Analyzing the Arab League’s Stance Towards the Ukrainian Crisis


Thu, 07-04-2022 03:35 PM, Aden

Andrew Korybko (South24) 

The commencement of Russia’s ongoing special military operation in Ukraine has polarized the world. Moscow claims that this move is meant to ensure the integrity of its national security red lines in that country and the region more broadly while Kiev and its US-led partners regard it as an illegal invasion. The rest of the international community is divided and many countries are giving off mixed signals. The Arab League’s stance towards this conflict is important to analyze since it exemplifies the complex balancing act that many governments are attempting in order to advance their interests in this context. 

The initial frame of reference for interpreting any given government’s stance is how they voted at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last month with respect to the resolution condemning Russia’s military activities in Ukraine and calling for Moscow to immediately withdraw. The American news site Axios published a map that conveniently allows one to see how every member of the international community voted in their article about how “141 countries vote to condemn Russia at UN”. A quick glance reveals that the Arab League states took one of three positions.

Syria, which has been suspended by the organization, was the only one to veto the resolution. Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan, meanwhile, abstained from voting while all other members supported it. Observers should note, however, that the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is presently a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), earlier abstained from voting on a US-led resolution condemning Russia’s military activities in Ukraine. Axios cited sources in their report about this to claim that “UAE abstained from UN Security Council vote due to U.S. response to Houthi attacks”. 

There’s some additional context that the reader should be made aware of before the analysis proceeds to an explanation of why those countries reacted as they did. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan urged Islamic countries to mediate in the conflict during the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) Foreign Ministers meeting in Islamabad late last month. The participants all appeared receptive to this proposal, so much so that an Arab League delegation that included the Foreign Ministers of Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Sudan just visited Moscow and offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. 

With all of this in mind, one can now obtain a better understanding of every country’s stance. Syria is a Russian military ally whose incumbent government that’s only partially recognized across the world owes its continued existence to Moscow’s decisive anti-terrorist intervention that began in September 2015 and which halted the dual advances of anti-government forces and ISIS on the capital. Damascus repaid this literally existential favor by recognizing Crimea’s contentious reunification with Russia as well as the independence of Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Ukraine’s Donbass. 

Syria’s stance towards the Ukrainian Conflict was therefore to be expected. In fact, it would have been scandalous for Damascus to do anything other than follow its Russian ally’s lead by vetoing that UNGA Resolution. So loyally does Syria support everything that Russia does anywhere across the world that some have begun to wonder whether it’s acting independently or if its foreign policy is controlled by Moscow nowadays. Objectively speaking, Russia likely leverages some influence over Syria but Damascus’ leadership probably truly believes that its interests are best served by siding with its ally. 

The next category of Arab League members to analyze is those that abstained from voting on last month’s UNGA Resolution. Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan all have special and privileged relations with Russia that help explain their position. Moscow is the largest military supplier of the Algerian and Iraqi militaries as confirmed by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) “Trends In International Arms Transfers, 2021” report that was published last month. The organization claimed that Russia supplied 81% of Algeria’s arms and 44% of Iraq’s from 2017-2021. 

These supplies fulfill important purposes for their recipients. Algeria remains mired in decades-long tensions with neighboring Morocco over the Western Sahara issue while Iraq employs military-technical equipment from Moscow to support its anti-terrorist operations. Another factor connecting those countries with Russia is energy. Algeria and Iraq and OPEC members who coordinate with Russia through the OPEC+ mechanism spearheaded by Saudi Arabia several years ago. Additionally, Russian companies have invested over $10 billion in Iraqi energy projects as of March 2021. 

Sudan’s relationship with Russia is somewhat different than Algeria and Iraq’s. This politically struggling and internally divided country that nowadays seems perpetually on the edge of yet another coup, large-scale protest movement, or both has cultivated very strategic military ties with Moscow in recent years. The Kremlin hopes to open up a naval base in Port Sudan in order to restore the former USSR’s influence over the Red Sea and perhaps also eventually the Gulf of Aden too. General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo confirmed in early March following a visit to Moscow that Khartoum remains interested in this. 

Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan therefore do indeed have special and privileged relations with Russia that explain why their governments decided to abstain from last month’s UNGA vote against it. Despite the closeness of their ties with Moscow, however, they didn’t veto the resolution like Damascus did. That’s because they wanted to signal to the international community that they practice a policy of what can be described as principled neutrality in what many have taken to calling the New Cold War. Vetoing the resolution would have suggested that they’re under Russian influence like Syria is, which they object to. 

As for those other Arab League states that supported the resolution, they all have close ties with the US, even those like Saudi Arabia and the UAE whose relations with America are nowadays comparatively more complicated than before. Voting for the motion was meant to deflect from any accusations that they’re supposedly “in Russia’s camp” and the subsequent pressure that might be imposed upon them as a result of that perception. Be that as it may, both Gulf States have also grown a lot closer to Russia in recent years, but obviously not close enough to abstain from the vote and risk the West’s wrath. 

This observation brings the analysis around to sharing a few words about the UAE’s abstention from the US-initiated UNSC vote against Russia that was mentioned earlier in the present piece. As Axios reported, that move shouldn’t be interpreted as being against America per se but as a response to its ally not reacting as expected to the Houthis’ recent attacks. The UAE hoped that the US would once again designate that armed Yemeni group as terrorists but this hasn’t yet happened because Washington seemingly wants to keep diplomatic channels with them open. 

It therefore makes sense that Abu Dhabi would decline to support Washington’s UNSC motion against Russia if Washington won’t acquiesce to Abu Dhabi’s wishes for its ally to once again designate the Houthis as terrorists. Despite this international politicking, it would be inaccurate to describe the UAE as anti-Russian even in the event that it would have supported the US’ UNSC resolution against Russia. Energy, investment, and military-technical ties between those two have been growing in recent years and Abu Dhabi importantly declined to sanction Moscow in solidarity with its Western partners. 

In fact, it’s now time to introduce an altogether different dimension to this analysis and that’s the fact that the vast majority of the international community – the Arab League states included – haven’t sanctioned Russia despite immense US-led Western pressure upon them to do so. Nobody realistically expected China to comply with these demands but neighboring India has impressively remained neutral and actually eagerly expanded its energy ties with Russia during this crisis. As the world’s second-largest developing country, India hopes to set an example for the rest of the Global South to follow.

That’s not to say that the Arab League countries are acting under Indian influence, but just that they must have seen that the US has been unable to successfully pressure its new military-strategic partners in India on this issue and might have also wagered that it won’t succeed in pressuring them either. Complying with America’s anti-Russian sanctions would also prompt suspicions from their other non-Western partners like China and India that they’re no longer strategically autonomous countries but are nowadays under the US’ influence exactly as the European Union (EU) states are considered to be. 

That could have in turn created incipient obstacles to the further comprehensive and independent development of their mutually beneficial bilateral relations. Although neither China, India, nor any other major non-Western countries is likely to publicly acknowledge it, they’re probably all very closely monitoring which members of the international community complied with the US’ demands to sanction Russia. That’s because they, and especially China, might worry that such countries could also comply with possibly forthcoming US demands to sanction Beijing or at least distance themselves from it. 

The Arab League states’ refusal to sanction Russia in spite of the majority of them voting against it at the UNGA only sends off mixed signals if one doesn’t understand the strategic determinants of their foreign policy like was explained in this analysis for each of those three categories of countries within the bloc. In truth, each of their positions makes perfect sense upon realizing their relations with Russia and/or the US, and especially with respect to their interests in remaining strategically autonomous by not sanctioning Russia. Studying their positions helps to understand the intricacies of diplomatic balancing. 

Moscow-based American political analyst
Photo: AFP

RussiaArab LeagueArab Russian TiesUkraineMiddle East