Although the West may have rallied around Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, it is not likely that they did so quickly. However, many people in the Arab world took their own time after Russia invaded Ukraine. They paused long enough to send messages to Washington.
The first United Nations Security Council resolution against the invasion of Ukraine was proposed on Feb. 25, and the United Arab Emirates, a key U.S. ally, abstained, later issuing public statements that some interpreted as considering Russia’s stated grievances legitimate. Three days later, the Arab League, which brings together 22 Arab states, issued a statement that failed to condemn Russia’s invasion and offered little support to the Ukrainians.
However, things changed just a couple of days later. It was the UAE as well as Saudi Arabian and Egyptian, who were two of most powerful Arab nations, that voted against Russia in the U.N. General Assembly. Clearly, Western—particularly American—pressure had done its work. But, given the fact that the Arab political elite was almost entirely aligned with DC and the West as a whole, what pressure had been necessary to even exist? Especially over such a clear-cut case of the breaking of a state’s sovereignty, which even the most dictatorial of autocrats in the region are keen to uphold?
These factors include many.
There’s only one Arab leadership that is genuinely pro-Putin: the Assad regime in Syria. All other Arab states are primarily focused on their Western connections, with no attempt to pivot towards Moscow. However, this doesn’t mean Arab states cannot be. hostileAccording to the Kremlin. They generally see in Russia a substantial global power that continues have relevance in their region—and sometimes intervenes in ways that are helpful to their interests. Moscow is also a useful capital to publicly ‘flirt’ with when relations are strained with Western capitals (particularly D.C.).
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So Arab states’ complex reactions to the Ukraine invasion is far less about Russia than it is about the West. In the last decade, Arab leaders began to feel that the West was not a reliable partner. Part of that has to do with their autocratic expectation that the West would stand by Western-allied autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak during the Arab uprisings of 2011, a stance that frankly would have been consistent with Western policy until then and since. But there has also been a keen awareness that the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, has failed to show the will to hold its own in several theatres: from the so-called ‘red-line’ in Syria over chemical weapons in 2013, to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, to the chaotic abandoning of Afghanistan in 2021. Many Arab leaders also note with concern that America’s “pivot to Asia” is a pivot away from the Arab region.
In the early days of the Russian invasion, it was clear that Arab states wanted to keep their options as open as possible, and not alienate Moscow if they didn’t need to. That doesn’t make them pro-Moscow; it means they assess that the world as becoming more multi-polar, and that the West had not given much indication that there would be much of a cost to trying to be “creatively neutral.”
That’s changed. The West has signaled that Russia’s invasion is not a case where ‘neutrality’ is going to work, at least not if states want to continue the same kind of close relationship that has so far characterised most Arab-Western ties. Arab states know that if they want to continue with their modernisation drives—in terms of technical developments, technology and investment—there is no substitute at present for the West.
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However, this does not make tensions go away. Mohammed bin Salman is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and is still a bit of a political pariah here because it is widely believed that he ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. He is now trying to take advantage of the situation to get concessions from President Biden. MBS wants recognition of his de-facto status—as former president Donald Trump gave him—and he’s willing to resist pumping more crude oil to lower the price of oil, which surged in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, until he gets that recognition. According to recent reports, MBS could get his wish.
It’s doubtful any of this is going to look the same a year or two from now. The West is currently remodulating how it engages internationally—and all of that is going to have an impact on various relationships with the wider Arab world. The Arab countries will make their own decisions about how they navigate these same relationships. But it’s not an underestimation to note that the Russian invasion has called into question some very basic assumptions in those relationships—and it remains to be seen what the new assumptions are going to be.