Editor’s Note: This article is a follow-up to the EER webinar, “The Global Fallout From Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine”, which we hosted in May. The original webinar can be viewed here.
Said Saddiki, professor of international relations at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University (U.S.MBA) in Fez, Morocco.
The broad and far-reaching implications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine raise the question: To what extent will this crisis affect the current international system? Some believe that Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the reaction of Western countries, constitute a turning point in the history of the international system. On the other hand, others argue that this crisis, while representing a challenge to the current international system, will not lead to a fundamental change in its nature and structure since this system, in place since the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, is characterized by a high degree of resilience to absorb major shocks.
For the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), this crisis represents both a challenge and an opportunity. There have been significant economic challenges, especially in the food and energy security sectors of the non-oil and non-gas-producing countries, at least in the short term, but the producer countries are set to benefit from a financial windfall in their export revenue. There are also political opportunities for the MENA countries to reposition themselves in the international and regional systems, especially in their relationships with major powers.
Traditional Alliances vs. Diversification of Partners
One of the major concerns of decision-makers in the MENA region is how to reconcile between maintaining traditional alliances and seeking to diversify their strategic partners. After the Arab spring uprisings, many MENA countries began a process of diversifying their strategic partners, driven to a considerable extent by finding themselves without American support as the President Barack Obama administration tilted towards Iran.
The pro-Iranian tilt in the American posture could be seen in various places where unusual American policies were adopted, particularly in Syria (where the U.S. ended up siding with the Iran-aligned regime), Libya (where the U.S. refused to invest in stabilizing the situation and took no clear stance against the radical factions), and Yemen (where the U.S. was at best haphazard in supporting the Gulf states’ effort to restore the legitimate government after a coup by the Iranian-controlled Houthis).
A lot of these trendlines continued under President Donald Trump, despite more positive atmospherics from the Trump administration towards Gulf allies, and under President Joe Biden things have if anything gotten even worse, specifically with the U.S. withdrawal of its Patriot anti-missile defense batteries from Saudi Arabia in late 2021, during a critical period for Saudi national security as the Kingdom was under heavy attack from Houthi missiles. This was a negative message to the U.S.’s allies generally in the MENA region.
In the space left by the U.S., MENA states looked to alternatives, prominently China, with some joining Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Russia, which has established itself firmly in Syria alongside its strategic ally Iran, and become a major political force in the region. It is unclear whether the restoration of some Patriot missiles to Saudi Arabia in early 2022, and the apparent change of direction from the Biden administration on U.S.-Saudi relations in the last few months, will have a serious impact in reversing this trend.
Is There a Trend for a New Non-Alignment?
This is an important question that can be posed because of the positions of many MENA countries on the Ukrainian crisis, which do not fully agree with their Western allies. The positions of the MENA countries when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are not in general a reflection of a tendency towards non-alignment. Rather, they are just looking for win-win partnerships—and for more solid Western guaranties regarding their vital strategic interests, their national security above all. This pragmatism—trying to balance immediate interests and strategic ones—is what is behind so many of the MENA states adopting a calculated neutrality between Russia and the West.
The U.S. is Still A Key Stabilizer in the MENA Region
The reality is, despite the misunderstandings and disagreements that have increased in recent years between the U.S. and its MENA allies, the U.S. remains a major player in the region and has decisive role and influence in the current regional political and security architecture. By contrast, the Ukraine crisis has proved beyond any doubt that Europe is currently unable to play a serious role in supporting Middle Eastern security and stability: Europe is clearly unable to guarantee even its own security and remains reliant on the U.S. security umbrella.
There is a clear divergence of interests between the U.S. and some of its MENA allies over Ukraine, however. If the U.S.-led West succeeds completely in Ukraine, it will strengthen the U.S. role in the entire international system, including Europe and the Middle East, and a Russian defeat would see Russia severely isolated, if not excluded, from playing a serious role in the international system. For the MENA states, this situation would constrict their freedom of maneuver in what would then be a rigid bipolar system led by the U.S. and China.
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