Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Arab Mediation of Ukrainian Crisis: Limited Possibilities

Some Arab countries are, individually and collectively, racing to mediate between Russia and Ukraine for numerous internal and external motives.

Arab Mediation Ukrainian Crisis
Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit attends a press conference following talks of representatives of the Arab League states with Russian Foreign Minister in Moscow on April 4, 2022. Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

As the Ukrainian crisis enters its 10th month, some Arab countries are, individually and collectively, racing to mediate between Russia and Ukraine for numerous motives. However, these Arab mediations of the Ukrainian crisis may encounter some obstacles.

The quest of Arab decision-makers to play a mediating role is linked to the economic consequences of the Ukrainian crisis and domestic political considerations. Some Arab countries fear that the pressures resulting from the Ukrainian crisis could lead to a new wave of the Arab Spring.

Following these attempts at mediation, one can hardly speak of a unified Arab strategic view of the possibilities at the regional and international levels.

Although there have been signs of what might be considered collective Arab action, individual actions from the Saudi and Emirati corners have been more effective. Remarkably, mediation efforts have been limited to some Gulf states, indicating their leadership, even if superficially, of the Arab world.

Collective Action

An official Arab ministerial delegation held talks with Russian and Ukrainian officials in April 2022. It called for direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. The delegation included Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the League of Arab States, and the Arab League’s Contact Group on the Ukrainian Crisis, which includes Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan.

The Arab League formed the group in March 2022 at its 157th session in Cairo. Its purpose is to hold consultations with the parties involved in the Ukrainian crisis to find a diplomatic solution. The Arab move came just two weeks after Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine.

During a visit to Moscow, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry unveiled a proposal to resolve the crisis between Russia and Ukraine. “Arab countries are aware of the seriousness of the repercussions of the crisis in Ukraine on international peace and security,” Shoukry said.

However, Aboul Gheit was more assertive and stressed to Moscow the Arab delegation’s desire “to help reach a ceasefire in Ukraine.” The position of the Arab League’s secretary-general was based on the fact that “the war in Ukraine affects the world’s food and oil markets.”

Hossam Zaki, Aboul Gheit’s assistant, went further. Despite the exploratory nature of the mission of the Arab delegation, Zaki expressed the League’s readiness to host delegations from Russia and Ukraine if they agreed.

However, Aboul Gheit later complained that Arab states were under Western pressure to condemn Russia’s move against Ukraine. He said the West wanted to circumscribe Russia and expressed his wish that Arab countries succeed in preventing this armed clash from adversely affecting the region. As such, Aboul Gheit’s statement referred to the Ukrainian crisis’ risk and impact on Arabs with respect to security, military and economy for the first time.

The visit of the Russian foreign minister to the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo on 26 July 2022 renewed Arab interest, rekindling talks about the possibility of Arabs mediating the crisis.

The Need for Mediation

Arab Mediation Ukrainian Crisis
The Arab delegation pose for a photo with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov prior to their talks in Moscow, 04 April 2022. Egyptian Foreign Ministry/ Hand/ Anadolu Agency via AFP

Major-General Samir Farag believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin is changing his strategy. According to Farag, Putin is no longer working to end the war quickly but is pursuing a new approach: to make the war drag on until winter. Thus, the Russian president seeks to use Moscow’s gas exports as a weapon against European countries. It is worth noting that Russian gas represents 49 per cent of the continent’s needs.

The Arabs are among the few who still enjoy good diplomatic relations with all parties to the conflict. Since the Arabs have no historical issues with Russia or Ukraine, they can urge the parties to move forward and display more flexibility.

Discussing possible scenarios, Sayed Ghoneim, chairman of the UAE-based Institute for Global Security and Defense Affairs, ruled out that Europe will not be able to help de-escalate the conflict and enable both parties to move forward in a peaceful negotiation process. Ghoneim based his assessment on the fact that the US and the UK “will not allow this,” in particular since this scenario would isolate Washington and affect its unity with Europe.

The administration appears reservedly open to the prospect of mediation and diplomatic efforts. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We … will consider every means to advance diplomacy if we see an opening to advance it by whatever means.” This, however, only applies if Russia is willing to engage in meaningful diplomacy by any means.

Some Russian analysts presume that Moscow does not consider Western countries as mediators. Russia views these countries as a party to the conflict since they have imposed sanctions on Russia and have provided Ukraine with weapons, military training and mercenaries.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly offered to mediate to reach a “deal that satisfies everyone.” Erdogan said Putin “wants to end this war as soon as possible.” However, Russia views the Turkish mediation as highly dubious, considering Ankara’s recent arms deal with Kyiv. In light of the current cold relations between Ankara and Washington, Turkish mediation will not be fruitful. Nevertheless, Turkey moves forward with its to serve its own agenda, which is to be viewed as a country attempting to end the crisis.

In this context, one Russian analyst believes that Middle Eastern countries that pursue pragmatic policies will have more significant opportunities to mediate. Similarly, resorting to Arab mediation depends on neutrality, pragmatism and refusal to submit to Western pressure. This, however, is challenging since the Arab states rely heavily on the US and Europe.

UAE Position

Arab Mediation Ukrainian Crisis
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan in Saint Petersburg on October 11, 2022. Pavel Bednyakov / SPUTNIK / AFP

Following his meeting with the UAE’s President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Saint Petersburg, Putin announced his country’s interest in continuing Emirati mediation efforts. Putin later praised Bin Zayed and the UAE’s humanitarian efforts in the crisis.

The Emirates News Agency labelled the meeting as part of the UAE’s efforts to reduce military escalation. On the other hand, the UAE’s Foreign Ministry announced Abu Dhabi’s readiness “to support efforts aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine.” The ministry called for “diplomacy, dialogue and respect for the rules and principles of international law.”

Hence, Emirati diplomacy has laid out three principles for this endeavour: decreasing military escalation, reducing humanitarian impacts and reaching a political settlement to achieve global peace and security.

To ensure that it is moving forward with this strategy, the UAE announced $100 million in additional humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian civilians affected by the crisis.

The Emirates Media And Studies Center believes this donation will aid the UAE in continuing its engagement to diplomatically resolve the Ukrainian crisis. The centre believes that the donation will not trigger Putin because it does not constitute actual military support for Kyiv.

This comes as Bin Zayed pledged to his Ukrainian counterpart Zelensky that the UAE would do everything in its power to prevent the crisis from worsening. Bin Zayed also emphasised the goal of creating an amicable atmosphere for negotiations to serve all parties.

Bin Zayed stated that Zelensky was open to the UAE’s efforts as a mediator in humanitarian issues and food security. The UAE’s president affirmed his country’s readiness to continue efforts and support initiatives that would mitigate the humanitarian and economic repercussions of the crisis.

One analysis draws attention to the UAE’s quest to maintain “its global reputation and use what it sees as a valuable opportunity to strengthen its role and position on the international stage.”

The UAE took advantage of the third session of Political Consultations between its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Russian counterpart to stress that it would make “all efforts to reduce escalation and tensions.”

Saudi Role

Arab Mediation Ukrainian Crisis
Ten prisoners of war have been released on September 21, 2022 as part of a Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap negotiated by Saudi Arabia. Ukrainian Presidency/ Handout/ Anadolu Agency via AFP.

Saudi Arabia may be the first country to initiate formal mediation between Russia and Ukraine. The initiative was set forth during a phone call between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2022. During the call, Bin Salman stressed his country’s readiness to make “efforts to mediate between all parties.”

Saudi Arabia has pledged $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Bin Salman reiterated by phone to Zelensky his readiness to continue mediation efforts and support de-escalation.

Saudi Arabia has successfully secured the release of foreign fighters captured in Ukraine. It also carried out another prisoner exchange operation with Turkey. This operation included the exchange of 215 Ukrainian prisoners and 55 Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians.

Some see the Saudi initiative as an attempt to improve Bin Salman’s image. However, internationally the Saudi crown prince has already been able to play the role of an influential statesman. He has done so in a way that contradicts the narrative portraying him as an impulsive and dangerous person.

In any case, towards the West, Bin Salman seeks to portray the image of a trustworthy character in international affairs. The Saudi quest comes after Bin Salman broke out of the isolation that surrounded him over accusations of involvement in the murder of late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Interestingly, the Saudi and Emirati moves are linked to domestic motivations in addition to financial donations. This means that both parties’ mediation efforts are, at times, aided by monetary incentives.

However, resolving the stormy crisis that has pushed the world to the brink requires more than the financial capacity of potential mediators.

user placeholder
written by
All Dima articles