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The Russian Invasion of Ukraine and the Arab World, One Year After

Hussein Mubarak

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought hardships and opportunities to the Arab region. Energy producers reaped handsome profits while populations were hit by price inflation. The Arab block has maintained political unity, but cracks may form as the war persists.

One year ago, when the Russia invasion of Ukraine first began to simmer and Russia was massing its troops, the Arab countries, like the rest of the world, were closely watching but did not evince the same apprehension. They did not participate in the frantic shuttle diplomacy by European leaders to dissuade President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine. Their cautious reaction originated in the conviction that the odds of a full-blown war were remote and overhyped by the western media, still hypnotized by the Cold War era.

They believed that, if at all, a war was going to be fast and short given the overwhelming Russian military superiority and the proximity of the battleground making Ukrainian targets vulnerable to Russian firepower. The military operation would be a saber rattling to warn Ukraine of the consequences of its growing audacity and of seeking EU or NATO membership. Some pro-government analysts also thought that the Russia-Ukraine war could mitigate the incessant American demands to improve the human rights records in the region. The timing of the operation reinforced this scenario: the harvest season of home-grown grains was around the corner, and future Russian and Ukrainian wheat deals were being finalized, minimizing the risk of a grain shortage in the near term. Nonetheless, as the traditional Arabic proverb goes, “The wind may bring what the ships do not crave.”

The Arab world attempted to strike a balance between the two warring parties.

The optimistic scenario of the war was all but accurate. Wishful thinking of a limited operation turned into an all-out war as Russia sent massive numbers of troops across the border attacking Ukraine from land, air and sea. The Arab block, alerted by the grandeur of the military operation, sent a delegation of four foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and Sudan under the auspices of the Arab League to Moscow and Warsaw to mediate a ceasefire. The Arab world attempted to strike a balance between the two warring parties. Egypt hosted stranded Ukrainian tourists until air traffic was reopened. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries donated more than $50 million in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. The block voted for a UN ceasefire resolution calling for withdrawal of Russian forces and not to recognize the Russian annexation of the four Ukrainian occupied regions.

Challenges and opportunities of the war

Fortunately, the Arab world, while holding onto its political baseline, pulled through the first year of war undivided, but not without a price. The war has brought new opportunities and challenges to the region.

The oil and gas exporting countries reaped handsome profits as Russia suspended its gas exports through the Nord Stream pipeline in response to western sanctions, sending oil prices to a 15-year record high of $130 a barrel. Furthermore, Germany, the top European consumer of Russian gas switched to Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) on its way to diversify energy sources, replacing Russian coal and gas with American and Middle Eastern energy alternatives.

The Arab countries that depended on Russian and Ukrainian wheat to fill the gap between production and consumption barely escaped the fallout.

On the other hand, the Arab countries that depended on Russian and Ukrainian wheat to fill the gap between production and consumption barely escaped the fallout. This is thanks to increased Russian shipments and the UN-sponsored Black Sea deal that enabled the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine in the second half of the year. Egypt imports around 60 percent of its wheat needs (18 million tons a year). Last year it imported 5.9 million tons from Russia, nearly half of all wheat imports, and bought the rest by bidding in international markets, mainly from Ukraine, France, and Romania. In 2022, Ukrainian wheat exports to Egypt dropped by 70 percent due to the war, but recovered somewhat thanks to the Black Sea deal. Algeria is the second largest wheat importer in Africa (around 6 million tons), and half of this amount was imported last year from Russia. Lebanon, Yemen, and Jordan depend on Ukraine to meet their domestic consumption of the staple grain.

Maybe the biggest challenge facing a number of countries in the region is the dramatic surge in food prices that further complicate the recovery of their faltering economies. This is no small shock in a country like Egypt with a population exceeding 100 million, especially given the spillover effect of high food prices on other sectors of the economy such as oil, electricity and wages. The inflation rate last month hit 20 percent, according to the Public Authority of Statistics while. Non-official estimates, though, estimate it exceeded 70 percent if the recent currency devaluation is taken into account. The high inflation rate is taking a heavy toll on the middle class and undermines the cohesion of society.

The muddled war scenario

As the war enters its second year, no solution yet appears on the horizon. Each party is clinging to its position, playing the blame game and upping the ante of defeat. The warring sides are doing their best to garner international support in anticipation of different war scenarios and for future negotiations. Russia is reaching out to its traditional friends, sympathizers, and trade partners for solidarity and support. Meanwhile, President Biden traveled to Europe on the first  anniversary of the war to call for unity among NATO members and Eastern Europeans allies, especially the Bucharest Nine group.

[The Middle East] is the closest region outside of Europe to the theater of war and has the capability to meet its energy needs...

The Middle East on the other hand, hardly covered by western media in relation to the war, is gaining more importance to each camp as the war goes on and the Cold War atmosphere returns. It is the closest region outside of Europe to the theater of war and has the capability to meet its energy needs, including with clean solar energy.

Russia is reinforcing its standing in the Arab region by increasing weapon sales at discount prices through the Abu Dhabi International Defense Exhibition, providing strategic food staples such as cooking oil and grains at low prices to counties in need, and making up for the short supply of commodities caused by the war. It also recently added the Egyptian Poundto the list of currencies to be used in payments of bilateral trade deals. It is further encouraging Russian tourism to countries suffering financial crises and economic distress including Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt.

Even third parties like China are enhancing their ties with the region. President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh last December after a seven-year interval and held the first Arab-China and GCC-China summits to expand cooperation on a whole host of fields, including petrochemicals, IT, and nuclear technology, and open the door for Chines companies like Huawei to enter the market. Last week changing winds of political influence blew stronger, as China brokered an important agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the resumption of diplomatic relations after a seven-year boycott. This agreement may entail a shift in the geopolitical landscape, and could have an indirect impact on the war if energy is among the key factors of the agreement.

Consequently, it remains to be seen if the Middle East will maintain its unity, neutrality, and balanced approach in the second year of the war, or whether cracks will form under the rapidly changing economic and political circumstances.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

Hussein Mubarak

Hussein Mubarak

Former Consul General of Egypt in New York; Former Ambassador to Cyprus, Arab Republic of Egypt
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more