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May 30, 2022 10:22 am

How Long Can the Middle East Walk a Tightrope on Ukraine?

avatar by James M. Dorsey


Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is seen on a screen as he delivers a video address to the delegates of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland May 23, 2022. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

For now, Ukraine remains a low priority for most Middle Eastern nations. But eventually, Ukraine will arrive on their doorstep.

Two centrifugal forces threaten to push Middle Eastern nations off their Ukraine tightrope: an increasingly bifurcated world populated by a multitude of leaders that believe “you are with us or against us,” and a need for consistency in the US and Europe’s application of international law and the upholding of human rights standards.

It wouldn’t take much to throw things off balance.

The Biden administration is considering sending special forces to guard the newly populated US embassy in Kyiv. What happens if Russian forces strike the embassy?

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Similarly, the risk of escalation exists if the United States, NATO, or individual European countries decide to train Ukrainian forces on Ukrainian soil and are attacked by Russia.

To be sure, Russia, like NATO, does not want the war to expand into direct confrontation, but it still would not take much for events to spin out of control.

By the same token, Gulf states’ options may narrow if talks in Vienna fail to revive the 2015 international agreement with Iran, which is looking increasingly likely.

We do not have a deal … and prospects for reaching one are, at best, tenuous,” Robert Malley, President Biden’s special envoy for Iran, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. Malley’s statement came as a covert war between Israel and Iran appeared to escalate, and US officials were seeking to repair relations with Saudi Arabia, possibly paving the way for a visit to the Kingdom by President Biden.

Israel reportedly advised the Biden administration that it was responsible for the recent killing in Tehran of a colonel in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). No one has officially claimed responsibility for the shooting. Similarly, a drone strike targeted a highly sensitive military site outside Tehran, where Iran develops missile, nuclear, and drone technology. The drones exploded into a building used by the Iranian defense ministry to research drone development.

At the same time, a Saudi official noted that Saudi Arabia and Iran had not scheduled a sixth round of talks to resolve differences, because the exchanges had made “not enough” progress.

Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been cool since President Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Crown Prince MBS because of the crown prince’s reported involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

MBS has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler. The crown prince has rejected US demands that the kingdom increase oil production to lower prices and inflationary pressures, and help Europe reduce its dependency on Russian energy. In doing so, Saudi Arabia is playing with the US the same game that Turkey is engaged in within NATO. Both want to capitalize on the US desire to build an anti-Putin coalition.

Turkey has put conditions on Swedish and Finnish NATO membership, but ultimately wants the United States, NATO, and the European Union to develop a Black Sea strategy that would have Turkey at its core. A failure to revive the Iran nuclear agreement would likely drive home that countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have nowhere but the United States to find guarantees for their security. China is unwilling and unable to replace the US as a security guarantor, and Russia has taken itself out of the equation.

The US and European window of opportunity to include human and political rights in their dealings with Middle Eastern countries is right now. But if this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos was any indication, the United States and Europe are not about to avail themselves of the opportunity.

“Biden should use positive inducements to alter the crown prince’s repressive behaviour. MBS, driven by self-interest, would accommodate US requests on human rights if accompanied with incentives and devoid of humiliation,” said US-based high tech entrepreneur Khalid Aljabri; two of his siblings have been detained in the kingdom.

Following missile and drone attacks by Houthi rebels earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sought enhanced written bilateral defense agreements with the United States, if not formal treaties. Two of President Biden’s senior advisers visited Saudi Arabia last week to discuss oil, Iran, and security, including finalizing the transfer of two strategic islands — Tiran and Sanafir — in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty, with Israeli consent. US officials were scheduled in the following days in Washington to brief Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata on their discussions in the kingdom.

Intriguingly, the Israeli media reported on recent secret meetings between Israeli and Saudi officials that focused on security issues, including Iran.

Like the Gulf states, Israel has effectively seen its hedging options narrow as a result of the Ukraine crisis, but it has been less out on a limb than the Gulf states.

However, in the final analysis, Middle Eastern states realize that the United States, in the words of former White House director for the Gulf, Kirsten Fontenrose, “can still easily build global coalitions when necessary, while Russia will be radioactive, more a predatory pariah than partner.”

It could be altogether different if relations between the United States and China were to deteriorate to the degree they have between Washington and Moscow. That may even be more the case if the United States continues to be seen as selective and hypocritical in its adherence to human rights at home and abroad.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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