Risk or opportunity? How Russia sees a changing MENA region

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, 2022, has served to accentuate ongoing differences between the United States and Europe on the one hand and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) on the other. This has, to some extent, benefited Russia’s relations with the MENA region at the expense of the United States and Europe. But the impact of the Russian invasion may eventually prove harmful to Russia’s influence in the MENA region.

Since Vladimir Putin first came to power at the turn of the century, he has sought to revive Russian influence in the MENA region which had declined in the wake of the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. Unlike the Soviet Union, which mainly had good relations with anti-Western MENA regimes and poor relations with pro-Western ones there, Putin has assiduously courted all of the United States’ traditional allies in the region.[1] He was aided in this effort by the increased perception on the part of MENA governments that the United States was losing interest in the region as a result of the disappointments it suffered both in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as increased US preoccupation with China’s rise. Putin also benefited from Israeli and Gulf Arab wariness over then US president Barack Obama agreeing to a nuclear accord with Iran and US President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s attempt to restore it following the decision by his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, to withdraw from it—even though Russia also supported the initial signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 as well as more recent efforts to restore it.

Further, the fact that Western governments, legislatures, and media have all criticized traditionally pro-Western MENA governments over their human rights violations and democracy deficits while Russia has largely avoided doing so (except for occasionally criticizing Israeli treatment of the Palestinians) has also served to bolster MENA interest in Moscow as (unlike Western governments) a “no strings attached” arms supplier.[2]

Finally, while some MENA governments initially disapproved of or even opposed Russian intervention in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime against its many opponents, there is respect in the region for Putin being such a staunch defender of his ally in comparison with the United States, which is seen as not having done enough to prevent the downfall of longtime US allies in Iran (1979) and Egypt (2011), and responding inadequately after what are widely believed to be Iranian or Iranian-backed drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has exacerbated some of these trends. MENA governments’ fears that US attention was being drawn away from their region by Washington’s concern with China have been exacerbated by a new fear that the United States is being further distracted by Western concerns over Ukraine. Resentment has risen among Israeli and Gulf Arab leaders in particular that the United States’ concern with protecting Ukraine against Russia has resulted not just in less US attention to the Iranian threat to them, but even greater US willingness to rejoin the JCPOA and reduce economic sanctions on Iran so that increased Iranian oil exports can replace Russian oil that the United States wants others to stop buying. Further, greater Western willingness to accept and support refugees from Ukraine compared to refugees from Syria, Libya, and elsewhere in the MENA region earlier has heightened MENA public resentment toward the West.

Moscow has been pleased that MENA governments have generally been unwilling to join in the Western condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the Western economic sanctions campaign against Moscow. Most MENA governments did vote in favor of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, but a few (Algeria, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan) abstained, Morocco did not vote, and Syria (not surprisingly) voted against the resolution. But there was far less support from MENA countries for the UNGA resolution removing Russia from the Human Rights Council—Israel, Libya, and Turkey voted “yes”; Algeria, Iran, and Syria voted “no”; most others abstained; and Morocco again did not vote. The UAE, which is currently a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), abstained on UNSC resolutions condemning Russia—something that Washington was especially displeased about. In addition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—the two Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members with significant capacity to increase production—have refused US entreaties to do so in order to reign in the price of oil resulting from Western efforts to limit Russia’s ability to export petroleum. In a move that can only be pleasing to Moscow, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have justified their refusal to cooperate with Washington’s wishes on their “need” to uphold their agreement with Russia in the OPEC+ format to limit oil production in order to avoid the sort of price collapse that occurred during the brief 2020 Saudi-Russian oil war. Even the grain shortage resulting from the Ukraine war may have one positive implication for Russia: The MENA region, unlike the West, may have an interest in a quick conclusion to the war on terms favorable to Russia if this means their ability to import grain from Ukraine and Russia resumes and the price MENA countries pay for it returns to normal.

However, in addition to these positive strategic implications for Russia in its relations with the MENA region emanating from the war in Ukraine, there are also some potential negative ones. So long as the war in Ukraine carries on, Ukraine and Russia’s heightened competition with NATO are likely to be a higher priority for Moscow than the MENA region. With the Ukraine conflict taking up so much of Russia’s military resources, Moscow may not only be unable to send more to the MENA region, it may even have to redeploy some of its forces from the MENA region to Ukraine. Russia, then, may be less capable not only of helping its MENA partners (such as the Assad regime in Syria and Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya) fight against their opponents, but may become less capable of constraining its “frenemy,” Turkey, in the various arenas where they support opposing parties (Syria, Libya, Armenia/Azerbaijan) and even its partner Iran in Syria where Moscow and Tehran have engaged in a competition for influence in Damascus.

In addition, persistent higher food prices resulting from a prolonged war in Ukraine could undermine MENA governments that Russia (as well as the West) has been supporting. Just as higher food prices may have contributed to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, they could lead to similar developments now. If so, Russia being bogged down in Ukraine may put it in a weak position to help MENA governments either defuse or suppress rising opposition, much less deal with successor regimes.  While Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem determined to adhere to OPEC+ output limits at present, their need for additional income to subsidize food prices in poorer MENA countries to prevent social explosions that would negatively impact them may lead them to increase oil production in pursuit of their own interests if not those of the West.

In addition, even though MENA governments are neither as supportive of Ukraine nor as willing to take action against Russia as either Kyiv or its Western supporters would like, none of the West’s traditional MENA partners appears likely to drop its cooperation with the West and/or actively side with Russia over Ukraine. Indeed, the Ukraine conflict appears to have motivated Turkey—which has often been at odds with the United States and Europe in recent years—to rediscover the value of its relationship with the West even if Ankara has not joined in Western economic sanctions against Russia and is holding up Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO. Even Russia’s partner, Iran, has made clear that it is eager for US sanctions on its oil sales to be lifted through a resumption of the JCPOA and is not willing to allow Russia to make demands that impede this from occurring.

Moscow can take comfort that MENA region governments, including all those that have traditionally cooperated with the West, have not joined the United States and Europe in sanctioning Russia or supporting Ukraine in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war. On the other hand, Moscow’s preoccupation with Ukraine may limit Russia’s ability to act in the MENA region, while the high food prices resulting from the war may undermine many of the MENA governments with which Putin has built up relations. If the war in Ukraine continues to go badly for Moscow, it is possible that Russian influence in the MENA region will decline even if that of the West does not increase there.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates during a signing ceremony following the talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia June 1, 2018. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS