Middle East and war in Ukraine
Gulf Arab regimes, and other developing countries, will adjust to a new world where power is shifting. It is no longer the world the United States shaped after the Cold War, writes As’ad AbuKhalil
IT IS premature to determine the exact shape of the world in the wake of the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. At the risk of repeating dreaded cliches, it is clear that the world order has been irrevocably altered. The post-Cold War era is over, forever.
The United States established global supremacy after the collapse of the USSR and ensured that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation would form a security siege around Russia to keep it weak and vulnerable — and to maintain American hegemony throughout the continent. Never has the US been challenged in such a direct and focused way as by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
The old rules that the US imposed, by force, will be no more. While China has been cautious in expressing support for Russia in its official pronouncements, its media have been clear in refuting US propaganda claims. The reverberations of the cataclysmic event will be felt for years to come and will affect regional and international conflicts.
The impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war will also be felt in the Middle East, which has a long history of involvement in the Soviet- and Russian-US rivalry.
Despite US pressure, no Arab states are participating in the economic war on Russia by imposing sanctions, joining most of Latin America and Africa, as well as Iran, India, Pakistan and China. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have resisted US pressure to pump more oil to make up for the US ban on Russian oil imports. Most significantly, Riyadh is in talks with China to trade some of its oil in yuan, which would deal a blow to the US dollar, which is used in 80 per cent of world oil sales. Until now, the Saudis have exclusively used the dollar.
Moscow is trying to defeat the west’s ferocious economic assault on Russia by creating a separate economic and financial system with China. Arab nations could play an important part in it, effectively turning their backs on the US.
Background to geopolitical shift
THE shape of international relations was shaken in 2011 with the passage of UN Security Council resolution 1973, which was limited to setting up a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya supposedly in danger of a massacre at the hands of Libyan leader Moamar Qadhafi. A British parliamentary report later found that there was no such threat and that it was based on inaccurate intelligence and ‘erroneous assumptions’.
The resolution did not permit ground forces to enter Libya. The language was clear. It said the Security Council: ‘Decides to establish a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians. And authorises member states that have notified the secretary-general, acting nationally or through regional organisations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the secretary-general, to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.’
Despite these limitations, the US and NATO took the resolution to mean a licence for NATO to overthrow a government that the US had long complained about. It didn’t matter that the Libyan dictatorial regime was cooperating with the US in the years leading up to its overthrow. The then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had even met the chief of Libya’s secret police, who happened to be the ruler’s son.
Russia, ruled at the time by president Dmitry Medvedev, abstained on the resolution, as had China. Both countries had evidently believed the mission would be restricted to the non-fly zone. Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time, was reportedly furious with Medvedev over the abstention.
After it became clear that NATO was violating the resolution by overthrowing Qadhafi, China and Russia, both veto holders, were determined to change the course of the Security Council to prevent the US from again using it as a cover for military interventions and regime change. The US started to lose its undisputed global supremacy at that point.
Moscow and Beijing were both building up their military capabilities and were becoming more assertive on the international stage. Fearful of changes in the global configuration of power, the Biden administration incorporated strong language into its National Security Strategy, issued by successive administrations, to make clear the US rejection of any competition from Russia and China. Biden’s strategy complained about Chinese assertiveness. How dare any country but the US be assertive in the world? It is one thing for the US to insist on global supremacy and another to guarantee it without a cost in blood and money.
Russia, in fact, showed its assertiveness four years after the Libya resolution when it intervened on Syria’s behalf against the US and Gulf-backed jihadist assault, but not before Putin at the general assembly asked the US to join Moscow in the fight, an offer the US rejected.
Middle East reverberations
IN THE Middle East, the effects of the new global conflict have already reverberated within US client regimes, many of whom also have good relations with Russia. The United Arab Emirates is one of those US clients. Washington supplies it with advanced military technology despite its abysmal human rights record. In return, the UAE works with the US; and it recently established a strong alliance with Israel. The US rewarded the UAE with the sale of advanced fighter jets.
And yet, the UAE abstained on a March 3 Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine that was vetoed by Russia, while it voted in favour of a general assembly resolution saying the same thing. Now the UAE, and especially Dubai, is being seen as a refuge for Russian billionaires who have been heavily sanctioned by the west.
Gulf countries like the UAE are caught between their complete loyalty to the US and their increasing closeness to the Russian government, especially as they lament what they regard as American retrenchment from the Middle East. Many Gulf despots are still unhappy that the US let Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zein Abidin Bin Ali of Tunisia fall during the 2011 Arab uprisings.
Only Qatar among the Gulf countries took a strong stance in support of Ukraine, but it has not joined the economic war against Russia. Qatar’s emir was recently welcomed in the Oval Office and the country was awarded the status of a ‘major non-NATO ally.’ Furthermore, the US wants Qatar to fill the gap of Europe’s gas needs in the wake of sanctions on Russian gas sales. It is curious that the White House worked with Qatar on that before the first Russian soldier moved towards Ukraine.
US consensus fractured
THE United States will no longer achieve a consensus in the world according to its own interests. While China is neither prepared, nor willing, to challenge US foreign policy head-on for now, its cooperation and treaties with US foes — Iran chiefly — is an indication that China is planning to operate in a world not subject to US dictates.
Chinese government statements during the Ukraine crisis have been cautious, but social media in China and Chinese diplomats’ pronouncements via social media have been squarely sympathetic to the Russian stance. China has increased economic ties with Russia to soften the blow of the sanctions, including allowing Russia to use its UnionPay system to replace western credit cards.
Russia’s ejection from the SWIFT international banking system has seen Russia rely on its own system for transfer of financial messages, or the SPFS, and that may be linked to China’s cross-border interbank payment system, or the CIPS. Russia has begun making payments to China in renminbi, weakening the dollar as the world’s premier currency. The blowback effects on the west of its economic war are leading to separate economic and financial systems that are fracturing US global dominance.
Russia doesn’t have the US’s power or influence. But Russia is an influential regional actor. Its role in Syria in support of the Syrian regime showed its ability to shore up a weak regime and to operate free of US plots to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Gulf governments are already planning for a world in which the US is less militarily assertive than before. Towards that end, the UAE established strong alliance with Israel.
Impact on Arab-Israeli conflict
GULF regimes aren’t favoured in Washington quite the same way Israel is. Israel followed the US, expressing support for Ukraine. It can’t afford to antagonise the Biden administration in the wake of the damage to its image during the Obama-Netanyahu era.
The Russian-Ukrainian crisis will undermine US and EU rhetoric on the Arab-Israeli conflict. It won’t be easy to sell the so-called peace process after the west adamantly refused to support diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine, while the US preaches strict pacifism for Arabs in the face of decades of Israeli occupation and aggression.
After the first two days of the conflict, some 30 countries sent advanced missiles and arms to Ukraine and championed the right of resistance. Palestinians, on the other hand, are denied even the right to peaceful resistance. The US and Europe have gone so far as to ban the boycott, sanctions, and divestment movement in Israel while wielding sanctions around the world. How can Palestinians ever take seriously the western insistence that their struggle against occupation should never resort to violent means?
The world we live in is changing, and the Russian intervention in Ukraine will not be confined to Ukraine, or even to Europe. The US is learning that the world is slipping from its hands. It won’t tolerate it.
It will resort to force in its attempt to maintain its grip over humanity. Violent conflicts are very likely to now dominate our world.
Consortiumnews.com, March 16. As`ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus.