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A Ukrainian serviceman carries an NLAW anti-tank weapon
NATO said there were no signs of an easing of tensions over UkraineImage: picture alliance/Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo

How the Ukraine crisis could affect the Middle East

Jennifer Holleis | Kersten Knipp
February 16, 2022

An escalation of the tensions over Ukraine could have far-reaching consequences for the Middle East. Many Arab countries would be severely affected.

https://p.dw.com/p/477ZR

After a brief moment of relief, concerns about a possible war over Ukraine have been on the rise again on Wednesday. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that so far, the alliance had not seen a de-escalation on the ground. On the contrary, Russia appeared to be continuing its military build-up.

However, an escalation of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine would not be limited to Europe alone but would have significant ripple effects in the Middle East and North Africa as well.

Here's an overview of how a potential war could affect vital food supplies, global energy routes and regional stability.

Libya

The war-torn country is among the first that would be directly affected by an open conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

"Russia maintains the Al Jufra air base which it could immediately mobilize in an event of war with Ukraine," Sami Hamdi, managing director of International Interest, a global risk and intelligence firm in London, told DW.

For Libya, the tensions between Russia and Ukraine come at a period of extreme internal instability

In December, national elections were called off, and — in opposition to the UN-recognized government in Tripoli — Russia has been a firm supporter of the eastern-based General Khalifa Haftar in Tobruk.

"We might suddenly see a new international willingness to engage with Haftar, who's been in the cold with regards to Washington and other European powers in the past," Hamdi told DW.

Political analyst Cinzia Bianco also fears that Moscow could try to put pressure on Europe through a new wave of refugees coming from Libya. "Refugees are used as leverage. You could see how that works last fall on the Belarus-Poland border," she told DW.

Migrants on a small vessel in the Mediterranean Sea
Renewed conflict in Libya would likely lead to more refugees heading to EuropeImage: Mission Lifeline/dpa/picture alliance

Syria

Russia also has forces in Syria. It maintains a naval port and an air base in the city of Tartus. With this, the close ally of the Assad regime could be able to increase its overall influence in the region.

"Basically, Russia is the most international actor in Syria," Bianco said. In this case, "international" goes hand in hand with "influential." Russia has for instance insisted that aid can only be sent to Syria via borders under the control of the Assad regime.

Controlling the flow of humanitarian aid is in turn linked to the potential movement of refugees.

"Russia has some leverage in Syria, although the route of the refugees is different than in the case of Libya, as Russia depends very much on Turkey's border regime," Bianco explained.

Infographic showing economic ties between the Middle East and Ukraine

Israel

Syria's neighbour Israel is also closely watching the tensions. Israel has been targeting Iranian proxy bases in Syria while Russian troops based in Syria have been turning a blind eye to it. 

"We've seen that Russia has been trying to woo Israel as a result of joint interests in Syria," Hamdi told DW, adding that "Israel could end up being the biggest loser in any war between Russia and the US, primarily because it would be forced to take sides in a manner that will undermine any gains that it has made."

As of last week, Ukraine's Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova, has warned Israel that it would be directly affected by any form of escalation. Possible consequences could be Jewish immigrants to Israel from Ukraine or significant cuts of wheat imports.

Golan Heights with a view of Camp Ziouani of the UN Peace mission UNDOF
Russia tolerates Israeli attacks on Iranian proxy targets in SyriaImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

Arabian Peninsula

The Ukraine conflict could also have a significant impact on the Arabian Peninsula. Particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are close US allies. 

Their relationship involves oil and gas supplies on the one hand and arms sales on the other.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the US is by far the largest weapons supplier to the Gulf states.

However, Saudi Arabia's dominance of OPEC and oil has been in partnership with Russia.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia and Russia signed a Military Cooperation Agreement in August last year. 

Therefore, being forced to pick a side between Russia and the US could turn into a real dilemma, Hamdi said.

At the same time, the Gulf States could also benefit from the crisis. For example, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who has been heavily criticized over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, could hope for rehabilitation. "Bin Salman is living his best days, with Biden asking him now to raise production and to bring oil prices down," Hamdi said.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman could hope for international rehabilitationImage: BARNI Cristiano/ATP photo agency/picture alliance

Energy

In Qatar, the US maintains the Al Udeid air base with British and Australian forces — the largest US air base in the region.

In view of the crisis, the US could urge its partners Saudi Arabia and Qatar to take a stand, for instance by expanding energy supplies to Europe in case of Russian cuts.

Bianco does not think this would be easy for Qatar though. "Liquefied natural gas is usually contracted on a long-term basis, in Qatar's case by India or South Korea," she said. And yet, Qatar might still be interested in backing the US since it "would have some leverage, and for others it is by far one of the best options available," Bianco added.

Hamdi however does not think Qatar could actually step in and compensate Russian gas supply to Europe. "Qatar is giving false promises of 'Yes, I can supply the gas,' but is in fact hoping that there's no war," he told DW.

Wheat

"Ukraine exports 95% of its grain through the Black Sea and more than 50% of its wheat exports went to the Middle East and North Africa region in 2020," according to a reportby the Washington-based Middle East Institute (MEI).

Therefore, a disruption would have "dire consequences" for food security in "already-fragile countries," warns the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

It's estimated that Lebanon and Libya import about 40% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, Yemen around 20%, and Egypt around 80%.

Therefore, any disruption of wheat supplies would heavily affect the Middle East, with shortages and price hikes. "That is going to potentially be a significant problem," Bianco told DW. 

"When the price of bread skyrockets to the extent that people cannot afford it, people start taking to the streets."

Western powers wait for troop withdrawal

Edited by: Andreas Illmer.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East
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