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Whose side are Middle Eastern countries on?

March 3, 2022

Security, trade and oil ties make it hard for states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to openly condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Instead, they're hedging their bets.

Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun paint a mural amid the destruction, depicting the colours of the Russian and Ukrainian flags, to protest against Russia's military operation in Ukraine, .
Many anti-government Syrians have expressed sympathy for Ukraine because they too have been attacked by RussiaImage: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

At first, it seemed they couldn't decide whose side they were on. Earlier this week, a number of Middle Eastern nations, who are traditionally friendly with the United States and the European Union, didn't want to immediately or overtly condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But over the past few days this has changed. After initially appearing reluctant to join a United Nations resolution condemning the invasion and calling on Russia to withdraw all forces from Ukraine, almost all countries in the Middle East signed the resolution on Wednesday.

Of 193 UN member countries, 141 voted to support the motion. Another 35 nations abstained. Only five voted against the resolution.

Of those five, Syria was the only country from the Middle East. The reasons for this are clear: Russia is an ally of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and tipped the balance of the Syrian civil war in his favor when it entered that conflict in 2015.

Iran and Iraq were among 35 official abstentions from the UN vote. Morocco did not vote at all.

In an anti-war statement, Iraq said it abstained "because of our historical background in Iraq and because of our sufferings resulting from the continuing wars against our peoples."

All other Middle Eastern nations joined the rest of the world in condemning the Russian invasion. But why did it take so long for these alleged friends and allies of the West to make that decision?

Objects with images of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and head of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah, are displayed in a souvenir shop in the old quarter of the Syrian capital Damascus.
Russia and Syria are allies, and President Vladimir Putin can be found decorating souvenirs in Syrian marketsImage: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images

Political balancing act

For countries in the region, this is "100% a balancing act," Dina Esfandiary, an adviser to the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Crisis Group think tank, told DW. "They are balancing between two giants."

The way the United Arab Emirates behaved at last week's Security Council vote is a good example of this, Esfandiary noted.

The UAE is chairing the UN Security Council, or UNSC, during March, after having joined as one of its 10 non-permanent members in January. Permanent members are the United Kingdom, China, France, the United States and Russia.

Last Friday, a day after the Russian invasion began, the UNSC voted on a resolution to condemn it. Eleven of 15 countries agreed on the condemnation. Russia voted against it and three other members abstained: China, India and the UAE.

"They [the UAE] were sending a message to the US that 'we are not happy with you'," Esfandiary explained.

The UAE has apparently felt the US, with whom they cooperate closely on security, had not taken recent attacks on Abu Dhabi seriously enough. In January and February, Houthi rebels in nearby Yemen fired missiles and drones at Abu Dhabi. As a result, the UAE wanted a different Security Council resolution, one on the Houthis, to go their way.

Russia eventually voted with the UAE on this resolution.

A fighter loyal to Yemen's Huthi rebels stands guard next to a mural denouncing Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a rally in the capital Sanaa.
Iran-backed Houthi fighters have controlled large parts of Yemen since 2014Image: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

"So you can really see how the UAE were balancing everything up," Esfandiary said, noting that behavior was likely more of a reaction to current events than any set agenda.

"But then I think in the lead-up to this vote [the resolution in the UN General Assembly], there was a lot more lobbying from the US side," she continued. "I think that the Gulf states may even have realized that, OK, they made their point last week. I also think a country like the UAE may have been a little bit taken aback at how the international community reacted to their abstention [at the UNSC] last week."

"As they [the UAE] realized the global implications … they chose a hedging approach, trying to avoid picking one side," confirmed Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and an expert on the Gulf region.

Walking the talk?

But whether a vote at the UN translates into further action is another question altogether.

While the majority of Middle Eastern nations may have signed the resolution this week, only three — Israel, Kuwait and Turkey — seem to have actually mentioned Russia by name in carefully calibrated statements countries gave explaining their UN votes. Instead they emphasized peace, diplomacy and respect for territorial integrity of other countries. Some Middle Eastern nations didn't even mention Ukraine.

Experts argue this balancing act has been going on for some time in the Middle East and is due to the slow US pivot away from the region, which started under former US President Barack Obama. Middle Eastern nations have realized they need a larger foreign policy friendship group.

That's also why, at least at first, a lot of Middle Eastern countries simply didn't see this as their fight.

They saw "the crisis as primarily engaging the interests of the US, EU and NATO, allowing them to remain safely on the sidelines," Gerald M. Feierstein, a senior vice president at the Washington-based think tank, the Middle East Institute, wrote in a briefing this week. They don't want to be "pressured to choose sides between their historic partnership with the US and their growing economic and political ties to Russia."

Guns, oil, money

There are three main areas in which ties have developed between Russia and the Middle East recently.

Security is one. For countries like Jordan and Israel, Russia's hold over Syria plays a role. Israel depends on Russian cooperation to be able to strike at the proxies of its regional enemy Iran in Syria. Jordan is just next door to Syria.

In July, the Security Council is supposed to vote to continue to allow humanitarian aid into northwestern Syria. As a permanent member of the council, with the ability to veto any decision, an angry Russia could hold that decision hostage.

Russia has also backed factions fighting in Libya for a warlord sponsored by the UAE. It also has a relationship with Iran, with whom it must work in Syria; Iran also backs the Assad government there.

Another area of impact is trade. Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon and Egypt all import wheat from Ukraine and Russia and any shortage will cause them big problems and price rises.

The UAE also acts as a major financial hub for Russians and will be forced to evaluate banking sanctions.

And finally, Russia and the Middle East share energy interests. In 2016, Russia joined an organization called OPEC+, which expanded the original Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries and added more members. In OPEC+, Russia collaborates with major players like Saudi Arabia to regulate oil supply, and thereby oil prices.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, it might even be a little personal.

In 2018, Saudi Arabian leadership was under fire for the gruesome murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Just two months later, at the G20 summit in Argentina, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a media storm by greeting the increasingly isolated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a peculiarly casual high-five and a huge smile.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.