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Ukraine war has side effects on Middle East geopolitics

Here’s what our survey of Middle East scholars found

An Emirati official attends the official closing ceremony of Expo 2020 Dubai in the United Arab Emirates last month. (Ali Haider/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
6 min

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened its standing in the Middle East, primarily to China’s benefit, according to a new 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 last month. 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).

Russia’s allies have been pretty quiet on Ukraine

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 percent of respondents thought that the crisis would weaken Russia’s standing in the Middle East, with only 33 percent expecting that Russia’s invasion would strengthen its regional position.

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

The biggest winners of the crisis thus far are Qatar (50 percent say the crisis strengthens its alliance with the United States, and only 10 percent say it weakens it) and Turkey (61 percent say it strengthens and only 15 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent who thought the conflict might improve the odds. A 67 percent majority felt that a revamped Iran nuclear agreement would reduce the chances that Iran would get a nuclear weapon in the next 10 years.

The Ukraine conflict has Persian Gulf monarchies hedging their bets

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 percent no longer see the possibility of a two-state solution, compared with 52 percent in February 2021 and 57 percent in September 2021.

At the same time, 60 percent describe the current reality as that of “one state akin to apartheid.” That’s slightly higher than our February 2021 poll (59 percent) and lower than the September 2021 poll (65 percent). 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 percent 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.

Russia believes tanks trump international law. Smaller countries are using the U.N. to push back.

What about political stability in the region?

A year ago, 76 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent say it’s worse than the Trump administration. But 39 percent say that U.S. policy in the region has not significantly changed, and only 12 percent 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 percent view his policies favorably. Sixty-eight percent have a favorable view of his handling of the Iranian nuclear deal, though. 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.

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Shibley Telhami (@ShibleyTelhami) is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development and director of the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is co-author of the “The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011,” and of a forthcoming sequel on the Obama and Trump presidencies.