Geopolitical Shifts in the Middle East

How the war in Ukraine impacts Russian influence in the MENA region

By Dr. Tova Norlén, Marshall Center professor


Russia’s history in the Arab world goes back to the 1950s, when the Arab-Israel wars drove Arab states into the arms of the Soviet Union. Although there is evidence of shifting threat perceptions and openness to diplomatic relations with the West, it is difficult for many Arab states to fully disengage from that historic partnership and also risky to upset a carefully crafted diplomatic strategy that keeps both Russia and the United States involved as either guarantors or arms suppliers.

Russia still has influence in the Middle East, but its war against Ukraine significantly limits policy choices and/or maneuverability in the region. Russia’s diminished clout is in turn impacting the Middle East on three levels: strategically, diplomatically and socioeconomically, creating heightened tensions and interlinked threats to the region’s stability. On the strategic level, Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine is contributing to substantial geopolitical shifts and new alliance formations that could further heighten regional tensions. Diplomatically, crosscutting ties, competing loyalties, and conflicting national and sectarian interests have reached new levels of complexity. As a result, most states in the region have opted to stay neutral in a war that pits major global powers on opposite sides. Vulnerabilities created from a variety of economic shocks have led to a steep decline in human security (including the impact of the Black Sea grain crisis), making the region more fragile than ever and arguably at greater risk for political violence.

As the U.S. began to signal a desire for a more indirect leadership role in the Middle East, there was concern among partners and allies in the region that it would lead to a security vacuum that could be exploited by illiberal regional regimes and/or larger hegemonic powers. To preserve the balance of power and deter Iran, the region’s major “status quo” powers, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), realized that they share an interest in the creation of a regional security architecture. The Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE were a result of these shared goals. At the same time, drivers of political violence in the region are increasing, even as dynastic and autocratic regimes uphold the macro-level status quo. Russia still exerts influence politically and militarily through direct intervention (Syria and Libya), or through arms sales. This explains the hedging behavior of most Arab states regarding the Ukraine war and their reluctance to apply international sanctions or help balance the oil market. Because of a complex landscape with crosscutting loyalties and dependencies between autocratic rulers, states and proxies, Russia can still leverage the region’s vulnerabilities to exert influence. However, as Russia withdraws military material to focus on Ukraine, its clout is diminishing and its tactical strength is weakening, creating a dangerous vacuum that regional rivals (Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) and other global actors, such as China, can exploit.

In a speech at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain on November 18, 2022, Colin Kahl, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, warned that the Ukraine war could have serious blowback for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region if Arab states continue to support Moscow by cutting oil production. Most importantly, he questioned why some of the larger states — i.e., Saudi Arabia — have continued to work with Russia as it becomes more evident that Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy, is strengthening its defense alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin through the transfer of attack drones, and potentially missiles, to be used in attacks on Ukrainian cities. Criticizing the hedging behavior seen from many Arab states since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, he stated: “Iranian drones are killing Ukrainian civilians, just as they have struck targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, targeted Israeli and U.S. forces, and attacked international shipping.” Yet, he noted, Arab states still believe that diplomatic ties with Russia will drive a wedge between Russia and Iran.


From left to right, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani stand together during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House in Washington on September 15, 2020.  THE ASSOCIATED PRESS


Indeed, that Iran is engaging in its first-ever intervention in a war in the European theater represents a seismic shift that few may appreciate, despite the potential consequences it could have for MENA regional stability and strategic balance. It is likely to heighten tensions between the most powerful Arab states and Iran, and threaten to “rebalance” the strategic advantage that the status-quo-seeking, anti-Iran alliance — created by the Abraham Accords — has achieved over the past three years.
It illustrates the complexity of Middle Eastern loyalties and kinship ties, as well as the contradictions between historic partnerships and crosscutting security cooperation arrangements that span the region. A historic powder keg, where loyalties and alliances often conflict, the MENA region will continue to play a significant role in global power relations and — as the U.S. has realized — is too risky to walk away from.

MENA region security challenges have always been multidimensional — local, regional and geostrategic — but always with a high potential for a significant global impact. Geographically, the region lies at the crossroads of continents and stands as the first line of defense for migrant and refugee flows. Religiously, it is the birthplace of three major religions and a center of major sectarian rivalries. Politically, it has become the playground of hegemonic states, autocratic monarchs, totalitarian dictators, sectarian warlords and ruthless terrorist groups, who purchase loyalty and popular support through bribes and rentier policies, often at the expense of the most vulnerable. Militarily, it is the most militarized of all regions, has the most armed conflicts and, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2021 data, is the region with the most military interventions both by international and regional actors.

The Rise and Decline of Russian Influence

After defeat in the Arab-Israel wars, Arab states turned to the Soviet Union to provide a counterweight against the U.S-Israel alliance. Russia’s current influence stems not only from the postwar stalemate and the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, but also from a natural affinity between likeminded regimes that share the same ideology of authoritarian control and traditional values. The MENA region is one of dictators and regional hegemonic rivals who live up to the Arab saying that “the misfortunes of some people are advantages to others.” Political alliances are largely transactional between states that share an interest in stifling political pluralism and dissent, quashing political Islam, and enshrining autocracy in the form of dynastic rule.

The decade of American primacy in the Middle East that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union left the U.S. entrenched and militarily overstretched, and also engendered distrust across the region, especially on the “the Arab Street,” an expression coined by scholar Fouad Ajami in his 1998 book “The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey” to describe Arab public opinion. Continued U.S. support for Israel, the toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the propping up of the region’s illiberal autocrats, while simultaneously trumpeting the liberal democratic values that inspired the Arab Spring, demonstrated hypocrisy to many Arabs. This fed into anti-Western sentiment in the region and bolstered the narratives and recruitment campaigns of Salafi-jihadi terrorist groups, including ISIS.


Russian troops stand in formation before their withdrawal from Hemeimeem air base in Syria in 2016.  THE ASSOCIATED PRESS


Further, the U.S. foreign policy pivot to Asia and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Syria opened a coveted opportunity for Putin to return to MENA as a strongman and influencer. Capitalizing on a power vacuum and local instability to exploit the insecurities of Arab authoritarian regimes, Putin successfully paired military support with diplomatic overtures, a quest for lucrative energy and infrastructure deals, disinformation and propaganda. Intervening in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in 2015, Russia quickly turned the tide in the civil war in favor of the Syrian government. The Russian Defense Ministry said it operated two bases and deployed as many as 63,000 troops and S-300 and S-400 missile defense systems across Syria, providing the much-needed support for Assad’s forces to defeat the jihadist and rebel groups.

But Putin’s support for instability — whether directly in Syria or indirectly through the Wagner Group in Libya — also had ulterior motives. It provided combat training for Russian fighter pilots and testing opportunities for a whole range of new Russian weapons systems that could then be sold to countries in the region. This was confirmed by Putin’s main military strategist, Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who in 2017 justified the Russian operations in Syria by explaining the benefits it had offered Russian fighter pilots who received superior training through their active engagement in a real-life battlespace. Similarly, in August 2022, Russian news agency TASS quoted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu saying that more than 200 new Russian weapons had been successfully tested in Syria and then marketed to the Assad regime, as well as to other countries across the region.

According to data from SIPRI, Russian arms sales to the MENA region increased by 125% between 1999-2008 and 2009-2018. From 2014 to 2018, the region accounted for 37% of all Russia’s exports. Russian sales to the region were 16% higher in 2009-2013 compared with the 2014-2018 period. While this number is lower than the staggering amounts of weapons that some states in the region receive from the U.S. and other Western countries, arms sales from Russia are often offered without conditions or human-rights vetting and are therefore easier to obtain. They also sometimes come with direct rewards. For instance, Algeria, by far the biggest importer of Russian arms in the Middle East, was rewarded by having its $4.7 billion Soviet-era debt written off. Egypt, another country that has refused to isolate Moscow, has had its share of arms from Moscow grow dramatically over the past two decades. When the U.S. cut military aid and its planned delivery of military equipment, including F-16 aircraft, after the 2013 military coup that removed the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi government from power, Russia was quick to fill the gap.

However, Russian weapons systems came with no security guarantees, and have a lifespan and reliability much shorter than more attractive systems from the U.S. or other Western states. While previous Russian interventions in Georgia, Crimea and Syria had demonstrated Russian military effectiveness, the Ukraine invasion has proved many Russian systems deficient or flawed in combat (like the exploding turrets of its T-72 tanks). This will make it difficult for Russia to continue to compete as a major arms seller in a market that includes China, France, Germany, Israel, Turkey and the U.S. While Russia has strengthened ties with Iran, many Arab states, especially in the Gulf, have become open to exploring new security frameworks that offer closer ties to the U.S.

Immediate Security Impacts

The impacts from the Ukraine war on Russia’s MENA military engagements was almost immediate — as soon as it was clear Russia was not heading to an easy victory. According to a report by The New York Times on October 19, 2022, senior defense officials in the MENA region claimed that Wagner Group mercenaries and thousands of Russian troops had already redeployed from Syria to Ukraine by late spring. Similarly, a Middle East Eye article on November 9, 2022, reported claims from MENA regional intelligence sources that Russia has also leveraged its strategic partnership with Syria by deploying more than 500 “experienced” pro-Syrian regime fighters who had been backed, trained and managed by Russia. Tasked mainly with “safeguarding” facilities in Luhansk and Donetsk, these units include the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, the Fifth Corps and Liwa al-Quds, a militia made up predominantly of Palestinian Syrians.

More consequentially, Russia has now removed its key air-defense system from Syria for use in Ukraine. The S-300 system has been an important ingredient in the deconfliction agreement between Israel and Russia over Syrian skies, in which Russia has agreed to turn a blind eye to Israel’s air attacks against Hezbollah and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps strongholds. On the one hand, many now argue that the withdrawal of these systems remove limits on Israel’s operations in Syria and thus, by extension, lifts Israel’s apprehensions about openly supporting Ukraine. On the other hand, Russia’s withdrawal of these systems and its waning leadership role in Syrian day-to-day management and operations have also opened a new power vacuum in Syria that will likely be exploited by Iran. Due to Iran’s growing role as Russia’s main weapons provider, it may now have significant leverage over Russia to expand its influence in Syria in order to prevent Israel’s domination of Syrian skies.

A simple analysis of influence theory tells us that Putin’s most logical strategic choice to maximize Russia’s national interests would be to use his leverage to deter (or punish) Israel while simultaneously rewarding Iran. It is doubtful Putin would have moral compunctions about the possible destabilizing effects of such policies on the MENA region when weighing his own, much more immediate priority of preventing Israel from offering military support to Ukraine.

MENA: Hedging or Diplomatic Balancing Act

Apart from Syria, all Arab states in the MENA region supported the United Nations Security Council statement that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. None, however, have joined in the international sanctions regime that aims to prevent funds from flowing into Putin’s war machine. On the contrary, some — such as Saudi Arabia — are de facto supporting Russia by refusing to increase oil production to lower prices and thereby decrease Russian oil revenues.

While it would be easy to view their hedging behavior as taking Russia’s side, the reality is much more complex and stems from a number of conflicting imperatives. Saudi Arabia is concerned over the impacts that lower gas prices would have on its own economy, but also about potential Russian retaliation if it gives in to Western demands. Russia still holds considerable sway over the country, due to its prominent position as an oil producer and through its strengthening military alliance with Iran. During U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to the region in July 2022, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman clearly communicated his wish to keep Russia at the table when he explained that an agreement with the U.S. to produce more oil would have to be discussed with Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries-Plus members, the most important part of the “plus” being Russia. Continuing Saudi-Russian ties were demonstrated when Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, a Saudi royal family member and head of the Kingdom Holding Company, announced shortly after the Biden visit that Kingdom Holding had invested $500 billion in Russian firms, including Gazprom, Lukoil and Rosnet, since the beginning of the Ukraine war.

By refusing to collaborate with Western demands, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not only demonstrating their unwillingness to take sides in what they see as a complex European conflict, but also their displeasure with the U.S.’s reluctance to support their fight against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, and with the Biden Administration’s efforts to revive the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA). The U.S. administration has learned that it has limited leverage to force MENA compliance. The UAE (officially) and Saudi Arabia (unofficially) are both vital to the strengthening regional security framework created by the Abraham Accords and, together with Israel, serve as status-quo powers that can deter aspiring regional hegemons, especially Iran. Both countries are also important partners for U.S. security cooperation and important destinations for many lucrative U.S. arms deals.

Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the MENA region, has also found itself in a difficult position that reflects the relatively active role that Russia has played in the Middle East over the past two decades. While some political analysts may have attributed former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet’s early reluctance to supply military aid to Ukraine as a sign of his right-wing views, the reality is more complicated. His efforts to mediate (like those of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) demonstrate Israel’s already established diplomatic ties with Moscow (especially with regard to the Syrian deconfliction dialogue), but also a reluctance to be drawn into a complicated European conflict that could spill into the MENA region. Most importantly, however, and similarly to Saudi Arabia, Israel’s primary security challenge comes from Iran, both in the form of conventional/unconventional threats, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and missiles, and from Iran’s potential development of nuclear capabilities.

Israel’s staunch opposition to renegotiating the JCPOA could be partially explained by its insistence that the deal will only partially and temporarily halt Iran’s nuclear development. A more compelling argument, expressed by several Israeli foreign policymakers and experts at a September 2022 security conference at Reichman University in Israel, is that the lifting of sanctions on Iran would not only allow Tehran to restart its nuclear program, but also to significantly increase financial and military support to its regional proxies, including supplying them with advanced military capabilities, such as battle-tested UAVs.

Thus, a renegotiated nuclear deal with Iran that addressed some of those concerns was clearly in the interests of the U.S and Iran during the summer of 2022, but the opportunity was missed due to competing priorities related to the Ukraine war and the challenge of overcoming Saudi and Israeli resistance. With Russia stepping in to fill Iran’s coffers in return for Iranian drones and military technology, the West seems to have lost any leverage it had, at least for the foreseeable future. That Iran could use its renewed influence over Russia to expand its footprint in Syria should be a preeminent global concern. Israeli policymakers have clearly communicated their commitment to keep Iranian and Hezbollah forces out of Syria. The lessened influence of Russia in the Middle East could therefore have severe spillover effects on one of the most volatile security equations in the Levant.

Israel’s new leadership role in the shifting regional security framework and its focus on deterring Iran have also led to a growing partnership with states on the MENA periphery, including Azerbaijan and Turkey. Since Azerbaijan’s independence in 1992, Jerusalem and Baku have become strategic partners — sharing intelligence, developing trade and coordinating policy to protect regional security and counter Iranian expansionist aims. Israel’s substantive military support to Baku was decisive for its 2022 victory over Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. Given the military, diplomatic and economic partnership between the two nations, Azerbaijan would likely be significantly affected in the event of Israeli-Iranian escalations. Growing links between Russia and Iran thus reverberate in a number of security relations that are vital for wider regional stability.

The restoration of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel is another development that was likely triggered by Russia’s changing MENA influence. After a decade of frozen relations, Israel and Turkey agreed to once again exchange ambassadors and consuls general in October 2022. Israel has always had an interest in building closer regional ties with other strategic powers, but Turkey’s religious nationalist politics under Erdoğan and continued push for expanded regional influence, as well as support for the Palestinian cause, made it necessary for Erdoğan to keep Israel at arm’s length. However, with the Abraham Accords and the growing normalization between Israel and many MENA states, Turkey could not afford to be left out, especially given Israel’s military strength, its close ties with the U.S, and its interest in keeping Russian influence minimal and Iranians deterred.

Turkey is the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, which stretched across Africa, Anatolia, Asia and Europe for nearly 500 years, beginning in the 13th century and ending in its defeat in World War I. The psychological impact of the loss of empire lingers, inspiring revisionist narratives that feed into Turkey’s perception of existential threats and strengthening religious-nationalist ideology. While Turkey is unlikely to reconquer its coveted “Turkic” regions in neighboring states, the reappearance of important elements of the country’s secular nationalist historical narrative, including Pan-Turkic maps of the MENA region, gives rise to security concerns for the states that contain those territories. As Turkey increasingly seeks opportunities to fill the gap as Moscow’s influence declines in key areas, some regional states clearly see Turkey’s quest for influence as a way to somewhat reclaim its former empire.


Palestinians outside the White House in Washington in 2020 protest the signing of the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.  GETTY IMAGES


Turkey has viewed its relationship with Ukraine through a similar lens; as an opportunity for influence and economic gains, and as a way to diminish Russian dominance in the Caspian region. While actively supporting the buildup of Ukraine’s military and supplying it with advanced drone technology, Ankara has kept open lines of communication and economic ties with Moscow, making it the only NATO country that has refrained from imposing sanctions. According to Gaetano Massara, writing on the Aspen Institute of Italy website Aspenia Online, keeping Russia far from the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits has always been a geopolitical imperative for Turkey: “Russia’s attacks on Ukraine thus represented a setback for Ankara, which condemned Russia at the U.N., closed the Straits and blocked its airspace to Russian planes bound for Syria. This explains why Turkey is helping Ukraine to resist, supplying it with drones and corvettes.”

Erdoğan’s embrace of “precious loneliness,” which means advancing Turkey’s interests at all costs, has also led him to cooperate with Russia, China, Iran and other states that oppose the U.S-led international order. Erdoğan’s decision to purchase S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, and the launch of the Astana peace process in collaboration with Russia and Iran, are examples. Turkey’s double act has also allowed Erdoğan to present himself as the only credible intermediary between the adversaries, potentially bringing diplomatic credibility to Ankara while raising the price the West must pay for Turkish loyalty. Blocking Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to NATO demonstrated that posture.

An entangled web of crosscutting ties, competing loyalties and selfish pursuits of national interests in the Middle East are threatening the precarious status quo in Syria. Erdoğan’s pledge on November 22, 2022, that Turkey will begin an incursion into Syria’s northern Kurdish border regions to crack down on “terrorist groups” showed that the decline of Russian influence has emboldened him to act unilaterally and against Russian policy regarding Syria. During a November 19, 2022, meeting between Russia and Turkey in Tehran, senior Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev tried to convince Turkey to “refrain from conducting full-scale ground operations.” But Iran has done more than try to convince. According to a July 19, 2022, brief by Colm Quinn for Foreign Policy magazine, Iranian-backed militias and Syrian government troops are prepared to deter or directly confront Turkish forces in the event of an incursion. The Shiite-dominant settlements of Zahra and Nubl were sent reinforcements to fortify defenses and to prevent nearby government-controlled Aleppo from becoming a Turkish target.

These deliberate steps by Iran in Syria reflect Russia’s diminishing clout. It also shows a wider wariness over Turkish strategy, with Ankara’s closer ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia sparking fears in Tehran of a broader anti-Iranian alliance. Thus, Turkey’s role of filling the Russian vacuum has yet had only moderate success, with Erdoğan’s best effort to date being perhaps his role in negotiating the agreement to manage the Black Sea grain crisis.

Human Insecurities, Regional Vulnerabilities

With global energy prices soaring, economic shocks from the war are accelerating a number of preexisting downward trends in socioeconomic and political well-being, putting the region at increased risk for political dissent and violent mobilization. The fragile-state index measures fragility through an aggregate index of socioeconomic, political and security-related variables. Fragile states lack institutional capacity and political legitimacy, leaving them at risk for instability and violent conflict without resilience to disruptive shocks. Several countries in the MENA region top the list of the world’s most fragile states, including Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. These states are also most affected by the war-induced global grain crisis. Developing, oil-importing economies, such as Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, have been hit especially hard by the parallel rise in grain and energy prices, while still struggling with pandemic recovery.

According to this author’s research, published in the Middle East Policy Journal, COVID-19 had already significantly exacerbated and accelerated the decline in some of the most important conditions related to quality of life, including expanding the portion of the population living in extreme poverty, increasing already intolerable income inequality and decreasing opportunity, and further restricting access to basic services, such as health care and education for the most vulnerable, including women, children and refugee populations.


A Sierra Leone-flagged vessel sails though the Bosphorus Strait near Istanbul enroute to Tripoli, Lebanon, in 2022 after inspection by Russian and Ukrainian officials.  AFP/GETTY IMAGES


While economic recovery from the pandemic has been stronger than most economists expected, growth has been uneven both across and within countries. Inequality is one of the most significant risk factors for political violence, as it often triggers the political grievances that facilitate extremist radicalization and terrorist recruitment. According to the World Inequality Database, the MENA region tops the list for inequality with 56% of national income accruing to the top 10%, and only 12% going to the bottom 50%. When compounded by unsustainable refugee burdens borne almost exclusively by the region’s most fragile and conflict-affected states, as well as large, informal economies, inequality of income and opportunity contribute to an increasing number of citizens living in extreme poverty. Unfortunately, rather than focusing on effective governance solutions to tackle disparities, beleaguered authoritarian leaders often respond with disproportionate violence to crack down on any signs of political dissent from the Arab Street. This elite-driven security posturing to fill the Russian vacuum can lead to increased polarization between the elites and the masses in MENA societies.

A number of the region’s developing countries are also suffering severe fiscal impacts from the dual shocks delivered by COVID-19 and rising energy prices. These shocks are compounded by decades of poor policy choices that have incurred unsustainable debt-to-GDP ratios and sent some countries, Lebanon in particular, into or close to fiscal default. According to a report from Reuters, Turkey’s economy has been severely impacted as a result of a 212% jump in the cost of its energy imports. The acceleration came after a year in which energy costs had already risen by 75% from 2020. Economists are now predicting a 70% drop in value of the Turkish lira during the first half of 2023.

While Russia’s strategic influence may be waning across the region, its influence operations and disinformation remain powerful in the Arab media, and thus provide a fertile environment for its population-focused “new generation warfare.” The conditions that cause political dissent and rebellion against inefficient and corrupt authoritarian governments also spark increased regional hostility toward the West in general, and the U.S. in particular. Arab hedging behavior is not always just a necessity to balance self-interested relations with Russia; it may also be a recognition of the power of Arab public opinion.

The renewal of Russia’s participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, facilitated by Turkish leadership, showed that Russia does not possess the leverage to fully weaponize wheat and human security. Fully aware that blocking Ukrainian grain shipments from passing through the Black Sea and the Bosphorus would also stop its own shipments, Russia was forced to renegotiate. This shows that Russia, desperate for allies in the regions most affected by rising food prices, may have diminishing leverage to enforce its narrative. Putin has also likely realized that if rising food prices are seen to stem partially from Russia’s actions in the Black Sea, it may undermine those governments that Russia supports, including Egypt and Syria. The Initiative, which expired July 17, had yet to be renewed again by mid-September, despite the efforts of Erdoğan and others.

Conclusion: A New Regional Security Regime

The dual threats of strategic volatility and human insecurity in the MENA region are unprecedented and come at a time when the U.S. and other Western states have reduced bandwidth to deal with another serious global conflagration. Given this context, the maintenance of a regional security framework that can preserve the status quo in a sustainable and equitable way is paramount. The Abraham Accords accomplish the “sustainable,” but the “equitable” remains underdeveloped.


Diplomats meet the press in March 2022 at the landmark Negev Summit in Israel, where Iranian nuclear negotiations, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other issues were discussed. From left, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and the United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.  AFP/GETTY IMAGES


The Abraham Accords, signed in 2019 by Bahrain, Israel, Morocco, Sudan and the UAE, and with the implicit backing of Saudi Arabia, began much more like an arms deal than a peace agreement. The original signatories of the agreement, Israel and the UAE, are both status-quo powers, interested in maintaining regional stability in order to support their prospering economies. Disappointed with the speed at which Arab leaders were willing to drop their support for the Palestinian cause — for what seemed like personal enrichment — and the extent to which benefits from the agreements failed to trickle down to Arab society, many experts and analysts at the time predicted disaster.

But disaster never materialized and, instead, given the uncertainties that arose in the MENA region resulting from Russian aggression in Ukraine, the Abraham Accords have become the foundation for what is truly a paradigm shift for the Middle East regional security architecture. Normalized relations between Israel and the UAE have already led to strong cooperative relationships between the two countries in a number of commercial sectors, including agriculture, engineering, IT and advanced technology. The Negev Summit in Israel in March 2022 and subsequent dialogue have expanded cooperation on regional challenges, including problems related to human insecurity, political fragility, ineffective governance and energy security. While the leaders who walked into the first Negev Forum in Bahrain in June 2022 had widely different agendas, their commitment to continued cooperation speaks to the fact that MENA states are beginning to share a sense of collective responsibility for their own region. The combined effects of COVID-19, U.S. strategic reorientation and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have led them to realize that they could no longer rely on future bailouts from the West.

The U.S. has reversed any previous suggestions that it would — or even could — disengage from the MENA region and instead focused on supporting the strengthening security alliance under the Abraham Accords. The agreements were forged between regional powers who share an interest in continued U.S. engagement, but also a concern that they could no longer fully count on U.S. security guarantees because of growing American domestic unwillingness to fund overseas engagements. The new security framework, together with the shift of Israel from the U.S. European Command to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, has had an unanticipated positive effect. With the entire region (friend or foe) under the same regional command area of responsibility, the U.S. military now has the tools to take a much more collaborative, comprehensive approach to the region’s security policy and preparedness.

Within this framework, the U.S., together with its Western allies, would be well advised to support the efforts of its regional partners to expand cooperation in the areas of security and economics to a more comprehensive, whole-of-society-centered approach that also addresses looming human security challenges. This comprehensive approach will be necessary to mitigate and manage the risk factors that could spark future political violence in the MENA region.

Comments are closed.