Arab League's tools to help end Ukraine war limited as group visits Russia

Led by the Arab league chief, ministers are scheduled to meet the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit. AP
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A delegation of Arab League foreign ministers led by the organisation’s chief was in Moscow on Monday at the start of a mediation bid to end the Russia-Ukraine war, which has had far-reaching consequences for some Arab nations.

Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Jordan and the UAE — the current Arab member of the UN Security Council — met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Russia on Monday. They will head to Poland on Tuesday to meet Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

The war, sparked by Russia’s invasion of its neighbour in February, has disrupted the global supply chain and driven up energy and food prices.

Arab League's limited influence

It is too soon to gauge the chances of the Arab League’s mediation in a conflict that has raged unabated since February 24 despite attempts by countries such as France, Israel and Turkey to try to end it via diplomatic means.

Moreover, the Arab League has a poor track record in mediating an end to conflicts in its own backyard and has in recent years been generally viewed as more of a talking shop than an effective interlocutor.

“It has not been doing very well in recent years and has not been able to convene an Arab summit for three years,” said Mohamed Anis Salem, a retired career Egyptian diplomat who sits on the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

“This bid brings Arab League members to the table on a major conflict, but whether it will be effective or not is another question.”

One issue is a lack of thorough knowledge of the roots of Ukraine-Russia conflict.

Arab foreign ministers attending the 157th ordinary session of the Arab League Council in Cairo, Egypt in March. EPA

“It's an attempt that is likely to fail because the league lacks an insightful understanding of the region and its requirements,” said Gehad Auda, a political-science professor from Egypt's Helwan university.

The Arab League wants to see the conflict end because, analysts say, it has shifted international attention away from pressing regional issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s menacing role in the area, the turmoil in Libya, and Lebanon’s worsening economy.

A permanent ceasefire would also spare them being caught up in a new cold war and prevent the need to take sides to safeguard their national interests.

“Increased tension in the global political system will put pressure on all Arab League members and place constraints on their dealing with Russia. The fact that all league members are dependent on external relations for so many things makes things more difficult for them,” said Mr Salem.

Mr Aboul Gheit said on Monday at a press conference with Mr Lavrov that although the group stood to benefit from a cessation in the conflict, it also had more altruistic aims.

“We must confess that Arab nations have interests and those interests must be defended from the viewpoint of each individual state,” Mr Aboul Gheit said. “But we don't look at the matter from only an Arab perspective. We see the need to defend peace and stability in the world.”

Food price impact

Russia and Ukraine account for 30 per cent of global wheat trade. A total of 50 countries worldwide depend on Russia and Ukraine for between 30 and 60 per cent of their wheat imports. The two countries also combine for 75 per cent of the global trade of sunflower oil.

Of the Arab League’s 22 member-states, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Libya and Tunisia are the biggest wheat importers and the hardest hit by the sharp spike in its price.

Western sanctions slapped on Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine also leave Egypt’s years-long procurement of weapons from Moscow in limbo and throw into doubt Cairo’s plans to have Russia build its first nuclear power station.

Jordan, a US ally like Egypt, had to tread carefully when dealing with the war to ensure that it maintains the goodwill of both Washington and Russia, with which it has developed close relations in recent years.

Amman, like Cairo, supported Russia’s military intervention on the side of President Bashar Al Assad in Syria in late 2015. Its monarch, King Abdullah, has travelled to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin three times since then and, at the behest of Moscow, has been a key player in efforts to rehabilitate Mr Assad’s regime in the region.

The Arab League mission is “primarily about the common interests of its member states with Russia”, as well as a desire to be part of international moves to try to curb rising tension between the West and Russia, said Hassan Al Momani, a professor of international studies at the Jordanian University in Amman.

“It is a positive step regardless of its effect on the course of conflict in Ukraine,” he said.

(additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Jordan)

Updated: April 04, 2022, 7:05 PM