Thursday, August 11, 2022

Russo-Ukraine war adds fuel to Middle East troubles: Lessons for Nepal

WFP/Khudr Alissa

A A A
A A A

As if over a century-long endless conflicts due to multitude of contrasting national, religious, and cultural faiths have not been enough for the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, Russia invasion on Ukraine (herein after Russo-Ukraine war) has already added further polarization with controversial political stands of various countries of this region. Some countries of the region are dreaming to strengthening their geopolitical positions in the regional and global geopolitics taking advantages of the Russo-Ukraine war. However, risks persist because taking any side of Ukraine or Russia might create civil unrest within any country that may contribute to the destabilization of the geopolitics of the region. This article presents incoherent political situations emerging in the MENA region after the Russo-Ukraine war. Finally, it concludes what lesson Nepal can earn from this unpleasant war.  

Ineffectual political situations of the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)

The Russo-Ukraine war has pushed Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (herein after gulf states) into a tight spot. Both countries are considered long-term allies of the US. When erstwhile US President Barack Obama expressed his soft corner toward the Arab Spring of 2011, many Arab leaders became overly cautious toward the US. Though some confidence was rebuilt between Washington and gulf states during the Trump’s presidency, recent political roles played by Prince Muhammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Muhammad bin Zayed of the UAE after the Russo-Ukraine war showed that they want to break the tradition of becoming like vassal states of any superpowers. Additionally, a reduction in the involvement of the US military in the MENA region and the signing-in of the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the US also created uncomfortable environment between the Washington and the gulf states. The two leaders of Saudi Arabia and UAE are aspiring to using their hydrocarbons potentials as political tools to remain free in their foreign policies without juggling between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing. Saudi Arabia and UAE in no way feel obligated to support the role of Ukraine or Russia in the current Russo-Ukraine war. However, since 2016, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have received much help from Moscow and Beijing.

Though Russia is not a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), its role in cartailing of petroleum resources and influencing its global pricing has been significant. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are cooperating more with Russia than with the US in regulating high pricing of hydrocarbons through their regulated production. The agreements between Beijing and Saudi Arabia to pay in the Chinese currency to hydrocarbon purchase from Saudi Arabia and OPEC connection between Moscow, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi have opened the door for military cooperation between the gulf states and China and Russia. These geopolitical developments in the MENA region are worrisome for the US.  

The agreements between Beijing and Saudi Arabia to pay in the Chinese currency to hydrocarbon purchase from Saudi Arabia and OPEC connection between Moscow, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi have opened the door for military cooperation between the gulf states and China and Russia.

In addition to the possibility of weapon deals between Russia and gulf countries, Beijing’s imports of annual hydrocarbon from Saudi Arabia have increased from $42 billion in 2012 to over $72 billion after the Russo-Ukraine war. Likewise, from UAE, China’s import of hydrocarbon increased from $14 billion in 2012 to over $50 billion dollars in the recent years. Indeed, China has become the main hydrocarbon purchaser from both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These trades not only have shortened distances between Beijing and gulf states, but also to advancing the test of the ballistic missile programs. Further, the Russo-Ukraine war has contributed to the weakening of Washington’s human rights stand against the Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman related to the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi from the Istanbul-based Saudi Consulate. Earlier, this was a big debate in Washington Congress and Senate but after the Russo-Ukraine war, it has become a trivial issue for the Washington. Beijing’s high regards to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his announcement of investing of $10 billion in China has been another headache to Washington D. C. Simply put, the relationships between Saudi Arabia with Russia and China are strengthening each day after the start of Russo-Ukraine war than with Washington D. C.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have condemned Russa’s heinous actions on Ukraine. Additionally, neither Saudi Arabia nor UAE has taken US President Biden’s request seriously to increase the production of hydrocarbon by 250,000 more barrel per day to improve the supply chain with lowering cost per barrel of hydrocarbon. Rather, as members of OPEC, gulf states with their 21 percent contribution to the global hydrocarbon production, are closely working with Russia by ignoring US’s repeated requests to increase hydrocarbon production. Interestingly, both gulf states not only are working closely with Russia, but also are seeking American military assistance to defend their oil resources from the possible attacks of Houthi rebels. The Riyadh and Abu Dhabi governments are worried that the Houthi rebels might be getting various assistances from Tehran to destroy Saudi’s and UAE’s oil refineries. Further, Saudi Arabia also wants to acquire of F-35 aircraft from the US. There are suspicions that US has approached Venezuela and Iran to increase the production of hydrocarbons, a major twist in US policies developed after the Russo-Ukraine war.  

Turkey maneuvers MENA’s geopolitics taking advantages of Russo-Ukraine’s war

Turkey's attitude towards the Russo-Ukraine war has been ambiguous and full of mutual contradictions. When Russia first attacked Ukraine, President Erdogan condemned Russia’s actions but allowed Russian military aircraft to use Turkish’s air space and water routes connecting the Black Sea and Mediterranean Ocean through the strait of Bosporus. Additionally, Turkey’s resistance to the NATO’s membership applications of Sweden and Finland appeared just symbolic. Political pundits are considering this strategy of Turkey as a bargaining chip to improve its worsening economies that have experienced over 70 percent inflation with 44 percent loss of its currency’s values since the past two years. Though Ankara and Russia had been enemies from the time of Ottoman Empire, Ankara often treats Russia as an ally. Turks are looking for the US role to control Russian activities in the Black Sea. Given the historical animosity of Turks with Russia over the issue of Crimea dating back to the Ottoman’s reign, Kiev should have been a natural partner for Ankara, but Turkey never wants to take any actions that will bring Kiev close to Ankara because it might anger Moscow. Nearly, half of Turkey's gas demand comes from Russia. Tourism economy that contributes almost 11 percent of the total GDP of Turkey is mostly generated from the 2/3rd of the international tourists originating from Russia.

There are suspicions that US has approached Venezuela and Iran to increase the production of hydrocarbons, a major twist in US policies developed after the Russo-Ukraine war.  

Syria, the Caucasians, and Libya are even less eager in confronting with Russia.  Though Turkey is increasingly feeling the burden of hosting nearly 4 million Syrian refugees living in the country, Turkey is less eager to speak against Russian actions to defend Assad’s government in Syria. Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia are in no positions to make their stands clear on Russo-Ukraine war. Turkey’s Erdogan is playing a sophisticated game in the MENA region. He has threatened among other things to launch a new military operation in Syria. Erdogan always favors Azerbaijanis on Nagorno-Karabagh issues.  Erdogan is worried about his success in the forthcoming general election, and his stand in Russo-Ukraine war is unclear. Tripoli has never been cleared which side it stands in Russo-Ukraine war.

Iran’s clear stand

Iran on the other hand has openly supported Moscow since the beginning of the Russo-Ukraine war. Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi has taken Putin’s explanation of the Russo-Ukraine war positively. Both Iran and Russia have been in good relationships since 2015.  Both are backing Bashar Assad’s retention to power, and both have also begun to strengthen economic ties. Russia has supported Tehran in its observer status in the Shanghai Corporation Organization in 2021. Moscow and Tehran also are making roadmap to have a 20-year strategic cooperation. Tehran's support of Russian aggression in Ukraine also stems from the analogies that US imperialistic attitude toward Iraq in 2003 could be a steppingstone to attack on Iran, and Tehran has good reason to side with Russia in Russo-Ukraine war. As an oil rich nation, Iran has upper hands in some cases. For example, Tehran may ask for US’s assurance not to have economic sanction in its investment in Russia and other countries should it agree to increase oil production to sustain global supply chain. Tehran is always concerned that if the US dollar remains the major convertible currency, the US sanction on international trade may jeopardize Iranian trade. Russia on the other hand is concerned that if the US and Iran come close, it might improve global supply of hydrocarbon which could have dire economic consequences for the Russian economy. The Iranians remain in between a hammer and an anvil in the sanctions to be lifted but Tehran does not want to enter into a new agreement with the US bypassing Russia. The Russians desire that a prolonged barrier between Tehran and Washington D. C. would be good for Russia.

Israel:

Russia is of strategic importance for Israel's national security. With Moscow's tacit approval, the Israeli air force can possibly attack Iranian targets in Syria without fear of Russian. Israel is in such a difficult situation that if Iranian activities increase in Syria, Israel may be forced to break any tacit agreement with Moscow and attack targets in Syria without Russian consent. This action might prove very costly to Israel, which may even draw US’s attention if situations escalate further. Thus, Israel is moving cautiously while dealing with Russia in the Russo-Ukraine war and is even trying to play a mediating role. Russia is positively aligned with Tel Aviv and Moscow most often takes Israeli interests into account in its role in the Middle East. Russian presence in Syria allows Assad to continually maneuver between Moscow and Tehran. This benefits Israel because it makes Syria dependent on Moscow debilitating Syria from making any independent decision should it decide to retaliate against Israel in Golan Heights territories. However, in the recent days, Moscow’s role on the MENA geopolitics has become suspicious. Israel-Palestinian Hamas delegation visited Moscow recently. Recently, some Russian made anti-aircraft defenses were fired on Israeli aircraft. Israelis often connect such attacks with the visit of Hamas to Moscow. This confuses Israel on the role of Moscow’s geopolitics in Israel. These intertwined and convoluted developments are making Israel worry on the role of Moscow on Israel’s future.

In the recent days, Moscow’s role on the MENA geopolitics has become suspicious. Israel-Palestinian Hamas delegation visited Moscow recently.

Technologically savvy Israel has established its undefeatable leadership in various techno-fronts such as the:

  1. Israel has proposed an alternative 135-miles long canal connecting the Gulf of Aqua with the Mediterranean Sea to the 100-mile-long Suez Canal. Suez Canal has been in operation since 1869. It contributes 12 percent of the global trade carrying one billion tons of cargo annually. Almost 19,000 ships pass through the Suez Canal annually bypassing 12,000 miles long waterways going through Morocco to Gulf of Aden via Cape Town. However, on March 23, 2021 a huge cargo ship blocked the Suez Canal causing the loss of billions of dollars revenues stalling several million tons of cargo. This blockage caused the rise in oil prices in the international markets. Suez Canal has been a pillar of Egypt's struggling economy and one of the country's top foreign currency earners. Between 2015 and 2020, the Suez Canal brought Egypt $27.2 billion an increase from the $25.9 billion earned during 2010 and 2015. However, the cargo blockage has necessitated the construction of new canal. A tech savvy Israel has been planning to connect 135-miles-long canal connecting the Gulf of Aqaba with Mediterranean Sea as an alternative to the Suez Canal.
  2. developing newest technology, Israel has been a leader to using solar heat into the energy system. Israel has developed new technology to explore energy from Jordan Valley.
  3. Israel has been a leader in converting desert into a green farm, producing organic agricultural products.

Despite being a technological leader in the Middle East, Tel-Aviv does not have many good neighbors. Though Tel-Aviv /Jerusalem had good relationships with Trump government, its relationship with the Biden’s administration is just okay. In this situation, Israel has been remaining at low profile in the Russo-Ukraine war.

Egypt:

Though Egypt does not share border with Ukraine and Russia, Egypt has been a great sufferer from the Russo-Ukraine war. Egypt is the largest wheat importer in the world. It used to import over 70 percent if its grain demand from Ukraine and Russia. The Russo-Ukraine war has already led to an increase in wheat price by over 60 percent. As a result, overall Egyptian inflation has risen by over 15 percent. President Sisi who came to power in the wake of the 2014 military coup promising to correct many mistakes of Hosni Mubarak will face serious food crises, which might be as serious as in Sri Lanka.

Since the entire MENA region has been facing over 40 percent price increase in grain, many countries have been facing crises in food supplies. As the food prices increase, who knows a decade’s back Arab spring might come back in the MENA region. No one can predict what might be the consequence of such political upheavals. Lebanon will be impacted severely where inflation has exceeded 200 percent and the government no longer has the money to pay its current bills.

If the Russo-Ukraine war does not end soon, this gambit may turn out deadly because food price will be unaffordable to many people.

If the Russo-Ukraine war does not end soon, this gambit may turn out deadly because food price will be unaffordable to many people. In such crises, even the slogans of nationalism that united Egypt in 1956 under Nasser and Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk may not work. Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq may face many anti-wave protests and social unrests resulting in a new type of Arab spring. An urgent solution on Russo-Ukraine war is overdue for the humanitarian cause.

What can Nepal learn from this Russo-Ukraine war?

There is no connection between Nepal’s geopolitics with Russo-Ukraine war. However, if Nepal plunges into unbalanced foreign policy among friendly neighbors, Nepal can face tumultuous sociopolitical conditions. The mushrooming of many educational institutions has contributed to the graduations of both skilled technocrats and many less skilled theocrats. Though reliable and exact figures of unemployed is difficult to find, the unemployment rate is over 40 percent in Nepal. Each household has at least a person away from home who contribute to remittance and supports 5-6 members family back home. The current global economic activities suggest that the global recession is not far from which will leave many people jobless. Nepali youths who will face unemployment at their current destinations will be compelled to return home. They will have to confront with agricultural lands that have been left barren for many years. With the ongoing shortages of fertilizer and seeds and irrigation facilities, Nepal may not sustain its agricultural production of its own. Without much jingoistic slogans, Nepal needs to carefully adapt a balanced foreign policy and attract foreign investment to create employment opportunities to utilize tech savvy graduates who have been wandering for various opportunities away from home.   

The writer is a Professor of Geography at University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, Missouri. He can be reached at [email protected] 

Published on 17 July 2022

Comment