Unsettled: The impact of the Russia-Ukraine crisis on the Middle East and North Africa
Heightened conflict in Ukraine could have serious consequences for European interests in the Middle East and North Africa. It could further disrupt energy supplies, exacerbate food insecurity, and help states in the region gain leverage over the US and Europe.
Ukraine’s fate hangs in the balance. Renewed international diplomacy strengthens hopes for a negotiated settlement, but the spectre of all-out war still looms large. If Russia launches a new offensive against Ukraine, the ripple effects for European interests will travel far beyond the two countries, with the Middle East and North Africa likely to be particularly affected.
The war in Ukraine will likely create new problems for Europe in the region. While states in the Middle East and North Africa will not be able to single-handedly replace Russia as Europe’s main energy provider (as some hope), they will secure greater leverage over the West. This could be a setback for the Biden administration’s efforts to shift its focus away from the Middle East and towards Asia, but it could create new opportunities for European diplomacy such as mediation efforts between Algeria and Morocco to open energy pipelines.
Meanwhile, rising tensions between the West and Russia will likely damage regional stabilisation efforts, particularly in Libya and Syria. All-out war between Russia and Ukraine could also prompt a sharp increase in global energy and wheat prices. This could have a devastating humanitarian impact on already fragile states in the Levant and North Africa, whose governance problems could worsen. Regional states that were already struggling economically could find themselves even weaker and more vulnerable to external pressure. These dynamics are especially dangerous in a region where rising bread prices have so often been an indicator of political upheaval and broader turmoil.
The war in Ukraine underlines the dangers of Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. Current tensions have stoked fears of a disruption of Russian gas flows. This would intensify existing energy shortages and lead to even higher prices for European consumers who are experiencing a severe cost-of-living crisis. Against this backdrop, replacing Russian gas with Middle Eastern gas seems to be an attractive solution. But it is easier said than done.
Qatar, as the world’s second-largest producer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), has so far been the main focus of efforts to find alternative energy supplies. Since late January, Washington has been pushing Doha to reroute gas exports to Europe. However, Qatari production is close to maximum capacity, with much of its supply tied up in contracts with key customers in Asia. If the US fails to convince its Asian partners to release some of their purchases for delivery to Europe, new gas supplies will be limited and delivered at spot market prices, which are already at an all-time high.
Qatar’s bargaining power is enhanced by a lack of alternatives, especially since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates do not have comparable LNG production and export capabilities. But Saudi Arabia is important to the energy mix in other ways. An escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict could reduce Russian oil supplies, prices of which have already skyrocketed. Riyadh is under significant US pressure to increase its oil production to drive down prices. So far, it has refused to do so – because higher prices are boosting its revenues, accelerating its recovery from the pandemic. But heightened conflict will intensify Western demands. Saudi Arabia may also sense an opportunity to challenge Russia’s dominance over the eastern European oil market, using its recent inroads into Poland to try to seize a greater global market share.
North Africa represents another potential solution to Europe’s energy woes, given Algeria’s and Libya’s positions as possible alternative gas suppliers. But this too would come with significant complications, not least the way in which North Africa’s messy politics could threaten the stability of supplies.
Escalating tensions between Algiers and Rabat have already halted energy exports through the pipeline that connects Algeria and Spain. The long-standing animosity between the sides offers little hope of a swift resolution – though the Ukraine crisis could prompt stronger European efforts to mediate the dispute. However, Algeria could still provide LNG supplies to Europe or export more gas eastwards through a pipeline to Italy.
Meanwhile, Libya’s political instability and the ongoing threat of conflict make it a troublesome energy partner, particularly given its limited extra capacity. Europeans may support whoever they see as capable of providing short-term stability in western Libya, the location of a major gas pipeline. But this would not be a sustainable solution. Russia could complicate these dynamics further by leveraging its presence in eastern Libya and the country’s oil fields to disrupt energy flows to Europe.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict could provide Middle Eastern and North African states with significant new leverage over the US and Europe. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia will likely seek to use energy dynamics to strengthen their positions. The US designation of Qatar as a major non-NATO ally in January 2022 may be one gesture in this direction. But Qatar will likely want Europe to make concessions. Top of its list may be for the European Commission to shelve a four-year investigation into Qatar’s alleged use of long-term contracts to inhibit the flow of gas to the European single market.
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) wants to escape the status of international pariah he has had since Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018. Riyadh could seek to use US and European requests for increased oil supplies to regain the West’s good favour. This could involve a long-sought meeting with US President Joe Biden and a general softening of US criticism of Saudi Arabia.
Turkey will also be an important part of the equation, given that it is a NATO member and has close ties with both Russia and Ukraine. Like MBS, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been shunned by Europe and the Biden administration. But the conflict in Ukraine would enhance his visibility and increase Turkey’s importance. Russia and the West are now competing to draw Ankara behind their respective positions on Ukraine – with Washington keen for Ankara to continue its weapons sales to Kyiv. Turkey is unlikely to fully align with the West against Russia, given its complicated relationship with the country. But these dynamics will doubtlessly lead to a more self-confident Turkish foreign policy – especially in the Mediterranean and Syria – and toned-down Western criticism of Erdogan’s domestic conduct.
The Western priority of keeping Turkey and other regional states onside is likely to overshadow concerns about values and human rights.
At the same time, heightened tensions between Europe and Russia over Ukraine risk complicating Europe’s position in the crises in Syria and Libya, where Russian intervention has already left Europeans in a weak position. Increased tensions with Moscow will further reduce the likelihood that the West and Russia can come together to secure stabilising political solutions to these crises.
If tensions in Ukraine result in further European sanctions on Russia – or other such punitive measures –Moscow may use its position in Libya to retaliate, including by exploiting renewed conflict and increased migration flows to increase pressure on Europe. Moscow may have less leverage in Syria, given that it effectively owns the Syrian war and wants the West to provide stabilisation support. But heightened conflict in Ukraine could nonetheless impede negotiations on Syria between Russia and the US, impeding even modest progress on humanitarian issues.
One significant unknown is whether the war in Ukraine will affect negotiations to restore the Iran nuclear agreement. Russia has played a constructive role in recent talks, working closely with Western actors to draw Iran back into compliance. But the crisis in Ukraine could push Moscow towards the more disruptive approach of easing pressure on Tehran. For its part, Iran may feel that rising US-Russia tensions and higher oil prices give it breathing room and increase its leverage in negotiations.
Other Middle Eastern states are likely to hedge their bets. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, will be wary of alienating Russia by aligning with the West. This consideration may also limit Riyadh’s willingness to use the crisis to try to seize some of Russia’s current share of the oil market. The last decade has seen a blossoming of security and economic relations between Russia and several states in the Middle East, motivated by a sense of decreasing US interest in the region.
It is likely that Israel will take a similar stance. Israel views the US as its primary international ally. However, ever since Moscow deployed its military to Syria, Israeli officials have come to view Russia as their new neighbour to the north. They are reliant on Russian cooperation to conduct airstrikes against Iranian-linked targets in Syria.
Finally, there is a risk that escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine will significantly affect wheat exports from the two countries, which account for nearly 29 per cent of the global supply. At a time when food prices are rising largely due to pandemic-related supply chain disruptions, this would further increase the threat of food insecurity.
Another spike in the price of bread – combined with a sharp rise in energy prices – could have a severely destabilising effect on the Middle East and North Africa. The region already has some of the highest levels of food insecurity in the world, and further price increases could deepen humanitarian crises and feed wider unrest. Few in the Middle East and North Africa would be spared from these effects. States that are hovering dangerously close to famine, such as Yemen and Lebanon (both major buyers of Ukrainian wheat), would face the worst consequences. But rising prices would also pose a threat to countries such as Libya and Egypt, which import essential supplies from Ukraine, as well as Tunisia and Algeria, where rising food costs have often sparked popular anger. All these states will be looking on warily as Russian forces gather on Ukraine’s border.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.