Today’s world, with its current architecture of international relations, has entered a new phase of transformation, one that will take years. As a rule, such developments transpire through an overhaul of the old system with a new one being established instead, which is typically a painful process. The Middle East, being largely a litmus test of changes in the world, entered the transformation stage some 10 years ago, anticipating global changes in the overall international system. As a global leader in the number of conflicts and potential crises, nations of the Middle East know the price of the current changes and strive to use diplomacy, mediation, and pragmatism to mitigate crises, including in the conflict in Ukraine.
On September 21–22, Russia and Ukraine exchanged the largest number of POWs since the conflict’s escalation in February 2022, and the parties stroke a deal in July opening Ukrainian ports for grain exports. Both diplomatic breakthroughs were made possible by good offices provided by actors external to the conflict. In particular, Turkey and Saudi Arabia were involved in setting up the POW exchanges, while Turkey, together with the UN, acted as an intermediary in concluding the grain deal.
On October 11, UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan made his first official visit to Russia in three years to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the negotiations, Putin thanked his counterpart for his mediation efforts and “contribution to resolving all contentious issues, including the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.” On October 13, Russian and Turkish Presidents met in Astana, where, among other bilateral issues, the leaders were expected to discuss matters related to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, including Ankara’s mediation. These high-level interactions illustrate the keen interest of Middle Eastern nations to act as an intermediary in the dangerous escalation between Russia and the West amid the Ukrainian conflict.
It is generally worth noting that Middle Eastern countries are proactively engaging in the diplomatic process, offering their mediation capacities to Moscow and Kiev while preserving their neutrality and pragmatism. It looks increasingly obvious that they are far more interested in the speediest resolution of the conflict—or, in the very least, in not protracting it—than their Western counterparts. The only standout among the latter is French President Emmanuel Macron, who has unsuccessfully been offering his mediation services. Starting from the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict in late February 2022, several nations of the Middle East have offered themselves as mediators: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Egypt, etc. The League of Arab States (LAS) has also proposed itself as an intermediary. What lies behind their active stance?
Pragmatic approach and neutrality
First of all, it is important to highlight that Middle Eastern countries have recently been increasingly employing pragmatism in their foreign policies as they diversify their diplomatic portfolios, which certainly pays off. For instance, such Middle Eastern powerhouses as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran (before reports on supplying UAVs to Russia) and Egypt enjoy good working relations with both Moscow and Kiev as well as with the countries that directly provide military aid to Ukraine. So far, none of them is going to choose sides to please the West, which has been putting pressure to join sanctions and “put a tight cap” on relations with Russia, if not sever them altogether. Clearly, Middle Eastern states realize that by choosing sides would not only put their evolving bilateral relations with Russia at risk but also rule out the possibility to act as an intermediary in the negotiations, thereby contributing to resolving the Ukrainian crisis. Besides, this would definitely cast a shadow on their intermediary abilities in the future: there will hardly be anyone willing to turn to an intermediary that openly supports a certain party to a conflict.
By pursuing pragmatic policies, Middle Eastern nations will have more chances to act as intermediaries, advancing peaceful resolution and consistently promoting their interests. This is why Moscow does not consider Western countries as possible mediators: they have clearly compromised their neutrality by becoming a de facto party to the conflict imposing sanctions and sending weapons, instructors and mercenaries to Ukraine. Amid such circumstances, continued neutrality of Middle Eastern states (such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.) presents them with an advantage, since their stance looks balanced, independent, and consistent with their best interests as opposed to the approach favored by the West. They continue to be partners of the West, simultaneously developing cooperation with Russia and China, the two other centers of today’s world. Moscow views such approach as pragmatic and conducive to fostering dialog.
Russia and Turkey, for instance, have pragmatic and mutually respectful relations, which has recently allowed the two states to successfully overcome several crises in spite of their differences (Su-24 downed in Syria in 2015, the confrontation in Syria and Libya, sales of military equipment to Ukraine). This makes Turkey a more acceptable intermediary for Moscow. The same applies to Russia-Saudi Arabia relations that continue to develop despite the two states’ differences in Syria or Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran, a country that Russia has friendly relations with.
Second, most countries of the Middle East have a lack of trust towards the West. In their opinion, the Ukrainian conflict proves that the West resorts to double standards which are applied to the issue of migrants and to other armed conflicts (the analogy with the Israel–Palestine conflict) or to weapons deliveries.
Third, Middle Eastern states may be said to prefer a multipolar/polycentric world to a unipolar one as they prefer a world with many ways of hedging risks—of not putting all eggs in one basket and of profiting from maintaining a balance: receive weapons and security guarantees from the U.S., investments from China, and cooperation in energy and security from Russia. Multi-vector policy is becoming one of the new pillars of their foreign relations. This way, these nations ensure comfortable conditions for their own development and prioritize their own interests instead of somebody else’s.
Today, the Middle East at large, as well as each of the region’s states, have a unique opportunity to become a neutral dialog platform, where various conflicting parties could meet. They could also start preparing various expert initiatives gathering scholars from opposing parties. Since once-neutral European states are ceasing to be such (Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland), there will be a tangible grow in demand for truly neutral states capable of setting up new regional venues with account for the nuances of a particular conflict. Ultimately, there may emerge something similar to the Non-Alignment Movement involving neutral states with their own voice. This may also become a factor capable of uniting the regional states helping them to overcome their own issues.
Food security, energy, tourism
Alongside other things, states of the Middle East pursue their own interests, which is only natural amid a conflict whose consequences directly affect them.
The negative effect the crisis has on food security is an obvious reason for these countries to have a stake in resolving the conflict and maintaining relations with Moscow. Since Russia and Ukraine are among largest exporters of agricultural goods (grain, corn, sunflower oil) and fertilizers, the conflict tangibly affects production, safe deliveries, and transportation of goods.
Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are not only the largest Middle Eastern states, but also the heaviest regional buyers of Russian agricultural goods. It is therefore far from surprising that they were concerned with possible delivery stoppages. Consequently, they are directly interested in ensuring supplies of agricultural goods from both Russia and Ukraine.
Coordination within OPEC+ is an equally important factor that helps oil producing nations maintain stable oil prices and, accordingly, fill their treasuries. All the participants recognize the role Russia, one of the world’s largest producers, plays in this format, which suggests that coordination will continue. Given the changing logistics of supplying energy resources as well as highly volatile prices together with the geopolitical situation, Middle Eastern states need greater certainty, which they strive to achieve through a dialog with Russia, a policy confirmed by the decision made by OPEC+ on October 5 to cut oil production by 2 million barrels a day.
The tourist flow into Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE is also of major importance as these three nations have become most popular destinations for Russians in 2022. This translates into millions of tourists traveling into these states and billions going into their treasuries. Besides, over 4,000 Russian investors and companies are registered in the UAE, and over 40,000 Russians live there.
When considering all this, it is quite important to mention that regardless of their intentions and pragmatism, nations of the Middle East do not have the leverage to make Russia, Ukraine, and the West sit at a negotiation table and to enforce peace. However, their principal role is different, and it lies in setting up and maintaining proper negotiation process once the time and conditions come. Still, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are ready to offer themselves as interlocutors in individual matters pertaining to the grain deal or POW exchange. The issue around Zaporozhye NPP security may be resolved, among other avenues, through intermediaries too. That allows countries to arrive at outcomes that benefit them (grain supply guarantees, ensuring stable market for energy resources, etc.) and to maintain a communication channel between Moscow and Kiev.
Choosing between Russia, Ukraine and the West brings these states no advantages. Each is guided by its own interests and will continue to make use of new opportunities. Therefore, policies of Middle Eastern states toward Russia amid the Ukrainian conflict remain pragmatic and balanced even despite the pressure exerted by the West.
At the same time, the West should not be expected to abandon its attempts to put pressure on its Middle Eastern partners to force them to join anti-Russian sanctions. If Middle Eastern states succeed in preserving their pragmatic approach to the Ukrainian crisis, to Russia-West confrontation, and in continuing their multi-vector policies, there will be more chances for a constructive settlement and for a smoother transition to a new architecture of international relations and security. Fostering relations with everyone makes it possible to maintain a balance and to rein in excesses. Multi-vector policy appears to be one of the major future features of the new system. We should keep in mind, however, that Middle Eastern states still significantly depend on the U.S. and Europe, which also makes the scenario of them completely severing ties with their partners unrealistic.