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Arab neutrality over Ukraine is threatened by Western pressure to condemn Russia

Ukraine Permanent Representative to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya speaks during the United Nations Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters on February 28, 2022 in New York City [ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images]
Ukraine Permanent Representative to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya speaks during the United Nations Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters on February 28, 2022 in New York City [ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images]

Most Middle East countries have sought to adopt a neutral position on the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, and not take sides. They're doing so in the hope that they will anger neither Russia nor the United States, which appears to be a main party in the crisis.

Some of Washington's partners and allies have tried to build a network of relations with Russia or China after the Trump administration abandoned its allies in the face of Iranian threats. The current administration of President Joe Biden is continuing to implement the policy of his predecessor Barack Obama, which was to disengage from Middle East issues and focus instead on the supposed threats to US national security from Russia and China.

US relations with regional countries have, for decades, been military and security alliances; the Middle East is a hugely lucrative market for US arms. Meanwhile, Russia has become a major trading partner and another source of arms in the region. Egypt relies on Russian weapons and coordinates with Moscow to preserve its interests in Libya, where Russia plays an important role. Moreover, Moscow is a real partner of Riyadh when it comes to controlling oil prices in the global market.

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Saudi Arabia has rejected several requests from Washington to increase oil production so as to limit the price rise. According to the latest data, the price has now passed $119 per barrel of Brent crude, the international benchmark; it was $79 per barrel in the last quarter of 2021.

Many Arab countries believe that the war in Ukraine will expose the reality about Washington's commitment to defending its allies, of which Ukraine is one. It will also reveal America's willingness to change its policies in the Middle East. Trump, remember, basically abandoned Saudi Arabia and did not leap to its defence when its oil facilities were attacked in September 2019, disrupting production.

In 2013, the Obama administration set red lines on the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons. However, the then US president did not carry out his threats when regime forces used chemical weapons in towns in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. The regime launched similar attacks on Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, to which Trump responded with limited missile strikes on the Shayrat Air Base without causing any real damage.

Chemical attack on Syria - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Chemical attack in Syria – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

On the public level, Arabs are still sharply divided between supporting and opposing what is going on in Ukraine. Some welcome what is happening to the Ukrainian people, out of hostility to US policies in the region against what is known as the "axis of resistance". The US is also perceived to have abandoned its Arab and Gulf allies whose governments have had strategic alliances with Washington in the "war on terror" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Illustrating the lack of any Arab consensus, in Lebanon the foreign ministry condemned the Russian war in Ukraine, whereas the influential Hezbollah movement objected to such a position. This can also be seen in the fact that more and more Arabs are opposing the Russian invasion, while making comparisons with the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Such views are reflected in the rejection of all foreign interference in Libya, Syria and Yemen, as well as Iraq.

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There is also a commonly-held belief that the Russia-Ukraine war has exposed Western double standards towards Arab and Muslim issues, as well as the hypocrisy of the international community which was silent about or backed the US invasion of Iraq. The international community rushed to issue UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia and imposing sanctions less than a week after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, it has yet to impose sanctions on Moscow with regard to Russia's intervention in Syria which started in 2015. This has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more.

Regional countries voting to condemn Russia included the six Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Comoros, Mauritania and Somalia. Five countries voted against the resolution: Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria. The latter was the only dissenting Arab country. Thirty-five countries abstained, notably China, India, South Africa, Pakistan, Iran and Cuba, as well as Algeria, Iraq and Sudan.

The vote in the UN General Assembly followed a massive diplomatic campaign and explicit pressure on US allies which have developed relations with Russia over the past few years. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among the regional countries facing such pressure.

Egypt also called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League, which urged the need for a diplomatic solution to the "crisis in Ukraine". The umbrella body acknowledged the "close relations" between Arab countries and both Russia and Ukraine.

As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UAE joined India and China in abstaining from the vote on a binding resolution drafted by the US and Albania condemning Russia's "aggression". The resolution was, unsurprisingly, vetoed by Moscow.

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According to statements by UAE officials, its abstention stemmed from the belief that taking sides will only lead to more violence and bloodshed. However, the US believes that those countries that sit on the fence are aligned with Russia, and are therefore in Moscow's camp against Washington.

Analysts conclude that Russian President Vladimir Putin understands that several Arab countries do not trust the US to be a reliable ally. He has been working to take advantage of this since the end of Obama's term in office, because the latter's regional strategies underpin those of the Biden administration.

The general Arab position, therefore, remains that there is a wish to strengthen relations with Russia, without damaging relations with the US. The US, however, is pressing Arab countries to adopt a stance against the Russian war in Ukraine. This pressure threatens Arab neutrality.

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

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