Annual conference of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs “The repercussions of the war in Ukraine on the situation in the Middle East and Egypt”
On February 11, 2023, the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs held its annual conference under the slogan “The Repercussions of the War in Ukraine on the Situation in the Middle East and Egypt,” with the participation of a number of senior diplomats, experts, and specialists. The conference was opened by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
The theme of the Conference imposed itself strongly, not only given that the war represented the key geopolitical development in decades, and was the dominant factor in international relations since the beginning of last year, and is likely to continue this year, and perhaps for many years to come, but also because of the geopolitical repercussions this war entails, bringing major powers competition and geopolitical alliances back to the forefront of the global scene, and creating a state of division and severe polarization, which has left many countries, especially developing countries, confused about how to deal with them. As for the geoeconomic repercussions, linked to the unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia due to the war, their direct and indirect effects have extended to include all parts of the globe, causing unprecedented turmoil, chaos, and enormous pressure in the global economy. This “comprehensive economic offensive” against Russia, experts affirm, has revealed an important new reality: the era of inexpensive, risk-free and predictable sanctions has in fact ended.
Accordingly, the Conference addressed three axes: The first tackles the repercussions of the war on the rivalry of the major powers in the region (the United States, Russia, and China), taking into account the absent presence of Europe, as it remained – willingly or forced – part of the American strategy, whether by imposing sanctions on Russian energy exports or part of a broader American move to secure the energy needs of European countries, under the repercussions of the war, especially from the Middle East region. The second axis discussed the repercussions on the Arab countries and neighboring countries (Türkiye, Iran, and Israel), while the third axis shed light on the political, economic, security, and military repercussions of the war on Egypt.
With regard to the first axis, the Conference concluded by emphasizing that the Middle East will remain an important arena for major powers’ competition. It may be true to say that each of the three powers does not have the same goals in the region, and that even if Russia or China do not attempt to replace the dominant role of the United States in it, each of them has goals that contradict American interests in it. While the United States is trying to limit its military footprint in the region, China is trying to expand its economic influence without provoking partners or being drawn in militarily. As for Russia, it seeks to enhance its security and economic interests, and thus its global standing, in addition to seeking opportunities to undermine American influence.
Hence, it can be said that many of the moves and goals of the three powers are not similar, taking into account that the moves of each of them can affect the other within the broader framework of major powers competition. It is worth noting that there are many estimates indicating that due to this competition, most of the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa are likely to remain in a state of stagnation during 2023, and there are even opportunities for escalation and different scenarios that could spark fighting here and there.
Regarding the axis related to the repercussions of the war on the Arab countries, Türkiye, Iran, and Israel, the Conference noted that there is a strong trend that believes that the escalating competition between the Western alliance led by the United States and the Russia-China axis provides opportunities for the middle powers, in addition to the threats it represents. Perhaps this is clearly evident in the visits of three major powers leaders to the region during the past year (President Biden’s visit to Riyadh on July 13-16, 2022, President Putin’s visit to Iran on July 19th, and the Chinese President’s visit to Riyadh on December 7-9, 2022).
In this context, there is no doubt that the repercussions of the war on the competition of major powers represent an opportunity for the Arab countries, as it provides them with a margin for political maneuvering and a kind of balance in Arab-U.S. relations, which helps reduce the repercussions of any potential shifts in the U.S. policy towards the Middle East during the coming years. The conflicting major powers will have to pay further attention to the viewpoints of the Arab countries, especially if the latter make good use of the cards they have.
On the other hand, as for the three neighboring Arab countries, the war and its repercussions have placed the three countries facing difficult and complex challenges. In this regard, Türkiye sought to exploit the crisis to its advantage as much as possible, enabling it to play sensitive geopolitical roles that were reflected in the Turkish behavior in the region, whether with regard to Syria or Libya. As for Iran, it was the only country that chose to support Russia militarily during the war, which greatly reduced its margin of maneuver and consolidated its position as an original party in the Russia-China axis. This position also had decisive repercussions on the chances of reviving the nuclear agreement signed in 2015.
As for Israel, it initially tried to adopt a neutral position, or so it described it, imposed by considerations related to the Iranian military presence in Syria. However, with time, and especially since the revelation of Iran’s involvement in supporting Russia with drones, the Israeli position has shifted sharply with regard to appeasement with Russia, as many Western estimates indicate the presence of Israeli intelligence and military support (defensive weapons) to Ukraine directly or through NATO; in addition, Israel has greatly benefited from the security repercussions of the war, in the form of arms sales to many European countries, especially Germany, after the war prompted these countries to increase their defense spending.
In connection with the last axis concerning investigating the repercussions of the war on Egypt politically, economically, security-wise and militarily, the participants expressed their satisfaction with Egypt moving forward with its foreign policy based on diversifying options and openness to everyone, which is obvious whether from Egypt’s moves towards the three major powers (the United States – Russia – China) or its position in the multilateral framework. It is no secret that Cairo was the first to call for an emergency meeting of the League of Arab States to discuss the Ukrainian crisis, which led to the establishment of an Arab contact group to play a mediation role with the aim of promoting and supporting reaching a political solution to the crisis.
As the Minister of Foreign Affairs indicated in his opening speech, Egypt has exerted unremitting efforts to interact at the bilateral and multilateral levels to contain the negative repercussions of the crisis, stressing Egypt’s interest in defending the multilateralism, and warning against the consequences of international action by seeking to establish new rules outside of this system.
It is worth noting in this context the recent visit made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to Moscow at the beginning of February, and his statements during it, which affirmed Egypt’s interests and intertwined relations with various powers, which expressed the entrenchment of this trend in Egyptian foreign policy, despite the enormous pressures it faces, and both Moscow and Washington’s understanding of this policy.
On the economic level, the war has greatly contributed to exacerbating the repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis, especially given the significant rise in food and energy prices. It is worth noting here that Egypt refused to employ economic sanctions against Moscow in connection with the war in Ukraine, and the Egyptian government is credited in this regard with having, from the beginning, formed a crisis cell, headed by the Prime Minister, to deal with the economic repercussions of the war, by taking measures and procedures to secure the country’s reserves of strategic goods and food needs, including alleviating pressures on the Egyptian economy and citizens with limited income.
On the other hand, the Conference confirmed that there were positive effects of the crisis, represented in multiplying Egyptian exports of liquefied natural gas by almost 100%, according to Bloomberg. This was achieved thanks to persistent efforts to take advantage of the effects of the war on the global energy sector, which served as the main catalyst for positive structural transformations that this sector is expected to witness in the coming years. The focus of these transformations has been mainly the focus of many countries in the developed world on shifting towards clean energy. In this context, Egyptian interests converged with the European Union’s efforts to find alternatives to Russian gas and diversify its energy sources, which prompted the Egyptian government to provide domestic consumption of Egyptian gas and direct it to export, while increasing reliance on renewable energy.
It is important here to point out that, in the context of its diplomacy to deal with the food security crisis, Egypt called from within the United Nations, in September 2022, for launching a global debt swap initiative, and also offered cooperation in establishing an international hub for storing and trading grains on its territories. In his statement before the 77th session of the General Assembly last September, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry drew attention to the “multiplier effects” of what he described as multiple crises in the international reality and their intertwining, most notably “food insecurity,” resulting from the failure of the international community for many years in achieving sustainable development goals, eliminating hunger and achieving food security.
Among the main conclusions of the Conference in this regard was the emphasis that the crisis may serve as an incentive to reduce the volume of Egyptian imports and enhance investment in the agricultural and industrial sectors, including encouraging farmers to grow major crops, diversifying the import markets for wheat and foodstuffs that the Egyptian market needs, and localizing national industries, which is what the Egyptian government has already begun to do.
Finally, from a security and military perspective, the participants concluded some lessons learned from the war so far, including the strategic importance of regular armies, and their continuous modernization, to ensure the strengthening of their capabilities to face the new challenges imposed by modern military and security technology. In this regard, it has been indicated that drones now represent a basic capability for ground forces and an effective tool in modern warfare. Regarding the future of Russia’s role as a major arms supplier to countries in the region, including Egypt, the picture does not seem clear in this regard, although it is logical to say that the protracted war will affect Moscow’s arms exports to its customers in the region.
It should be noted that the Conference attached a priority to the concept of national security. In this regard, energy security, food security, and climate security were referred to as important dimensions within the concept of national security, especially in the context of the challenges imposed by the current global reality.
Palestinians fleeing north Gaza move southward as Israeli tanks roll deeper into the enclave, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in the central Gaza Strip November 10, 2023. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa