a Europe that is considered soft and ready for any compromise. Others are questioning the reliability of American protection and are looking for new sponsors. The United Arab Emirates, the only Arab member of the Security Council, abstained from the Council vote (27th February) to condemn the Russian invasion, despite American pressure.

The firm, supportive and immediate reaction of most European countries, led by France and Germany, came as a surprise to the states of the Middle East and North Africa. The growing isolation of Russia on the international scene, coupled with strong American and Asian pressure, forced them to review their position, especially since the Russian precedent could revive the use of force to settle border tensions, which no state in the region seems to want at the moment. Only Syria unsurprisingly [1] voted against the text of the resolution submitted to the vote of the UN General Assembly (March 2nd), which is non-binding; Algeria, Iran and Iraq abstained; Morocco, which was absent, did not participate in the vote. All other states in the region supported the resolution condemning the Russian invasion and calling for an end to hostilities. Pragmatically, these same states have been observing the evolution of the conflict in order to adapt their posture accordingly, because in essence, many of them probably remain well disposed towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

FIRST CONSEQUENCES

Regional issues are now taking a back seat, whether it be the Iranian nuclear issue and the return to the JCPoA, the war in Syria, the war in Yemen, the risks of confrontation between Israel and Iran supported by Hezbollah (or vice versa), the collapse of Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Libyan conflict, the conflict in the Western Sahara, the resulting tensions between Algeria and Morocco, the instability of the Sahel-Saharan strip, or the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, which are currently muted but could quickly resurface. While the international community is focused on Ukraine, the Black Sea and Eastern Europe, some global (China) and regional (Iran, Turkey, Qatar) players could be tempted to push their pawns into the North African and Middle Eastern region to improve their positions.

Soaring wheat prices. Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of wheat and grain. The absence of their production on the world market, coupled with the uncertainty created by the risks of slippage in this crisis, which encourages cautionary buying, has led to a doubling of wheat prices (to 320 euros per ton), which remain a staple in North Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. The countries of the region, which were massively supplied by Russia and Ukraine [2], will have to face the sudden rise in prices and quickly turn to other exporters. Those countries that subsidize bread and have a large and relatively poor population could face food riots that could weaken or radicalize their regime.

Soaring hydrocarbon prices. For net oil and natural gas exporting countries, this price surge is a bargain. With a barrel of oil that has exceeded $130 (its highest price in ten years) and the price of gas reaching 190 euros per megawatt hour (+50%), these countries are bolstering their coffers and can consider buying social peace, particularly in order to cope with the sudden rise in the price of wheat and other raw materials. The main beneficiaries are Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Libya, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates; Iran to a much lesser extent, since the quantity of hydrocarbons that the Islamic Republic can export is very limited by the weight of the sanctions, which leads it to hope for a favorable and rapid outcome of the Vienna negotiations to be able to fill its coffers again. Tehran has also proposed to the Europeans to deliver gas [3] to them on a massive scale. By replacing Russia to supply European countries that were previously very dependent on Russian deliveries, these states can also hope to restore their image in the eyes of the West, especially for the most autocratic among them.

Putting Russia on the index. The countries which host official or informal Russian bases (Syria, Sudan, Libya), as well as the states which maintain strong links with Russia (Algeria, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia) risk being summoned to choose sides, or failing that to incur a certain form of isolation. The two most targeted countries are undoubtedly Syria and Sudan. The others have assets that give them some room for negotiation, such as Egypt, whose isolation and instability would have immediate repercussions on the security of the Suez Canal. For this reason, President Sissi cultivates good relations with the five permanent members of the Security Council.

On the other hand, those who are awaiting the delivery of Russian arms (Algeria, Egypt, Syria), who were negotiating important arms contracts (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) or who depend on the Kremlin to supply their stocks of ammunition and spare parts (UAE, Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen) may have to wait a long time. There is no doubt that the Americans, Chinese, Europeans, Turks, and Israelis see this as an opportunity to regain market share in the long term.

THOSE WHO ARE LIKELY TO SUFFER

Countries that have little or no hydrocarbon resources and that will have to buy their oil, gasoline, gas, and wheat even more expensively will undoubtedly suffer, especially if they are diplomatically isolated because of their proximity to Russia and if they are penalized by a large population and a fragile economic situation. Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Yemen, Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Egypt and Iraq seem particularly vulnerable today.

THOSE WHO COULD MAKE THE MOST OF THE GAME

Algeria could take advantage of this crisis to make a change of alliance by turning away from Russia to turn resolutely towards Germany, Spain, and Italy, with which it has forged strong partnerships in recent years (energy, arms), but also towards Turkey, which is becoming increasingly popular in Algeria. In exchange for massive deliveries of gas at good prices, Germany could invest heavily in Algeria to modernize the gas and oil infrastructure, to develop the renewable energy sector and to support the Algerian regime diplomatically on the regional scene while promoting its cause with the European Union. Germany and Turkey (and to a lesser extent Spain and Italy) could take advantage of this to replace Russia as the main suppliers of the latest weapons to Algeria. A strategic partnership with Turkey would allow Algeria to counter the Morocco-Israel-US axis and to negotiate the future of Libya under better conditions. China, unless it follows Russia’s example by invading Taiwan, would remain a privileged economic partner for Algiers. This development would undeniably put France and Morocco in difficulty. The main obstacle to this scenario, however, is the ideological proximity of the Algerian old guard to the proto-Soviet model advocated by both the FLN and Vladimir Putin.

Libya seems to be on the way to agreeing on a national unity formula that preserves the interests of each of the main protagonists. The neutralization of Russia, at least for a while, and the gradual fading of the United Arab Emirates, which has other more pressing concerns to deal with, could facilitate the resolution of the crisis. Libya remains a rich and relatively sparsely populated country – and therefore less vulnerable to socio-economic risks – which benefits from the upturn in hydrocarbon prices. Anticipating an agreement that would not be in its favor, Russia is strengthening its military presence in Libya.

Qatar should also benefit from the consequences of the war in Ukraine. The dramatic rise in gas prices and the temporary ostracization of Russia by the Gulf monarchies (Qatar never got close to the Kremlin), as well as the prospect of an agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue, structurally strengthen Qatar’s room for negotiation in the region and its role as the new preferred intermediary of the United States in the Middle East. However, this observation is subject to two conditions: that Joe Biden does not lose both houses in the November 2022 mid-term elections and that a Democratic administration remains in power in Washington at the end of his term. The Republicans are notoriously less supportive.

THREE SPECIAL CASES: ISRAEL, IRAN AND TURKEY

The invasion of Ukraine is very bad news for Israel, which has many citizens of Russian and Ukrainian origin, not to mention the many Jewish oligarchs who hold either Russian or Ukrainian passports. Several of them have fled to Israel in the past few days. Israel has strong economic ties to both countries, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is of Jewish origin, which is very important to Israeli society; his assimilation to a “Nazi” is not acceptable in Israel. The failure of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s first attempt at good offices shows Israel’s limited influence in this matter, even if Vladimir Putin subsequently agreed to receive him in Moscow. For the already weakened Israeli Prime Minister, taking sides with either of the belligerents would mean alienating the voters he needs to stay in power. In fact, the Israeli executive refuses to deliver new weapons (armed and suicide drones, anti-aircraft, and anti-tank missiles) to Ukraine and divides up the roles: Naftali Bennet talks to the Russians and the Europeans; Deputy Prime Minister Yair Lapid talks to the Ukrainians and the Americans.

Beyond the economic and political dimension, Israel needs Russia strategically to contain Iran in Syria and Lebanon, but above all to push the Pasdaran out of Syria. By condemning the Russian invasion as they did during the UN General Assembly vote, the Israelis know that they are annoying the Russians, who may be tempted to make a pact with Iranian forces in Syria, while at the same time provoking them to attack Israel, especially if the Vienna negotiations on the nuclear issue fail. They also know that it would be much more difficult for them to strike Iranian interests in the Levant if the Russians activated their denial of access bubble in the face of the Israeli air force. Above all, Israel knows that it will no longer be able to count (A2AD) on Russia to deal with an Iran close to the nuclear threshold if the Vienna negotiations fail. And in the event of an agreement, it is the United States that will exert pressure on Israel not to sabotage Iran’s return to the JCPOA. Israel is thus increasingly isolated on the regional scene, even if the Abraham Accords open up interesting prospects for it. More than ever, many Israeli officials consider that Israel can now only count on itself. Does this mean that they plan to remove the ambiguity about their nuclear arsenal?

The war in Ukraine is not better news for Iran, as it increases tensions, internal divisions and the risk of China taking an even stronger hold on the country in the long term. The Iranian government has therefore been very cautious in its positions, refusing to support Russia without condemning it, stigmatizing NATO without directly attacking the United States. It also abstained from the vote in the General Assembly. He knows that in order to hope for an agreement in Vienna, he has to appease both Moscow and Washington.

All those in Iran who reject democracy and dream of revenge against the West are delighted to see Vladimir Putin openly challenging the Americans and Europeans. But these same people understand that a military confrontation between Russia and the West would be harmful to Iran if the conflict were to spread to the Middle East, especially if Israel took advantage of the situation to intervene militarily in Lebanon or Syria to eliminate Hezbollah for good, with a view to an Iran that has reached the nuclear threshold. It is probably the meaning of the recent Iranian ballistic missile strike hitting alleyed Israeli assets in Erbil (Iraq) on March 13th. They also suspect that a defeat for Vladimir Putin would encourage protest in Iran. For their part, all those who hope for a positive conclusion to the Vienna negotiations in order to bring cash into the state coffers fear that the diplomatic polarization linked to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will cause the negotiations to fail, to the great benefit of China. They are worried about the recent statements of Sergei Lavrov, who is holding the compromise reached by American and Iranian negotiators hostage. In the meantime, they are delighted with the surge in hydrocarbon prices, which offers them an unexpected boost.

Those who advocate the failure of the Vienna negotiations, believing that Iran would have every interest in getting closer to the nuclear threshold (like former Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the National Security Council), point out that Ukraine would not have been invaded by Russia today if it had kept its nuclear arsenal in the aftermath of the Cold War. Finally, the military, which is hoping for large deliveries of arms from Russia, which are essential for modernizing its obsolete equipment, understands that a stalemate in the war in Ukraine, as well as the placing of Russia under an embargo, will not allow them to obtain the desired arms; they are therefore hoping for a rapid victory for the Kremlin or, failing that, for a cessation of hostilities, as are those who fear that Russia will no longer be able to ensure the maintenance of the civilian nuclear power plant in Bouchehr (under the supervision of the IAEA).

The Russian-Ukrainian war presents Turkey with a dilemma because, like Israel, it maintains close relations with both belligerents. It has been moving closer to Ukraine for several years, especially in the industrial and arms fields, but needs Russia in the fields of energy (including civil nuclear power), tourism, trade and arms. As the guardian of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits (Montreux Convention of 1936), it knows that a head-on collision with Russia would have serious military, economic and strategic consequences. It would be difficult for it to challenge Russian air-sea supremacy in the Black Sea.

Its membership in NATO and its historical role as the shield of the Southern Flank against the USSR, then against Russia and Iran, have certainly pushed the United States to ask it the question of confidence: “are you with us or against us?” President R.T. Erdogan’s statements show that he has provisionally chosen his camp, that of the United States and the Atlantic Alliance, at least while waiting to see how the conflict will evolve [4].

The Turkish president does not spare the Kremlin any less. He refuses to apply the economic sanctions against Russia, just as he refuses to deliver to Kiev the arms (UAVs and missiles) that Ukraine declares itself ready to buy. It continues to transport Russian gas through its territory, has not suspended Russian flights over its territory and has instructed its representative in Strasbourg to abstain from the vote temporarily suspending Russia from the Council of Europe. Although he threatened to close the straits to Russian ships under Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, which allows ships of belligerent nations to be prevented from leaving, he did not carry out his threat. However, it has discreetly sent Syrian mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, recalling that the Crimea was an Ottoman land populated by Turkish-speaking Tatars.

For the moment, Turkey is playing the good pupil in NATO, cooperating with the Atlantic Alliance’s navies, and muffling its resentments and provocations against the European Union. But what would happen if European unity were to crack in the face of the war in Ukraine, if the United States were to turn sharply to the Asian front, or if Vladimir Putin were to succeed in securing a ceasefire that was favorable to him?

*****

It is too early to assess the durability of the impacts of the war in Ukraine on the North Africa and Middle East region. But if Russia’s marginalization persists and if the European states most concerned with the future of this region do not seize this opportunity to re-engage, it is possible that China will take advantage of it to advance its pawns all over the place, thus improving its position vis-à-vis the United States, provided that it has not also embarked on a military adventure. One thing seems certain: the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, and Israel are watching with the utmost attention how the European Union and NATO will position themselves and manage the post-conflict situation when it arises. Any sign of weakness or pusillanimity will then be paid for dearly and in cash.

Pierre Razoux

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