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Conflict Reverberates in Middle East

Mar 22, 2022
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine will produce a variety of implications for the Middle East and other regions. While skyrocketing of oil prices will produce a windfall for Gulf oil exporters, the food crisis might pose a challenge to wheat importers from Egypt across Tunisia, Libya and Lebanon. In general, the conflict will make the region more important in international politics.

First, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine will make the world realize again the importance of the Middle East as a major traffic and geographical center. The conflict itself and the mutual closing of airspace between Russia and some European countries will make airlines take alternative routes, and the Middle East is the natural substitute, though it is unknown just how many airlines will be involved.

Russia and Ukraine also see cargo trains moving from East Asia to Europe. And as a result of the conflict, cargo will have to change course, and a significant part will have to be transported via maritime routes in the Middle East. The Suez Canal, a traditional transit funnel, will face new opportunities as well as new heavy burdens.

Second, the Middle East will become a more important region in the global economy. It is one of the most important sources of oil for international markets, taking up more than half the total global reserve, 30 percent of global oil production and 45 percent of global oil exports. In the foreseeable future, the region will be relevant with the stable flow of oil at reasonable prices, despite global efforts to diversify energy.

Although major European countries, such as Germany and Britain, are unwilling to sanction Russia on oil and gas, as they do not want to have their economies undermined by a sudden supply cutoff, yet the conflict has caused global concern for the disruption of supplies as the price of oil rocketed to $130 dollars a barrel shortly after the war broke out. It is predicted that oil prices will rise with conflict continuing into the coming months or even years.

The Middle East is a region with the greatest surplus capacity, and it is believed that Saudi Arabia alone has kept more than 1.5 to 2 million barrels per day in reserve for market management. That’s the very reason that leaders in the United States attempted to make contact to talk about production but were rebuffed by some Gulf leaders.

 With rising oil prices, Gulf oil producers will harvest a windfall, and as a result, their financial capability as a major international investor will grow. Their position as a financial power will also grow as oil purchases will largely determine the position of major international currencies.

Third, the Middle East will become more important in global voting politics. There are 25 political entities in the Middle East, including 22 Arab countries, Iran, Israel and Turkey, taking up one-sixth of the world's total active votes in major international organizations such as the UN. They are always indispensable for major countries in international voting politics.

It is interesting that most of these countries, except Iran, would usually follow the U.S. in their voting on certain important issues because of U.S. pressure. Israel, a major U.S. ally, follows the U.S. in virtually all cases. But this time, on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, many Middle East countries have kept their distance from the U.S. in the UN General Assembly.

To put it another way, Middle Eastern countries, particularly Arab countries, want to remind the U.S. of their importance in international voting politics, and in some way express their frustration with the U.S. either for its reluctance to invest resources to protect them or for its unreasonable policy to pressure them on other matters, such as cooperation with China.

All in all, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, though geographically distant from the Middle East, will actually make the Middle East more important geopolitically and economically. In certain ways, the U.S. withdrawal from the region once made the world believe that the Middle East would decline in international politics. But the future may see global efforts to re-focus on the Middle East in new ways.

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