US-backed Middle East states cozy up to Russia during Ukraine invasion

US-backed Middle East states cozy up to Russia during Ukraine invasion
Regional engagement is often justified in the context of great power competition but when push comes to shove, Washington is left hanging, writes Matthew Petti.
6 min read
01 Mar, 2022
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud hold a joint press conference following their meeting in Moscow, Russia on 14 January 2021. [Getty]

The United States and Europe have united in backing Ukraine against a Russian invasion, offering Kyiv weapons and diplomatic support as Russia massed troops along the border. But in the Middle East, US-backed states allegedly helped shield Russian president Vladimir Putin from attempts at deterrence.

The Biden administration had reportedly asked Israel permission to provide Ukraine with air defence systems, and Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production. Both states refused, leaving the United States with fewer cards to play as Russian missiles slammed into Ukrainian cities and Russian troops began crossing the border early Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, Qatar — a country President Biden recently declared a "major non-NATO ally" — publicly declined to take sides in the conflict, while the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan publicly cosied up to Russia on the eve of the invasion.

US officials have often justified their military support for Middle Eastern countries in terms of great power competition; if Washington backs the Arab monarchies and Israel, the logic goes, it is supposed to keep them in America's corner against major rivals like Russia and China.

"[I]f Washington backs the Arab monarchies and Israel, the logic goes, it is supposed to keep them in America's corner against major rivals like Russia and China"

Brett McGurk, who oversees Middle Eastern affairs at the White House, has called these Middle Eastern partnerships a "unique comparative advantage" for America. But amid the worst US-Russian confrontation since the Cold War, it's unclear how much help Washington has actually earned from its Middle Eastern clients.

The Russian-Ukrainian crisis began to escalate in early 2021, when Ukraine arrested pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk on accusations of plotting a coup d'etat, and Russia began military exercises near the Ukrainian border.

A few months later, the Ukrainian government asked the US government to purchase the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Because the Iron Dome is a joint US-Israeli project, the sale also required permission from the Israeli government, which Israel reportedly refused to grant.

That refusal was not based on any concern with whether the sale was a good idea for Eastern Europe, but on Israel's desire to maintain a good relationship with Russia, according to the Times of Israel. Russia, which has forces stationed in Syria, gives Israel tacit permission to intervene in the Syrian civil war.


As Russo-Ukrainian tensions reached a fever pitch in February 2022, the Biden administration publicly asked Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production. Gas prices were already high, increasing Russia's diplomatic leverage as a major oil producer. But the Saudi government refused to increase production, and gas prices reached their highest level in years.

As a result of Europe's fuel needs, European officials have been reluctant to impose certain economic measures against Russia, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have received generous US support over the past few decades. The United States has sold Saudi Arabia more weapons than any other country in the world since 1990, and has given Israel more foreign aid than any other country in the world since 1945.

One US ally in the Middle East — Turkey — has strongly backed Ukraine against Russia. The Turkish republic began selling Bayraktar drones to the Ukrainian military in 2019. On Thursday, the Turkish foreign ministry demanded that Russia stop its invasion, calling the operation a "grave violation of international law" and a "serious threat" to global security.


Israel initially declined to name Russia in statements about the conflict on Wednesday and Thursday, but Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid eventually denounced Moscow's "serious violation of the international order" several hours into the invasion.

Other US-backed states were reluctant to condemn Russia for its actions.

The day before the invasion began, UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan had a phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. In a statement issued after the call, Al Nahyan did not mention the crisis in Ukraine, but stressed "the keenness to enhance the prospects of UAE-Russian cooperation across various fields."

On Friday, the UAE attended a meeting of the UN Security Council about the crisis. (The UAE has a temporary seat on the council.) UAE Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh abstained from voting on a US-backed resolution to condemn Russia — and she refused to name Russia as the aggressor or Ukraine as the victim in her speech.

"The serious developments in Ukraine, we will agree, undermine the region's peace and security," Nusseibeh said.

"The UAE restates its commitment to the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of all member states," she added. "We urge for immediate de-escalation and cessation of hostilities."

Less than a month before, US troops in the UAE came under fire defending the Arab monarchy from Yemeni rebels. Biden said at the time that "America will have the backs of our friends in the region."

US diplomats had also asked Israel — which is not on the Security Council — to publicly endorse the resolution, but the Israeli foreign ministry reportedly declined... The United States has often used its influence at the UN to Israel's benefit, voting down at least 52 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel since 1972.

After the invasion began, Qatar called on both Russia and Ukraine to exercise restraint. Ukrainian prime minister Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Qatari monarch Tamim bin Hamad for his support in a Twitter statement

"These positions were likely not what the Biden administration had hoped for"

The United Arab Emirates and Qatar both host major US military bases in the region as well as purchasing billions of dollars in US arms.

Pakistan, another recipient of billions of dollars in US military aid, refused to cancel a Thursday meeting between Putin and Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan. As the invasion began, Khan said that he was visiting Putin at a time of "so much excitement."

These positions were likely not what the Biden administration had hoped for.

"We believe it's the responsibility of every responsible country around the world to voice concern, to voice objection to what Putin appears to have in mind for Ukraine," US State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a Wednesday press conference, when asked about Khan's upcoming visit.

"We certainly hope, when it comes to those shared interests — the aversion of a costly conflict, the aversion of a destabilizing conflict — that every country around the world would make that point clearly in unambiguous language in their engagements with the Russian Federation," Price added.

Matthew Petti is a 2022-2023 Fulbright fellow. He was previously a reporter for Responsible Statecraft and a research assistant for the Quincy Institute. He also served as a national security reporter at The National Interest and a contributor to The Armenian Weekly, Reason, and America Magazine. 

Follow him on Twitter @Matthew_Petti

This article originally appeared on Responsible Statecraft.

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