The Ukraine War: The Arab World is Not Immune

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a geopolitical event that will have serious global repercussions that go beyond the military aspects of the conflict. Indeed, the world is likely to experience long-term impacts on food and fuel supplies that originate in both Ukraine and Russia and that are now threatened because of military operations and the slew of sanctions imposed on the latter by the international community. The Arab world is to receive its commensurate share of these impacts because it is both a major importer of food staples from Ukraine and Russia and an important player in the international energy market.

Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) asked a group of its fellows and associates to comment on the Ukraine-Russia crisis and discuss the potential repercussions arising out of it. Their analyses are offered below.

Ukraine: From Breadbasket to Basket Case: Implications for the Middle East

Khalil E. Jahshan, ACW Executive Director

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and the political turmoil it has caused, have already revealed a broad and multifaceted impact on world order. The implications are as significant for neighboring European countries as they are for distant lands in North and South America, Africa, and Asia, including the Middle East.

Ukraine has been historically dubbed as the breadbasket of Europe. The country is blessed with the most fertile soil on earth that is particularly suitable for grain growing such as wheat, barley, corn, and rye. This rendered Ukraine a crucial global source of food. According to food and agriculture analyst Alex Smith, the country exported 18 million metric tons of wheat in 2020, making it the world’s fifth largest wheat exporter. Oliver Morrison reports in the Foodnavigator.com, that Ukraine accounts for 12 percent of global wheat exports, 16 percent of corn and 18 percent of barley. Therefore, it is not surprising at all for European consumers to voice their serious concerns in recent days about potential rising prices of such commodities as bread and baked goods.

This fear is not limited to Europe when one factors in the lengthy list of international consumers of Ukrainian agricultural products, including those in the Middle East. Countries like Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, and Libya are among the top buyers of grain from either Ukraine or Russia. As Smith highlights, 50 percent of wheat consumption in Lebanon in 2020, 43 percent in Libya, 22 percent in Yemen, and 14 percent in Egypt came from Ukraine.

The threat of disruption, shortages, and higher global prices resulting from the Ukraine war thus is real and unsettling for these countries, as well as for many others. To be sure, the anticipation of hunger, rising poverty rates, and potential food riots in parts of the world is not an alarmist or far-fetched prediction. As Sarah Benhaida reported in AFP, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could mean less bread on the table in Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world where millions already struggle to survive.”

Ukraine Crisis Raises Energy Prices

Imad Harb, ACW Director of Research and Analysis

It was inevitable that Russia’s war on Ukraine was going to have serious repercussions on the energy market, not only in Europe but also worldwide. Russia is a major exporter of oil and natural gas and any disruption of these supplies will cause a perceptible rise in the price of these commodities. Indeed, military operations, divestment, withdrawal of major oil corporations from Russia, and the impositions of different kinds of sanctions on Moscow have caused a jump in the price of oil to $114 per barrel. Such a price was registered during the pre-2008-2009 financial crisis that began a global recession hitting oil-dependent economies and many other countries that relied on them. Coupled with other objective conditions affecting the international economy—such as supply chain problems and pandemic restrictions on production—such a price will worsen inflation rates and subsequently slow growth in large and small economies around the world.

In the Arab world, a rise in the price of crude or natural gas resulting from smaller supplies will naturally be welcome by economic officials and elites because it adds revenue to state coffers. Such countries as those of the Gulf Cooperation Council, will obviously see advantage compared to poor price performance over the last decade or so, which might ease their economic retrenchment and help them expand economic activities. Others like Algeria, Iraq, and Libya will find for themselves a good opportunity to replenish their finances. But in the latter three, governments must be keen to resolve problems of corruption and official malfeasance in order to help address the many social ills facing their populations. But overall, a better economic outlook in all oil-producing Arab countries is likely to help other states that are dependent on remittances by their citizens.

On the other hand, there remains the question of politics and political interests. While no one can predict how the war on Ukraine will develop, there is apparent hedging on criticizing Russia by the oil- and gas-producing nations as well as other states in the Arab world. But the United Arab Emirates abstained on a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Russian attack, a resolution that was sponsored and shepherded through the council by none other than the United States. Saudi Arabia turned down Biden Administration requests to increase its oil production to ease price concerns. The two are partners with Russia in OPEC+ and do not want to upset agreements on prices and production levels. Qatar was asked by the Biden Administration to help address any gas shortages in Europe should Russia cut off supplies. While promising to look into the matter, Qatar may not be totally free to accommodate because of its prior commitments to consumers in East Asia. Elsewhere in the Arab world, and except for Syria which supported the Russian position, there was almost unanimity on remaining neutral in the war.

Deep Division in the Arab World

Marwan Kabalan, Director, Unit for Political Studies, ACRPS, Doha, Qatar

Like on every other issue, the Arab world is deeply divided on the Ukraine crisis, both on the governmental and public opinion level. In the Gulf, for example, one can distinguish two very different official attitudes. Although historical partners of the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have tried to take a neutral position. Notwithstanding US pressure, Saudi Arabia refused to increase oil production to moderate crude prices, which soared following the Russian invasion. Instead, Riyadh reaffirmed its commitment to the 2020 OPEC+ agreement with Russia to cut back production and curb price collapse. The UAE went even further by abstaining on a US-sponsored draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council that condemned Russia’s action and demanded its withdrawal. The Saudi and UAE positions reflect their complicated relationship with the Biden Administration and their desire to diversify their international relationships as the United States shifts its attention away from the Gulf. The two countries have in recent years developed their relations with both Moscow and Beijing, including in the military field.

The smaller Gulf states, by contrast, have shown a completely different attitude. Although careful not to be drawn into the polarization between Russia and the West, both Qatar and Kuwait have expressed concerns about military escalation. Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, called for the protection of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The Qatari and Kuwaiti position reflects the security dilemma of the smaller Gulf states and their skepticism of big power intentions.

At the emergency special session of the UN General Assembly on March 2nd, disunity among the Arab states over Ukraine crisis was on full display. Fifteen Arab states voted in favor of a resolution denouncing the Russian invasion and demanding that Moscow withdraw its forces from Ukraine. Three Arab governments abstained—Algeria, Sudan and Iraq—and one, Syria, voted against the resolution.

Divisions in Arab public opinion were no less profound. Social media was an arena of heated public debate on the Ukraine crisis. Part of the Arab public opposed the Russian invasion on the grounds that Ukraine, as an independent state, should have the right to chart its own foreign policy and choose its security alliances. Another part slammed “western hypocrisy” which supports Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion but calls the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation terrorism. A third group criticized what they called “racism” and bias against Arabs and Muslims reflected in the way Middle Eastern refugees were treated by European countries compared to the more generous treatment of the blue-eyed, blond-haired Ukrainian refugees.

Reflections on the US Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Laurie King, Professor of Anthropology, Georgetown University, and ACW Board Member

Just a month ago, no one—including US President Joseph Biden—could have foreseen that this year’s State of the Union address would focus on Ukraine or any other foreign policy issue besides the rising power of China. The United States is facing a bleak economic future, is still trying to tame a pandemic, and is witnessing growing rifts between Democrats and Republicans. In January, it seemed likely that the address would attempt to suture America’s self-inflicted wounds in an effort to fashion some common ground to bring a fractured nation back together.

For two weeks prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to attack Ukraine, however, a torrent of news reports, analyses, special features, and social media posts predicted that an invasion, maybe even a regional war, was imminent. US media focus on COVID-19, voter suppression, inflation, income disparities, and the January 6th investigation into the attack on the US Capitol suddenly faded into the background, and a conflict-riven America appeared to be closing ranks in opposition to Russia’s illegal and dangerous actions. The last “just war” that the United States fought—World War II—is a fundamental part of the myth of America’s goodness, bravery, and importance in protecting the “free world,” a phrase that crops up increasingly in newscasts and analyses about Ukraine.

Similarly, paeans to the “West” and its moral superiority grow louder by the day. Framing the current situation in Ukraine as a battle between democracy and autocracy, Biden declared that America will never stand silent in the face of Putin’s belligerence and megalomania. It was America’s sacred duty, he said, to stand on the side of the right and the just, and not grant impunity to those who violate international law. A Manichean framing of binaries like “Us/Them,” “Good/Evil,” “Democracy/Tyranny,” and “Western/Other” plays well and resonates profoundly, particularly after the unprecedented ugliness of Donald Trump’s presidency, which culminated in the frightening siege of the US Capitol last year.

During crises like this, it is common for politicians and the media to present the United States as a monolithic entity, and to state that domestic partisan politics should “end at the water’s edge.” We are living in an era of rising seas and blurred shorelines, literally and figuratively. Domestic and foreign policy concerns are difficult to disentangle and place into different water-tight boxes. With one third of Americans still enthralled by Trump and his jingoistic promises to “Make America Great Again,” and more than half of registered republican voters expressing doubts about the legitimacy of the result of the 2020 presidential election, America is a nation plunged in crises that may well be insurmountable.

Furthermore, decrying the military invasion of a sovereign state in Europe as an appalling violation of international law rings hollow when the United States and the United Kingdom did something quite similar in Iraq 19 years ago. And anyone remotely familiar with the suffering of Palestinians under the US-backed Israeli military occupation is likely saying: “so now there’s something called international law?” Syrian victims of Assad’s brutality—aided and abetted by none other than Vladimir Putin—are also wondering why no one called Putin to account seven years ago when he began his intervention to save the Syrian dictator.

The State of the Union address is not a policy instrument, but rather, a political ritual and a litmus test for the incumbent party’s strength and survival—especially during a mid-term election year. Just as Russia today is not the Soviet Union, America today is no longer an “indispensable nation,” as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described it, but rather, a wounded and fragmented society slouching toward a possible, and dreadful, civil war.

Certainly, the United States—and any nation desiring peace, justice, and prosperity—must condemn Vladimir Putin’s thuggish actions unequivocally and help prevent a war in Europe that could possibly witness the use of nuclear weapons. Doing this successfully is imperative, but will be difficult when various toxic tides are inundating America’s eroding shorelines, and hypocritical applications of international law remain unaddressed by the international community.

The Russia-Ukraine Crisis Exposes the West’s Double Standards

Tamara Kharroub, ACW Deputy Executive Director

Russia’s recent attack on Ukraine produced little hesitation from the international political community, and rightfully so, in condemning the attack and supporting the plight of Ukrainians. The outpouring of calls to protect the families fleeing the Russian invasion (almost 1.5 million became displaced so far) has been particularly prevalent in the western media and political discourse. The world stood in unity against Russian aggression, as famous monuments around the globe were lit with the colors of the Ukrainian flag, even President Biden’s State of the Union address exhibited rare moments of bipartisan standing ovations and a supportive show of Ukrainian flags across the aisle. It is heartwarming to see global and bipartisan unity against war and occupation and in support of Ukrainian sovereignty and protection of civilians. It might even restore one’s faith in the global political system if it weren’t for the blatant hypocrisy and bigotry that were exposed by this crisis. The racist bias is hard to ignore and clearly reveals the double standards applied by western media and politicians, based on the identity of the victims and the perpetrators.

First, the bias was evident in the media reporting of the refugee crisis. Numerous reporters at reputable media outlets pointed to the fact that Ukrainian refugees are Christian Europeans “who look like us” and “watch Netflix” as more deserving of empathy or humanity; some even called them “civilized” as opposed to Middle Eastern refugees from Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere in “the third world” who, one might surmise, are somehow deserving of the suffering and displacement they experience. The ultimate test of journalistic ethics and standards is reporting in real-time under the pressure of an imminent military campaign, and the western media has failed. This is not a one-off incident or a human error, but pervasive implicit racism and ethnocentrism that reflects a systematic bias, where references to skin color, religion, or place of origin are used to assess whether people are deserving of dignity and rights. The dehumanization of non-white or non-European war victims is a staple of colonial and neo-colonial narratives that still prevail in Western journalism today and are historically known to lead to the justification of violence and genocide. What this shadow crisis of journalism should elicit is a serious assessment of journalistic values and training and a questioning of this duality in reporting. It should also necessitate diversifying newsroom personnel and implementing mechanisms to hold accountable reporters who perpetuate such bigotry and orientalist ignorance.

A similar yet distinct exposé of this crisis is how western media and politics perceive Palestinian rights, resistance, and humanity. The media’s clear and unequivocal stance on the Russian aggression stands in stark contrast to its near-silence and reporting on Israeli aggression and Palestinian suffering for 74 years. While parallels have been drawn between Ukraine and Palestine, the global response is anything but. The swift worldwide sanctioning of Russia—including financial sanctions by the United States and European countries and boycotts by athletic and cultural organizations like FIFA, Eurovision, and others who have always insisted on their non-political stance when it came to boycotting Israel—is considered both a legitimate and necessary moral response to its violations of international law and human rights in Ukraine. But the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s violations of international law and human rights in Palestine is quickly criminalized across Europe and North America as anti-Semitic. More glaring is the West’s open support and celebration of armed resistance against Russian attacks as acts of civilian heroism, while besieged Palestinians have been denied the right to self-defense for decades; even their peaceful BDS protest is framed as illegitimate and bigoted. The international response to the Ukrainian crisis and the contrasting persistent dehumanization of Palestinian victims illustrates the selective application of international law and framing of legitimacy by global powers.

The scale of hypocrisy and double standards revealed by this crisis can serve as a watershed moment that opens the door for direct comparisons of treatments of victims of war violence. It is an opportunity to ascertain whether these will be provided protection and humanity irrespective of their identity and whether sanctions and boycotts can be normalized as instruments of international law that should be enforced regardless of the skin color or origin of the victims and the political alliances of the perpetrators.

Is a New World Order Emerging?

Amal Ghazal, Dean, School of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Doha Institute, Doha, Qatar

Answering the question depends on where you sit. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is considered a threat to the liberal order that emerged after WWII, which is defined as championing democracy, the rule of law, and free trade, all tied to American military might. The invasion is also a direct threat to European security, guaranteed as it is by NATO. As a reaction to the invasion, there have been swift changes in the European Union’s foreign policy that are best exemplified by Germany’s decision to increase its military spending significantly, and its willingness to send rockets and missiles to Ukraine. The focal point of its foreign policy has changed from the economy to security and defense. Even Switzerland took an unprecedented step and froze assets of Russian oligarchs. The United States is confronting the Russian threat and the Russia-China entente in more concrete ways and has rallied its allies to agree on imposing sanctions on Russia.

If this is a new world order, it then signals a bipolar world, led by NATO on one side, and by a Russian-Chinese alliance on the other. China has economic and military power and Russia has the nuclear arsenal. Both despise the liberal order with the United States at its helm.

But this new world order does not look new to everybody. If it intends to undermine a democratic order and foster an authoritarian one, then what is new for most of the Southern hemisphere?

The liberal order that emerged after WWII was never global to start with. Law, order, democracy, and free trade have not been the pillars of governance in many countries. American military might has not been used to secure liberalism but to defend and entrench authoritarianism in many non-Western states, and even aids settler colonialism, as is the case in Palestine. And as a new world order was emerging—defined by growing Chinese influence and Russian warmongering and political adventures—wars were already raging in different spots, some as proxy wars. Syria is a good example.

A new order may indeed be emerging, but it does not appear to be global.

Amal Ghazal

Professor of History and Director of the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures

Simon Fraser University

Headshot of Imad K. Harb
Imad K. Harb

Director of Research and Analysis

@harb3imad

Marwan Kabalan

Director of Policy Analysis

Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies

Laurie King
Laurie King

Associate Professor of Anthropology

@Zinjabeelah

Tamara Kharroub

Deputy Executive Director & Senior Fellow

@tamarakharroub1