PRIO Blog Post: Transactional Engagements: Middle Eastern Responses to the Ukrainian War


28 March 2022

PRIO Blog Post: Transactional Engagements: Middle Eastern Responses to the Ukrainian War
Photo: Syrian protesters assemble in solidarity with Ukrainians under Russian attack. Photo: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

​​In the PRIO blog post: Transactional Engagements: Middle Eastern Responses to the Ukrainian War, Research Professor Kristian Berg Harpviken and Senior Researchers Pinar TankJørgen Jensehaugen and Júlia Palik write about the mixed regional responses among states in the Middle East for whom the Ukrainian war can have long-lasting destabilising effects.

The auhors write that relations among states in the Middle East are often shifting and can be seen through a “transactional alliances” perspective. This means that leverage gained in one area can be useful for influencing on another area in order to secure national interests.

This makes alliances instrumental, fluid, and fleeting. The same two countries may be closely aligned in one setting, but on opposite sides in another.

The responses of Middle Eastern states are driven by their relations to the United States and other global powers, as well as by the “opportunities” provided by the war. The lack of domestic political pressure in many cases allows them a freer position to pursue narrow national interests.

​While deals are made at the international level, the authors argue, Middle Eastern autocrats are simultaneously acutely aware of potential domestic fall-out in the region due to issues of food security. This is particularly egregious for Lebanon which has a month of wheat storage following the 2020 explosions in Beirut and an economic crisis which makes it impossible to pay for alternative sources at higher prices and shipping costs. According to UNCTAD, Egypt has a dependence of over 80% on wheat exports from Russia and the Ukraine (of which 60% is from Russia). With the demands of the Arab Spring – “bread and dignity” – fresh in the memories of Arab rulers, wheat scarcity is a looming security threat.

Unsurprisingly, the Ukraine war is shifting power relationships and alliances in the Middle East and beyond. It is difficult to envisage regional outcomes, beyond noting that they will be shaped by transactional negotiations over the next few months and the need by ruling elites to ensure regime continuity.