Middle Eastern Countries Hedge Their Bets on a War That Isn’t Theirs

Faisal Al Yafai

Image courtesy of Michael M. Santiago / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

When the United Nations gathered at the very start of March to issue a resolution against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the votes were overwhelmingly in favor.

But in the days after, as the list of sanctions spearheaded by Washington were outlined, a stark divergence emerged between the West and the rest. Sanctions – the main punishment for Russia’s attack on its neighbor – were being primarily applied by European and North American countries. The rest of the world was hedging their bets on Russia, issuing political condemnation but not participating in economic pain.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Middle East, where even traditional US allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel have been circumspect, reluctant to offer either full-throated criticism of Russia, or unequivocal support for the Western-led sanctions program.

Each, in their own way, has looked at a changing world and wondered if the Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador might have spoken for them when he said, “We do not consider that [this war] concerns us.” Middle Eastern countries have their own reasons, of course, for not following America’s lead, but most have to do with the wars of the region. Vladimir Putin’s intervention on the side of the Assad regime in Damascus has put Russia at the very center of Turkish foreign policy considerations; the two countries also have close defense and energy ties.

The same is true for Israel, which is now constrained in its movements over Syrian airspace by Russian fighter jets. A rift with Russia could allow Iranian forces and those of Hezbollah to operate all the way up to Israel’s de facto borders. Russian defense systems at its base in Syria are even affecting commercial air traffic at Tel Aviv’s airport.

Differences between the White House and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are well-known, and stretch back beyond the Ukraine war. But the two major Arab oil suppliers have seemed reluctant to simply agree to an increase in oil output, which would pressure Russia while also easing pressure on American consumers, perhaps seeking political concessions.

Nor is it only the Middle East.

Of the 35 countries which abstained from the March 2 UN resolution, a majority were from Africa. Many in Africa – both in politics and among the people – still remember the role the Soviet Union played in struggles against colonialism. In other places, such as Angola, which abstained, there are still close business connections between the two countries. Russia’s defense industry, still the largest supplier of arms to sub-Saharan Africa, also plays a role.

The other notable abstention was India. Both of the world’s two most populous countries abstained, but China, as an aspiring superpower, had its own reasons, to do with opposing the US-led global order. India’s calculations, however, are closer to those of Middle Eastern countries. There are long-standing defense relations with Russia, and there is the hard realism of recognizing how close Russia is geographically to India. As close as India wants to be to the US, it also faces a tricky balancing act in Asia – trying to retain some influence with Russia so that Moscow doesn’t tilt too close to Beijing.

What the war in Ukraine, and in particular the swift and united use of sanctions by the West, has exposed is a changing world, but one whose new contours are not yet clear.

Such a direct and prolonged land war on the very borders of Nato was unexpected. In terms of its effect on geopolitics, some have compared it to the September 11, 2001 attacks, or the Iraq invasion.

Yet the political camps of this war are not quite as clear cut as those at the time of those two events. For one thing, at the time, a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union and before China had completed its rise to a global power, the United States and the West were the only game in town. The world looks very different now, with two failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an ignominious scramble by the superpower to get out of the latter just last year.

Many countries are simply not sure what this new world might look like. They are not seeking precisely to match the Non-Aligned Movement of the Cold War, but are perhaps not sure they can completely throw their lot in with one side or another – especially considering the so-far opaqueness of China’s involvement.

That is the difference between the West and much of the rest of the world. They don’t support Russia directly but they also don’t feel this war is a direct threat to them – at least not yet.

Instead of viewing it as an event that fundamentally reshapes geopolitics – and that therefore requires an unprecedented response – many countries still view it through the lens of their own national interests. In other words, as shocking as the war seems in Europe, it is politics as usual elsewhere.

That explains why even countries like Turkey that, in a hypothetical major conflict with Russia, would be very close to the front lines – and which remains the second largest army in the Nato alliance that would fight that war – is engaged in strategic balancing.

Most of the countries that abstained from the UN vote or voted in favor of it only to subsequently quietly decline to apply sanctions on Russia have used a version of the formulation that both sides ought to talk peace or that war solves little. But the formulation is merely a rhetorical gloss on a much deeper political difference between the West and the rest: For most of the rest, they don’t believe that Ukraine is their war.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.