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Ukraine war has side effects on Middle East geopolitics

Here’s what our 2022 survey of Middle East scholars found.

- April 10, 2022
U.S. ships on patrol in the Arabian Gulf, June 26, 2022. (U.S. Navy: Roland A. Franklin)

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, contributor Marc Lynch assesses the wider impact of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and what the conflict means to geopolitics in the Middle East. His analysis with Shibley Telhami was originally published in the Washington Post on April 11, 2022. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened its standing in the Middle East, primarily to China’s benefit, according to a 2022 survey of academic experts on the Middle East. More survey participants believe the war has strengthened, rather than weakened, U.S. standing in the region.

But over a third of respondents see Russia’s war with Ukraine weakening Washington’s relations with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. And a plurality thinks the war has made a return to the Iran nuclear agreement less likely – even as respondents overwhelmingly continue to believe that such a deal would prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

These are just of some of the findings of the third wave of the Middle East Scholars Barometer survey, which we fielded in March 2022. Almost 600 scholars across multiple disciplines participated in the survey. Participants include members of the American Political Science Association (APSA), the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), and the American Historical Association (AHA).

What happens in Ukraine has a far wider impact

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominated the headlines when we fielded the survey. Most notably, 58% of respondents thought that the crisis would weaken Russia’s standing in the Middle East, with only 33% expecting that Russia’s invasion would strengthen its regional position.

In contrast, many saw China as a clear beneficiary of this conflict: 63% thought the crisis strengthened China’s position in the region, and only 5% saw a weakened China. A solid 40% saw a stronger U.S. position in the Middle East due to the war in Ukraine, while 34%  expected it to have no real impact on U.S. standing.

The biggest winners of the crisis thus far are Qatar (50% say the crisis strengthens its alliance with the United States, and only 10% say it weakens it) and Turkey (61% say it strengthens and only 15% weakens the alliance with the United States). This seems to reflect an appreciation of Qatar’s role in providing natural gas to Europe to offset the impact of sanctions on Russia, and Turkey’s provision of drones to the Ukrainian military.

On the other side of the ledger, 36% expected the Ukraine crisis to weaken relations between the United States and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. That likely reflects highly publicized mutual recriminations, as those allies aired their discontent with perceived U.S. neglect of their interests while the United States complained about their lack of support on Ukraine.

There’s less expectation that the crisis will affect U.S. relations with Israel, though: 56% of survey respondents expect Israel’s hedging on the crisis to have no real impact on relations.

We also asked about the effects of Ukraine on the Iranian nuclear talks. Forty-two percent of the scholars thought the Ukraine crisis made it less likely that the United States and Iran would successfully restore the deal, compared with just 32% who thought the conflict might improve the odds. A 67% majority felt that a revamped Iran nuclear agreement would reduce the chances that Iran would get a nuclear weapon in the next 10 years.

How do scholars view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

We’ve asked the same questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in each of the three rounds of the survey. Pessimism about the two-state solution continues to grow – 61% no longer see the possibility of a two-state solution, compared with 52% in February 2021 and 57%  in September 2021.

At the same time, 60% describe the current reality as that of “one state akin to apartheid.” That’s slightly higher than our February 2021 poll (59% ) and lower than the September 2021 poll (65% ). The spike in the September poll may have reflected a highly publicized Human Rights Watch report labeling Israeli practices as “apartheid” and the May 2021 Gaza war.

Only 29% described Israel’s relationship with its non-Jewish citizens, putting aside the West Bank and Gaza, as “a state akin to apartheid.” The 31-point difference in response to the two questions suggests that scholars do not use that label reflexively, but differentiate between Israel proper and its occupation of the West Bank.

What about political stability in the region

A year ago, 76% of scholars thought the Arab uprisings were either still ongoing or likely to return within 10 years. In this survey, we asked about specific countries. No more than 6%  of the scholars viewed instability as very likely over the next five years in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Iran. Confidence in that judgment is relatively thin, however: 39% see instability as somewhat likely in Egypt.

A decade ago, Middle East political scientists came under criticism for failing to anticipate the Arab uprisings and being overly confident about Arab authoritarian stability. Are the surveyed experts now falling into that same trap – or are they seeing something real about the region’s low prospects for a new wave of protests?

And what about Biden’s Middle East policies?

Academic experts don’t appear overly impressed with the Biden administration’s reset of U.S. Middle East policy. Only 6% say it’s worse than the Trump administration. But 39% say that U.S. policy in the region has not significantly changed, and only 12% describe it as “much better.”

The lackluster views conceal important differences in specific issue areas. Biden’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian issue gets the most negative grades: Only 7% view his policies favorably. However, 68% have a favorable view of his handling of the Iranian nuclear deal. If that falls through, many in the Middle East scholarly expert community would have few positive things to say about current U.S. policy in the region.

Image: U.S. Coast Guard ships on patrol in the Arabian Gulf, June 26, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Roland A. Franklin.)

Note: Updated Sept. 11, 2023.

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