Jul 04, 2022

How the Ukraine War Is Impacting the Middle East

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to exacerbate instability in the Middle East. And that will have implications for Europe’s security.

People queue to buy bread outside a bakery in Beirut, Lebanon April 12, 2022.
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to make the existing problems of the Middle East even worse than they already are. The poorer countries of the region are suffering greatly from high grain and energy prices, which were already high and may go even higher, and will inevitably lead to unrest. At the same time, the Iran nuclear deal now seems more likely to fail, in part because Russia no longer has an interest in promoting an agreement. This in turn threatens to escalate the unresolved conflict between Iran and its adversaries. In addition, conflict with Russia has accelerated the United States’ withdrawal from the region. The reorientation of US foreign policy toward great power conflict is leaving a void, which regional powers will seek to fill, quite possibly producing new conflicts.

Unrest Due to High Prices

Many countries in the Middle East are particularly vulnerable to increases in grain and energy prices. For countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, which import over two-thirds of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia, the war immediately pushed up prices, prompting shortages of cheap subsidized bread. Countries like Syria and Lebanon have already suffered rampant inflation for years, pushing large swathes of the population into poverty. Most governments in the region are using large subsidies to keep price rises in check, but chronic budget constraints limit their room for maneuver.

To assess the implications for stability in these countries, it is worth looking back to where the region was just over a decade ago. During the 2011 Arab Spring protests, Middle East states split into three groups. Poor republics like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen were particularly hard hit by protests and unrest. For decades, they had been ruled by military regimes that had shown little interest in their people’s living standards. Rich monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states had fewer problems during this period. These regimes had long attempted to distribute some of the vast income from oil and gas exports among the broader population. In fact, these countries benefited so much from high energy prices between 2002 and 2014 that after 2011 they increasingly intervened in their poorer neighbors. A third group of states—Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon—consisted of republics that first continued in relative calm, despite the unrest across the region, possibly because they had all recently lived through bloody civil wars.

Ten years ago, the major political question was economic wellbeing, although other important issues also played a role. Since then, living standards have continued to deteriorate in the region’s poorer countries, if only because their populations are growing much faster than their economies. Egypt offers a particularly dramatic example; its population already amounts to more than 100 million, increasing by over two million every year. Added to this are failed economic policies, with more resources invested in prestigious megaprojects than sustainable economic development. The effects of the war in Ukraine are likely to exacerbate Egypt’s economic problems, despite Mediterranean gas production now coming onstream. Sooner or later the result will be instability. Egyptians, like many people in the region, show little inclination to launch a new wave of protests, but the continued decline of Middle Eastern economies could change that calculus, driving people back onto the streets. Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco could also be affected, with even resource-rich countries like Algeria and Iraq far from stable.

Many indicators suggest that the region’s rulers would crack down on renewed protests with greater violence and more effectiveness than after 2011. Since the 2013 military coup in Egypt, the Middle East has seen the advent of a new and more effective authoritarianism, modeled above all on the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This new authoritarianism makes greater use of technological surveillance than previous regimes, and shows even less tolerance for opposition. Moreover, dictators have recently learned how a regime can hold its own even in the face of opposition from a majority of its population. The Syrian civil war showed that determination, brute force, and powerful allies can be enough to hang on to power, even when the regime’s power base is sharply reduced, as was the case with President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian experience may set a precedent, making future internal conflicts even more violent than those in the wake of 2011.

Conflict with Iran Intensifies

The war in Ukraine has also had an impact on the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which turned into a veritable Cold War in the Persian Gulf between 2011 and 2019. The conflict eased somewhat in 2019, after Iran and its allies in Iraq and Yemen had demonstrated the vulnerability of the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, their main opponents. In a particularly sensational incident, Saudi Arabian oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by Iranian drones on September 14, 2019. The strikes shut down half of Saudi oil production for several weeks. Until this point, the United States was considered the ultimate guarantor of Saudi security. However, in the absence of a US counterstrike, Riyadh and the UAE decided to pursue détente with Iran. But the old Saudi-Iranian enmity persists, and the conflict could re-escalate at any time. In 2020, seeking a new ally against Iran, the UAE and Bahrain concluded peace agreements with Israel, a clear indicator of the severity of tensions in the region. Although Saudi Arabia was not involved in the peace deal, the kingdom has expanded its cooperation with Tel Aviv.

The outbreak of war in Ukraine has shifted the balance of power in the Persian Gulf toward Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states. In contrast to poorer countries in the region, the oil monarchies can cope with higher food costs and stand to benefit from rising energy prices. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also the only oil producers in the world that can rapidly ramp up production by more than two million barrels a day. However, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi refused a US government demand to do exactly this to replace Russian energy exports. The UAE has even refused to condemn Russia’s military intervention at the UN Security Council. Economic considerations played a role in this decision, as well as a desire not to jeopardize its relations with Russia, which have improved significantly in recent years. However, a more important factor was the deterioration of Saudi and UAE relations with the United States. Both countries remain enraged at the Trump administration’s unwillingness to intervene militarily against Iran in 2019. They now look to President Joe Biden to reaffirm the traditionally close American alliance with both states and to end his aloofness toward Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, whom Biden blames for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The newfound strength of Saudi Arabia and the UAE is only one important factor in their conflict with Iran. In addition, the war in Ukraine is hampering any renewal of the nuclear deal with Iran, from which President Donald Trump withdrew the US in 2018. The last problem to solve in the negotiations was whether and how the US could remove Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from its list of terrorist organizations, to which it was added in 2019. But in March 2022, Russia demanded that Iran maintain the two countries’ bilateral trade in the face of sanctions imposed because of its war in Ukraine. The Russian demand effectively blocked any successful conclusion to the nuclear talks, since Russia is a party to the negotiations with Iran, alongside the United States, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Talks on a renewed nuclear deal have stalled as a result of Moscow’s demand, and the IRGC problem was not solved, so that a repeat of the 2015 agreement seems highly unlikely today. An agreement remains a goal for Iran, since it is the country’s only hope to end Western sanctions and enable economic recovery. Iran’s adversaries in the region—Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but also Israel—take a critical view of these nuclear talks, fearing that Iran would use the resources released by a deal to finance its expensive regional policy. At the same time, they fear Iran may already have enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb, or will soon acquire it. Without an agreement, further conflict in the Persian Gulf seems possible, perhaps even probable, after a brief period of detente.

US Withdrawal Continues

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will also probably affect the US withdrawal from the Middle East. Even during the Obama presidency (2009-17), prevailing Washington opinion was that the great challenges of American global policy in the 21st century would be located in China and the Pacific, rather than Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration made a “pivot to Asia” a policy goal, and this has remained baseline American policy under subsequent presidents, even ones as different as Trump and Biden. One early manifestation of this policy was the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq (some forces came back in 2014), followed by its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. A complete pull-out from Iraq and Syria may be on the cards. The Biden government, like its predecessors, wants to free up financial, political, and military resources for a conflict with China, and so is shying away from Middle East engagement. Until the war in Ukraine, Russia played a less important role in American considerations: Washington regarded China as a far more important adversary. Now, with significant resources required for the conflict in Eastern Europe, the Middle East has fallen even further down Washington’s list of priorities.

The post-2011 US withdrawal from the Middle East is highlighted by the fact that, despite numerous civil wars in the region, the United States has only intervened when absolutely necessary, as when Islamic State (IS) overwhelmed large swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014. America’s new policy of restraint created a void in Syria and Libya, one filled by Russia and by regional powers. Similar patterns were seen in other countries. Iran has intervened in wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen using an alliance of militias led by its own Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah of Lebanon. The policy succeeded in expanding Teheran’s influence. For its part, Israel has attempted to halt Iran’s expansion toward its borders. Since 2017, it has conducted over 1,000 airstrikes against Iranian and allied targets in Syria and Iraq. Turkey is fighting the Kurdish PKK and its sister organizations in both Syria and Iraq. It intervened militarily in Libya in 2020 and sent troops to the Gulf to protect the emirate of Qatar from its neighbors. Saudi Arabia and the UAE started a war in Yemen with the goal of stopping the victory of Houthi rebels, who are allies of Teheran. The UAE is another party to the war in Libya; along with Egypt, it supports the authoritarian warlord Khalifa Haftar.

What these regional powers have in common is that they are all too weak to individually impose their own vision of order on the region. Iran is so economically weak that it must rely on asymmetric warfare, making use of militias, terrorist groups, rockets, cruise missiles, and drones. Israel may be militarily superior to its Iranian adversary, but Iranian missiles and drones based in in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria nonetheless pose a major threat. Turkey has isolated itself in the region with its support for the Muslim Brotherhood; its power lies above all at the periphery of the Middle East. Finally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have failed to decisively defeat the Yemeni Houthis and have been repeatedly targeted by rocket, cruise missile, and drone attacks, with even their oil infrastructure coming under threat.

The current disarray in the Middle East is partly the result of the disappearance of the United States as regional hegemon. The United States showed renewed interest in the Gulf States after the outbreak of the Ukraine war, calling on them to boost production to make up for the loss of Russian oil and gas. President Joe Biden will visit US allies, among them Saudi Arabia, which he once called a “pariah” state, in July 2022. However, there is no sign that American policy towards the region is about to fundamentally change. More aggressive action by China in the Middle East might at some point bring the United States back to the region, but so far Beijing has limited itself to expanding economic relations. This means the current trend of regional states pursuing more active policy is likely to continue. Continuing conflict seems a very likely outcome.

A Realpolitik Rethink

For their part, both Germany and Europe have lost influence in the region. This is a particularly dramatic development given how Middle East instability has affected Europe’s security for many years. So far, Europe’s main focus has been on uncontrolled refugee movements and burgeoning Islamist terrorism. In future, however, nuclear proliferation may well become a more important issue. There are many reasons for this loss of influence: a lack of unity among European countries, Britain’s exit from the European Union, and the overall weakness of European foreign and security policy. Moreover, the focus of Middle East politics is above all on tough security questions. If the European Union has little to offer on this question, it cannot expect to play much of an important role in the region.

This is especially the case for Germany, a country that has not pursued serious security policy for at least 20 years. Despite recent commitments to a “new epoch” in foreign and security policy, Germany has allowed its armed forces to degenerate. Reconstruction now presents a mammoth task. In 2014 and 2015, Berlin was unwilling to fight terrorists in Iraq and Syria, the same terrorists who had already carried out many attacks in Europe. Terrorist attacks like that in Paris in 2015 were made possible by Germany’s refusal to protect its own borders, a decision which flew in the face of any rational security policy. Given these errors, it is unsurprising that Germany (and Europe) have failed to take seriously the threat perceptions of Middle Eastern allies and partners like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and have failed entirely to react to Iranian expansion after 2015.

Specific changes in Germany’s Middle East policy must accompany its more general change in security policy. It must first recognize that pro-Western countries in the region are important allies, essential to any active Middle East policy. This includes Israel, but also Gulf autocracies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, countries which have long proved themselves good and reliable partners on foreign, security, and energy policy. Second, Germany must recognize and call out the dangers arising from Iran’s revisionist policies, whose ultimate aim is regional hegemony. Iran will remain a threat to the region even if a new nuclear agreement is signed. Finally, Germany and Europe must exercise modesty. For many years to come, they will be unable to play a role in the Middle East without United States assistance. Maintaining and strengthening the alliance with the United States is and will remain indispensable for European and German policy on the Middle East.

Guido Steinberg is Senior Associate at the Middle East and Africa Research Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

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