It is a truism to say that the war in Ukraine has altered global geopolitics. Fewer and fewer people remember what the world was like yesterday, its dynamics or alliances. The invasion launched by Putin on 24 February came to change everything, and one of those changes was the shielding of the West. Europe and the United States then decided to act in unison, synchronised, to inflict the most damage on the Kremlin and protect Ukraine. But they did so at the expense of other regions unable to bear the costs of this strategy. Collateral damage of the new world order.
This Tuesday, Casa Árabe hosted a colloquium on the occasion of the publication of issue 65 of the magazine afkar/ideas to discuss how Russia's invasion of Ukraine has affected the Mediterranean and the Arab Muslim world. Organised by the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed) and Estudios de Política Exterior, the event served to confront different ideas and perspectives on the geopolitical event of this decade with the help of prominent speakers.
The meeting was attended by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Spanish government, Josep Piqué, co-director of afkar/ideas and managing director of Estudios de Política Exterior. Also taking part were the co-founder of the magazine and Executive President of IEMed, Senén Florensa, the AECID's Director of Cooperation with Africa and Asia, Carmen Magariños, and the Director of the Columbia Global Centers in Tunisia and political analyst specialising in North African affairs, Youssef Cherif.
The Director General of Casa Árabe, Irene Lozano, opened a conference attended by the Moroccan Ambassador to Spain, Karima Benyaich. In her brief presentation, Lozano highlighted the value and content of the magazine afkar/ideas, financed by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), a body attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the importance of disseminating knowledge in this area for understanding between cultures.
Carmen Magariños went on to provide some of the key facts that help to understand the impact of the war in Ukraine on both the Middle East and North Africa. Since the beginning of the invasion, wheat exports from Ukrainian ports have been paralysed. One third of the world's cereal imports to the MENA region come from the Black Sea basin each year, despite the fact that this region accounts for 4 per cent of the world's population.
According to the Italian Institute for the Study of International Politics (ISPI), countries such as Morocco, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan import 10-15 per cent of their wheat from Ukraine. In addition, Egypt, Tunisia, Oman and Yemen also import 25-35% of their wheat from Kiev, and in the case of Libya this figure rises to 50 % and for Lebanon to 65 %. The stakes are high.
According to the AECID's Director of Cooperation with Africa and Asia, this phenomenon is compounded by crop failures, which in turn generate supply problems, inflation and price rises. Margarita Simonian, director of Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin's television channel, is aware of what this means. At the recent economic forum in St. Petersburg, the propagandist declared that famine could be the key to the West lifting sanctions against Moscow.
This breeding ground, the main ingredients of which are the rising cost of living, the proliferation of poverty and hunger, and the lack of minimum services, could lead to social unrest that could result in a new wave of revolution like the Arab Spring more than a decade ago. MENA regimes fear the potential consequences.
Youssef Cherif, deputy director of the Columbia Global Centers in Tunis and a political analyst specialising in North African affairs, noted that the threat of famine comes on top of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. "North African leaders are turning to the West for the essential aid they need. Except for Algiers and Damascus. But there has been silence on Russia's aggression over Ukraine. There has been no show of support for Kiev", Cherif said.
"The majority Arab public opinion is not on the side of the European Union or the United States," said the Tunisian analyst, "but there are exceptions such as the Muslim Brotherhood". Islamists consider Russia an enemy because of what happened in Libya, Syria and Chechnya. The problem, Cherif said, is that the Brotherhood is not as popular as it was at least 10 years ago. The vote in the UN General Assembly is also significant. "None of them joined in condemnation or sanctions. Algeria, for example, visited Moscow and not Washington after the invasion," Cherif said.
The deputy director of the Columbia Global Centers in Tunisia explained in five points the majority position adopted in the MENA region on the war in Ukraine. Firstly, because of the anti-imperialist sentiment, the rejection of colonialism that still pervades these regions. Moreover, the region does not see a direct confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, but rather a confrontation between Russia and the West. In large part, this is thanks to pro-Russian propaganda channelled through social media and RT, which continues to operate in certain countries.
The spread of conspiracy theories has taken hold in this region, with MENA countries largely pointing the finger at the West for inciting the invasion. But another cause, according to Cherif, is the West's double standards. That is, the differentiation between Palestine and Ukraine when the conditions they face are similar. "Ukraine itself is also another cause. For most Arabs, Russia is a friend; Ukraine is nobody".
Ultimately, the relationship between Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenski and the state of Israel. It should be noted that Zelensky is Jewish. "He has only tried to address the Arab people at the Doha Forum, but that was mainly an international audience, not a local one', warned Cherif. In this sense, the Ukrainian leader's powerful communication campaign has perhaps focused too much on Europe and neglected other regions.
"The mistake is to think that others think as we do, which has led to many disastrous interventions", Piqué reflected. The former minister urged looking at the sanctions map, which is like looking at the vote that took place in the UN General Assembly to condemn Putin's aggression. Piqué highlighted the abstention of countries such as Algeria, Morocco, India and Pakistan. He highlighted the formation of a new multipolar world order with crucial actors such as Turkey, which has played an ambiguous role.
Spain's former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and current head of Mediterranean Affairs, Antonio Álvarez Barthe, pointed out that we must do what we can to mitigate the consequences in other regions of the world. Shortening the distance between the north bank and the south bank to improve perceptions. "Pragmatism is what is dictating the positioning," he said.
Morocco's ambassador to Spain, Karima Benyaich, confirmed the Spanish diplomat's words: "Morocco opted for neutrality, which does not mean that it is an ally of the United States, the European Union and an observer member of NATO". "The Arab world, like the Muslim world, is not a monolithic world, understanding is needed. It is a reality that there is great ignorance, the south [Mediterranean] knows the north better. That's why we have to work at the regional level to address these challenges".