Middle Eastern leaders wary of taking sides over Ukraine

Many Arab countries have fostered ties with Moscow

In contrast to Western condemnation of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, all but a small minority of Middle Eastern leaders have been circumspect.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid condemned Russia's violation of the international order but demurred over sanctions. Some 2.2 million Israelis are of Russian and Ukrainian origin and about 200,000 Jews live in these countries.

After Lebanon's condemnation of Russia was met with sharp criticism from business interests, Beirut refused to support a UN Security Council resolution deploring the invasion. The United Arab Emirates, a non-permanent council member, abstained along with India and permanent member China.

Egypt has expressed concern over Russia's actions and Qatar, recently elevated to non-Nato US ally, has refused to be a party to "any conflict or political polarisation".

Long-standing Western regional intervention has made both Arabs and Iranians wary of taking sides. Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Iraq and Libya gained critical leverage from Russia's support during the cold war. In recent years Arab leaders have relied on Russia to "fill some of the void" left by US retrenchment, Egyptian commentator Tareq Osman told Merissa Khurma writing for the Washington-based Wilson Centre's Viewpoints Series.

Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian argued “Nato’s provocations” compelled Russia to act. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad called Russia’s invasion “a correction of history” that would restore the post-cold war balance of forces at a time the US is dominant. Although their countries are closely allied with Russia, their words resonate round the region where Arab leaders, including US allies, have fostered ties with Moscow for material and non-material motives.

Syria relies on Russia to provide air cover for its forces, which are engaged in an existential conflict with opposition and jihadi forces. Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen depend on Russian and Ukrainian wheat for their daily bread. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have diversified arms acquisitions by purchasing weaponry from Russia while Riyadh and Moscow co-operate in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries to ensure a stable supply of oil at a price well below $100 a barrel.

Following the 2003 US occupation of Iraq on the basis of lies, Arab leaders, commentators and publics lost trust in the West. Some recall that Ukraine contributed the third largest contingent to this debacle.

Arabs compare Nato's mobilisation and imposition of sanctions on Russia to the West's refusal to adopt measures against Israel over attacks on Gaza, Lebanon and Syria and settlement of Palestinian territory in violation of international law.

For Arab leaders, public opinion is a key consideration. The mid-2021 Arab Youth Survey revealed that 72 per cent of respondents in 50 cities and 17 countries saw Russia as an ally, 26 per cent an enemy; 57 per cent regarded the US as an ally, 41 per cent an enemy; and 88 per cent viewed Israel as an enemy, 11 per cent an ally. Those aged 18-24 represent 60 per cent of the population of Arab countries.