More than 50 days have passed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the attitude in the Middle East towards the war is ambiguous at best. Apart from formal statements from various governments in the region that claim “neutrality,” public reaction is still confused, misguided, and dominated by resentment towards the United States, instead of focusing on the human tragedy playing out in Ukraine as a nation.
From the beginning of the Ukraine war, Arabs have considered the conflict solely through the prism of a revival of the Cold War between Russia and the United States. Apologism and justifications for the Russian invasion have been all over social media since the beginning of the conflict, with expressions such as Russia was “dragged,” “tricked,” or “provoked.” As Merissa Khurma has written, many Arab analysts are not convinced by Western “hysteria” over the Ukraine crisis. Moreover, rather than decrying Russia’s unlawful invasion of a sovereign state, many Arabs have denounced the ‘double standard’ of sports bans on Russia. In other words, it has been the responses of Western countries that have irked Arabs, rather than Russian aggression.
Within the Arab psyche, it seems Ukraine as a nation and the will and aspirations of the Ukrainian people are not part of the narrative that is shaping their opinion towards the war. Ironically, in a region that built its entire cultural narratives on concepts of resistance, jihad, and anti-colonialism, many are resenting Ukraine for resisting Russian occupation. Such an attitude prevails not just among traditional allies of Russia in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but also in countries like Egypt and the Gulf States.
In fact, the war in Ukraine has highlighted how the most unifying factor among Arab political factions, whether they are leftists, Nasserites, nationalists, or capitalists, is their collective resentment of the United States; often for conflicting reasons. It was interesting to see an overlap between the anti- and pro-Iran camps in the region. Both projected an understanding of Russian motives in Ukraine, and regard the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to voice their grievances towards the US. Each camp resents the US for different reasons; Iran sees the US as its archenemy, while regional opponents of Iran resent the US for not standing strong against Iran, and for its efforts to reach a nuclear deal with the Mullahs in Tehran at any price. Both camps, however, see Russia as an alternative ally that can stand against perceived American hegemony over the global order.
The same contradiction is seen in Turkey, where, as Suat Kınıklıoğlu wrote, both Nationalist-Islamism and Eurasianism overlap, as they both despise Western dominance in the international order, feel threatened by the liberal cultural-civilizational siege of the West, and thus have a common counter-hegemonic view of the world. In Egypt, Mohamed Salmawy wrote, “a third bloc is needed”, one that yearns for the 50s, and the Non-aligned Movement, led by Egypt, India, and Yugoslavia.
Arab media outlets’ coverage of the conflict, while claiming neutrality, is full of ambiguity and subtle bias towards Russia. Most, if not all, of the Arab media start the news with almost identical themes that include “Russia says,” “Russia did,” or “Russia claims,’ which has triggered positive bias towards Russia among their followers.
It is perhaps understandable to see how the conflict in Ukraine is used as an excuse to lash out against the Biden administration’s policies that have neither supported America’s traditional allies in the region, nor stood firm against US enemies such as the Mullahs’ regime in Tehran. Nonetheless, such ambiguous handling of the war in Ukraine is worrisome to say the least, and for many reasons:
First, Russia can’t balance US dominance
It is a mistake to assume that Putin’s Russia will counter what Arabs perceive as “US hegemony.” Historically, apart from its rule in the Syrian civil war, Russia has a poor record of supporting any Arab cause. It failed to help Iraq, Libya, and the Palestinian cause. The economic impacts of this war, together with the crippling US sanctions on Russia will limit its influence and ability to navigate the global order. Furthermore, its strong relations with the regime in Tehran will limit its ability to support Arab Gulf states in their quest to limit Iran’s destructive regional policies.
Second, calls for a “third bloc” are equally delusional. The fifties Non-aligned Movement (NAM) tried to transcend the Cold War, but the NAM ended up as one of the Cold War’s chief victims. The group eventually moved closer to the Soviet camp and lagged behind the Western world on all fronts, militarily, technologically, and economically. Furthermore, denying Ukraine’s right to self- determination is an insult to all the values of the NAM and the anti-colonial stance of all Arabs.
Third, fanning the flame of anti-Americanism is counter-productive. Crying about American’s double standards exposes Arabs’ own bias and inconsistencies. Arabs behave as if they are not too bothered about colonialism and imperialism when it’s being conducted by a non-Western actor, and they only unleash their anger against what they perceive as American imperialism. While they bitterly remember the US invasion of Iraq, Arabs forget how the ex-Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait and denied its legitimacy as a sovereign nation, which, in many ways, resembles how Putin handles Ukraine.
Regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine, the current ambiguity and soft stance towards Russian aggression will have negative long-term impacts on the Arab world. It will destroy the moral compass of young Arabs, who will grow increasingly susceptible to conspiracy theories, tolerant towards injustices as long as they are committed by non-Western actors, and cynical about the universal values of freedom and the right to self-determination.
It’s time for Arabs to remove their biased Cold War cloak and look at Ukraine as a country yearning to be liberated from its colonial master. Arabs must recognize the sovereignty of independent states, from the West and the East, and reject the bullying, aggression, and catastrophic destruction of human life that has characterized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine is not Russia, exactly as Kuwait is not part of Iraq, and Lebanon is not part of Iran. It is about time to stand for Ukraine, regardless of our grievances about American policies in the region.