(Not) Near East. How Arab countries and Israel are helping Ukraine in the war

Relations between Ukraine and the countries of the Near East, as well as the positions of key regional states, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, regarding the war and who is willing to help Ukraine, are outlined in the summary material by RBC-Ukraine.

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, countries in the Near East have mostly maintained neutrality, with the exception of Moscow’s allies such as Iran and Syria. Countries on the Arabian Peninsula have avoided publicly condemning Russia as an aggressor. Specifically, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which supported Ukrainian resolutions at the United Nations and provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

However, in recent times, major Arab countries have become more active concerning the issue of the war. Saudi Arabia hosted an international meeting on the Ukrainian peace formula and the UAE proposed the idea of bringing the leaders of Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table. The Near East seems to have decided to demonstrate that it can also be a player on the geopolitical chessboard.

Active neutrality

At the beginning of August, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting regarding the Ukrainian peace formula at the level of state leaders’ advisors and diplomatic representatives. This initiative by Saudi Arabia came as a surprise to Ukrainians, as this Near Eastern country had maintained neutrality since the start of Russia’s invasion and had not publicly condemned the aggressor, even though it had voted in support of Ukrainian resolutions.

However, in reality, the organization of the peace formula meeting is a testament to Saudi Arabia’s consistent foreign policy. As explained by Ukrainian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Anatolii Petrenko, Saudi Arabia staunchly upholds the principles of international law and the UN charter, which interpret that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states are inviolable. The Ukrainian peace formula is based precisely on these principles.

See also: Ukraine — South Korea: undiscovered potential

Saudi Arabia’s leadership began to manifest itself even before the meeting in Jeddah. In February of this year, the kingdom’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, visited Kyiv, becoming the first official from the Persian Gulf countries to come to Ukraine. In May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy participated in the Arab League summit held in Jeddah.

Zelenskyy was invited as an honorary guest to the summit, with Saudi Arabia extending the invitation. During that visit, he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and called on the Arab League to “honestly consider” the war and join the Ukrainian peace formula.

It is rumored that the Crown Prince played a significant role in facilitating the peace formula meeting in Jeddah, particularly in persuading Middle Eastern countries and China to participate. China had declined to attend the previous meeting in Copenhagen. According to the ambassador, Jeddah demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s readiness to advance Zelenskyy’s peace formula.

Ukraine counts on not only the mediating role of Saudi Arabia but also its practical involvement in implementing the peace formula. As the ambassador explained, Kyiv proposed to Riyadh to take stewardship over certain aspects, including the liberation of prisoners. Saudi Arabia already has successful cases in this regard.

Last September, Riyadh participated in a significant exchange between Ukraine and Russia. During that exchange, along with a turncoat MP Viktor Medvedchuk, defenders of Azovstal together with their commanders were released from Russian captivity, along with ten foreigners facing the death penalty in the so-called DNR territory. Media reports at that time suggested that the release of the foreigners was achieved with the involvement of the Crown Prince.

Another matter in which Saudi Arabia could play a significant role is the concluding element of the peace formula — the fixation of the end of the war. This involves creating guarantees that will ensure lasting peace in Ukraine and prevent any escalation from Russia.

“We believe that Saudi Arabia can be a very powerful and effective partner in these two aspects. In the first one, we are already working, and we have had successful exchanges. In the second one, it’s the response from Jeddah. They are ready to move forward with us in this process, so that we can start implementing the peace formula and transition from plans to actions. Here, Riyadh will play a constructive and serious role,” the ambassador noted.

In July of last year, a visit by US President Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia took place, which was partly linked to the full-scale war in Ukraine. During that time, the media and expert community drew historical parallels with how Saudi Arabia had contributed to the collapse of the USSR by crashing oil prices in the market. Many hoped for a repeat of this scenario, but with Russia this time. However, the visit of the American president did not yield such a result.

As of today, according to Ambassador Petrenko, it is not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to crash the market, as the projected relatively high oil prices align with their national interest. The current oil revenues allow Saudi Arabia to carry out its own economic transformations. Simultaneously, as the ambassador explained, Ukraine is counting on Saudi Arabia’s assistance in maintaining the price restrictions on Russian oil set by the G7.

“Can Saudi Arabia help us restrain Russia? The simple answer is yes. By taking a principled stance on limiting the price and volumes of Russian hydrocarbons that Russia exports. Because by limiting the flow of money into Russia, they are limiting aggression against Ukraine,” he explained.

Currently, Saudi Arabia, as noted by the ambassador, is moving within the realm of “positive neutrality” towards Ukraine. On one hand, the kingdom supports international law, provides humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but on the other hand, it has not joined sanctions against Russia and maintains economic relations with Russia.

Saudi Arabia does not supply weapons and military equipment to Ukraine, but it is open to providing humanitarian assistance. During the visit of Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, an agreement worth $400 million was signed, resulting in the arrival of blankets, hygiene supplies, and 135 powerful generators in Ukraine in March.

Ukraine is also interested in Saudi Arabia joining in the post-war recovery efforts. According to the ambassador, there are several key areas of mutual interest. Firstly, the agro-industrial complex and energy sectors, which represent shared interests. Saudi Arabia is currently working diligently on ensuring food security in the region, and Ukraine can assist in this regard. Simultaneously, Ukraine is striving for energy independence, and Saudi Arabia can contribute in this matter.

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered changes in the current global order. Countries are competing for leadership not only in their respective regions but also on the geopolitical stage. Participating in a prominent global issue can help garner attention and strengthen one’s standing, as pointed out by Igor Semivolos, Director of the Association of Middle East Studies.

Competition for primacy is underway in the Middle East as well, given that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, aspires to elevate his country to the ranks of global heavyweights. The country’s influence extends beyond the region, impacting decisions worldwide. At present, Riyadh is making strides forward.

Number two

Recently, there has been increased activity on the “diplomatic front” by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is one of the regional leaders. Last week, the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour reported alleged plans by the UAE to bring Zelenskyy and Putin to the negotiation table on the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) scheduled for the end of November in Dubai.

Of course, the idea of negotiations with Putin was immediately rejected in Ukraine. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in an interview with Corriere della Sera, assured that Putin and Zelenskyy would never find themselves at the negotiation table together.

Such dissemination of information through the Lebanese newspaper might be an attempt by the UAE to showcase that not only Saudi Arabia can be a diplomatic mediator, but also that the Emirates can play its part in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

See also: Erdogan and the return of interned heroes of Azovstal

The UAE also supported resolutions in the UN General Assembly regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine, but at the same time, it maintained a public stance of neutrality. Although the Emirates is a key partner of the USA in the region, it is gradually attempting to reduce dependence on a single global player, aiming for multipolarity. As a result, they are developing relations with China and maintaining ties with Russia.

This is partly why the UAE’s position on the war in Ukraine is as it is. The UAE continues to cooperate with Moscow and does not join Western sanctions against Russia. Dubai has become a haven for Russian businessmen seeking refuge from sanctions. Simultaneously, the UAE, like Saudi Arabia, is providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and striving for economic cooperation.

Last December, Ukraine and the UAE announced their intention to conclude a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Ukraine became the first European country with which the UAE decided to establish such an agreement.

“This indicates that the UAE sees Ukraine as a long-term partner. They believe in us and believe in long-term economic partnership. We started in December and, in principle, things are progressing well,” said Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UAE, Dmytro Senik.

He is also confident that the UAE will participate in Ukraine’s post-war recovery efforts, as it is already assisting with certain projects. Notably, the UAE allocated $4 million to a project by Olena Zelenska aimed at building shelter-equipped homes for large foster families.

Several years ago, the UAE established 10 principles for future development, among which is the commitment to providing international humanitarian aid regardless of religion, race, or culture for those in need.

“In this principle, they see a way to assist Ukraine. There is sympathy for us in the UAE, and I believe it is sincere sympathy,” Ambassador Senik added.

The Emirates also shows interest in the Ukrainian peace formula. It was present at the meeting in Jeddah. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE could contribute to the implementation of the humanitarian aspects of the peace formula, such as food security and environmental protection. The implementation of the peace formula was discussed, notably during the visit to Ukraine by the UAE’s Minister of Environment Mariam Almheiri.

The other countries in the Persian Gulf are not as active as the Emirates or Saudi Arabia and strive to maintain even greater neutrality concerning the issue of Ukraine. Noteworthy activities of these countries include the May visit of Bahrain’s Foreign Minister to Ukraine, marking the first such visit since diplomatic relations were established, and the visit of Qatar’s Prime Minister to Kyiv.

Complex relations

One of the key players in the Near East is Israel. However, after February 24, 2022, the government of this country surprised Ukrainians in an unpleasant manner. While the positions of Arab countries were and remain somewhat understandable, as they are predominantly authoritarian monarchies, expectations were different from Israel, which positions itself as a democratic Western country.

In Israel, three prime ministers changed after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet, the government under none of them managed to take a principled pro-Ukrainian stance, particularly by refraining from providing military assistance. Over the course of a year and a half of full-scale war, none of the Israeli prime ministers visited Kyiv. However, one of them, Naftali Bennett, made a discreet visit to Moscow in March of last year.

According to the Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, Yair Lapid was quite active in foreign policy during his tenure as prime minister. He condemned Russia on several occasions, and Israel under his leadership voted for UN resolutions. Nevertheless, the position regarding providing weaponry to Ukraine remained consistent.

In December of last year, Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in Israel. Even before the full-scale invasion began, Ukraine considered him as a potential mediator for a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Russia. Upon returning to power, Netanyahu promised to reconsider the issue of military aid to Ukraine, but as of now, the Israeli government’s position remains unchanged.

Israel’s caution in providing military assistance to Ukraine is connected, among other things, to the presence of Russian forces in neighboring Syria. Israel has been engaged in a proxy war with Iran for many years, regularly striking targets on Syrian territory where Russian air defense systems and aviation are deployed. Therefore, relations with Moscow play a significant role for Israel, and decisions about assisting Ukraine are made with a primary focus on its own security.

“Firstly, we have a close military border with Russia. Our pilots fly alongside Russian pilots in the skies of Syria. Secondly, we also have concerns that any systems we provide to Ukraine might be used against us because they could fall into the hands of Iran and be used against us,” explained Netanyahu the reason for refusing military aid to Ukraine.

At the same time, Israel provides humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians. This support is not only from the government but also involves businesses and non-governmental organizations. This week, several tons of medicines worth 100 million hryvnias were delivered to Ukraine for Ukrainian soldiers. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian-Israeli association NEXUS has provided Ukraine with over 130 tons of humanitarian aid. Israel is also involved in the rehabilitation of Ukrainian military personnel.

The Israeli government also assisted Ukraine in upgrading its missile attack warning system. Testing of the system, which is intended to help Ukrainian military better counter airborne threats, is set to begin this fall. However, in Ukraine, there is a desire for Israel’s air defense systems, the effectiveness of which is recognized worldwide.

This week, Ukraine and Israel found themselves on the brink of a diplomatic scandal. The cancellation of health insurance for nearly 14,000 Ukrainian refugees in Israel and rumors that the Israeli side might allegedly be “leaking” details from “Ramstein” meetings became a focal point. There were even rumors of Israel’s potential exclusion from “Ramstein”. In Israel, it is believed that such accusations without providing evidence could have consequences for the relationship between the countries.

“First of all, it wasn’t Ukraine that welcomed Israel into ‘Ramstein’. Second, we would like to see specific evidence for such serious accusations. We are awaiting clarifications; this story cannot just hang in the air. It could have very serious consequences — complicating our relations,” said a source in Israeli diplomatic circles to RBC-Ukraine.

However, even within the Ukrainian government, the question of suspending visa-free travel with Israel has been raised. According to the official version previously voiced in the media by Ambassador Korniychuk, such considerations are linked to the annual pilgrimage of Hasidic Jews to Ukraine and difficulties with the entry of Ukrainians into Israel. Ukrainian refugees have faced entry problems into Israel since the early days of the Russian invasion. At that time, the Israeli government introduced electronic visas, without which citizens with Ukrainian passports were not even allowed on the plane.

“We had to appeal to the Supreme Court of Israel to overturn this decision. But unfortunately, immigration-related problems continue. This year, the number of refusals for our citizens has even increased compared to the past. Now we’re talking about one in ten,” Korniychuk told RBC-Ukraine.

A source in Israeli diplomatic circles assures the publication that such problems arise not only for citizens of Ukraine but also for citizens of other countries who traditionally come to Israel for illegal employment purposes. This problem emerged long before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Moreover, according to Israeli estimates, the level of entry refusals stands at not ten, but five percent. In certain cases, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gets involved in resolving the issue, maintaining close contact with the Israeli Ministry of Internal Affairs.

However, the issue with health insurance seems to have been resolved quickly. Recently, the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Israel held a conversation, after which they announced that medical insurance for Ukrainians would remain. As for the situation regarding the entry of refugees into Israel, consultations with the Israeli government are underway, as Korniychuk points out.

According to an informed source of RBC-Ukraine, the story of canceling visa-free travel is unlikely to become a serious tool of pressure on Israel from Ukraine. Besides the annual pilgrimage of Hasidic Jews (whom the Israeli authorities themselves warn against traveling to Ukraine), there is no significant tourist flow from Israel to Ukraine. On the other hand, the potential introduction of reciprocal measures — canceling visa-free travel for Ukrainians could actually have a serious impact on Ukrainian tourists.

A meeting between Zelenskyy and Netanyahu could help understand Ukrainian-Israeli relations and attempt to address the problematic issues. However, despite numerous invitations to Ukraine, the Israeli Prime Minister has not yet found the time for this. This has led to criticism of him, including from the Ukrainian President himself.

“I invited Mr. Netanyahu [to Kyiv – ed.]. I invited two other prime ministers who came before Mr. Netanyahu. While the prime ministers are different, the result is the same,” Zelenskyy stated at a press conference in Vilnius in July.

At the same time, it’s important to distinguish between the position of the government and the people of Israel, noted Ambassador Korniychuk. Despite the government’s stance, citizens actively and significantly support Ukraine.

“Both I personally and my friends try to explain to Israel how they can help Ukraine. I explain how, why, and for what purpose, emphasizing that it’s our moral obligation as Jews, and why Israel should do it. For those who don’t understand, I say: look, in Russia, their closest partners right now are Iran, Syria, and North Korea. And it’s clear who Israel should be aligned with,” emphasizes Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Moshe Reuven Azman in a conversation with RBC-Ukraine.

According to him, certain resonant statements from the Ukrainian side, including not only from the political sphere but also from the so-called “expert community,” calling for “harsh measures” against Israel, are causing a lot of damage to bilateral relations. And it’s quite obvious who the ultimate beneficiary of this is.

“There’s a terrible war going on in Ukraine. Israel is helping, but we can try to do more,” says Moshe Azman.

The Near East is a unique region with its own mentality and traditions, where countries aspire to become equal players on the geopolitical stage. Some of them are already prepared for this. However, evaluating it in terms of “black/white,” “friend/foe” would be incorrect (unless we’re talking about Iran, of course), as Near Eastern countries are more like partners than allies for us. Nevertheless, they can also assist Ukraine, as peace throughout the world aligns with their national interests.

Originally posted by Dmytro Levytskyi and Milan Lelich on RBC-Ukraine. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: Why is the “Israeli model,” which the USA proposes for Ukraine, impossible?

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