Anita Fuentes interviews author and professor Noha Aboueldahab about her perspectives on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, particularly drawing from the Middle East perspective.
For the Security in Context podcast episode associated with this interview, click here.
Anita Fuentes: Hi, Noha! I'm really happy to have you as a guest at the Security in Context podcast. I'm going to go ahead and ask you the first question. Could you introduce yourself to us and tell us about your background, your expertise, and what are your main research interests?
Noha Aboueldahab: Sure, thank you so much for having me. I'm an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, where I teach public international law and transitional justice. I'm also a non-resident fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington DC, and a senior nonresident fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs. My work focuses mainly on transitional justice in the Middle East and North Africa, transitional justice being how societies undergoing some form of a transition decide to reckon with their past and how they use that to shape their present and their future. I focus quite a bit on criminal accountability issues, including international criminal justice. And my current book project is on the role of Arab diasporas in pushing for justice and political change in their home countries, especially through international law and through transitional justice.
Anita Fuentes: And, from the perspective of the Middle East as a region, what do you think are the main issues at stake derived from the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia?
Noha Aboueldahab: Well, I mean, food security and energy security are obviously two huge factors. I think those two have made many states in the Middle East and the rest of the global South, of course, sort of vocal about their opposition to economic sanctions against Russia. This idea that “bystander states,” as the South African president called it, are suffering as a result of the sanctions against Russia, and obviously the domino effect of the global food security crisis. But there's also a very strong consciousness of the power and influence that Russia wields geopolitically and globally, and so Middle Eastern governments tread carefully when reacting to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, because of potential longer-term consequences.
But I think another issue is the opportunity that the Russia-Ukraine conflict has presented for certain governments in the Middle East, and indeed in other parts of the global South, right? This idea that Russia still represents a powerful counterforce to the US and its allies. And so by not taking an overly critical stance of Russia's invasion, by not isolating Russia, this is a message from certain governments in the Middle East to the US and to the West: “we can afford to not go along with with what you're doing, and we can still be okay, we can still exercise control over our sovereignty, over our decision making, and still be okay.” Sort of like typical Cold War politics. And, in other words, the world is actually more multipolar than the West would like it to be or or would like to think that it is.
Anita Fuentes: So, as you were already kind of explaining, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put several states in the Middle East in kind of an ambiguous position towards the conflict. Many Middle Eastern countries have condemned the invasion of an independent country by a powerful neighbor, but most have refused to impose economic sanctions on Russia. And this was not only the case in the Middle East, it's been the case in many countries of the global South, which have abstained from pursuing sanctions against Russia. And, similarly, at the Human Rights Council vote to expel Russia, most Middle Eastern countries abstained, including some of the richest ones, then Syria and Iran voted against it, and only Libya, Turkey, Israel, and Cyprus voted for Russia's expulsion. So zeroing in the official response, what do you think were the main reasons behind these reactions?
Noha Aboueldahab: Middle eastern governments are often reluctant to support the diplomatic isolation of a country, especially at an international or multilateral institution. Many of the official statements coming out of governments in the Middle East underscored the need for diplomatic engagement and not isolation. So if you vote to kick another country out of the Human Rights Council, chances are that country, especially if it's a powerful one, will retaliate in one way or another, or indeed vote against you when you're in the spotlight, whether it's for an invasion or some other issue. And Russia pretty much made this clear in a letter that it sent to certain countries before the Human Rights Council vote. And similarly, as we were just saying, many countries in the global South, including, of course, in the Middle East, cannot afford to suffer economic sanctions, right? Look at what's happened to Iraq. And so the reluctance to participate in economic sanctions against Russia comes from the same place.
But also, of course, we have to remember the impact of the conflict on food security globally, and economic sanctions aren't exactly going to help that. And so the power and the significance of Russia, both politically and militarily for several countries in the Middle East, is enough to prevent them from taking an active position for its invasion of Ukraine. Russia is and can be an important ally for Middle Eastern governments, especially authoritarian ones who play the same counterterrorism cards to oppress their political dissidents. You know, they look and see how Russia successfully ensured the protection of the Assad regime in Syria. One day they might need Russia to do the same for them.
Anita Fuentes: Could you elaborate a bit more about the food security implications that you were mentioning?
Noha Aboueldahab: Sure. I'm not an economics expert, but you can see how you know this has really resulted in a food crisis for really major countries like Egypt, for example. So the reluctance and, as I said, like even opposition to imposing these economic sanctions is very real. It's important to remember how such a food crisis can lead to even more conflicts and more political opposition in these countries. They've done quite well in containing political opposition with the support of Russia and other countries, other powers. They don't want a food crisis to sort of destabilize that and, you know, cause another uprising or what have you. And so I think it has very real economic and political consequences again for huge, huge countries especially in Egypt.
Anita Fuentes: So my last question is, for those interested in Global South issues, what else should we be aware of as this conflict continues? And what issues should be brought to bear on the general discussion in the west that are currently missing or that we haven't yet touched on?
Noha Aboueldahab: I think this is a really great question. One thing that comes to mind is, when the war started there was quite a bit, and continues to be, quite a bit of support that was launched by universities in various parts of the world to help Ukrainian, but also Russian, students who suffered sudden financial distress and emotional trauma. And that support came in the form of scholarships and financial support, etc. Now, of course this is a good thing, right? I mean, it's always good to support students when they and their families are suffering this kind of financial and emotional distress. But at the same time it has raised questions about how universities apply this kind of support to students from other parts of the world where there is also a conflict, where they also suffer financial and emotional distress. And I think it's important to examine this more closely, to discuss this more. The role of universities in taking a political position. Because it is a political position to decide to support Ukrainian students, to decide that they deserve financial and emotional support. For example, since we're talking about Russia, what are the effects of Russian aggression or Russian complicity in the oppression of Syrians, right? Do universities react in the same way and rush to support Syrian students affected by the actions of Russia and its allies? For sure. There have been programs to support Syrian students. But I think it would be interesting to sort of see how that has fared in comparison to the kind of support that Ukrainian and Russian students are getting. Because I am also hearing this from students in various universities, about how all of the white students are getting a lot more support than the brown students who are suffering crises back home that don't necessarily fall within this neat category of an armed conflict or a declared war. But also I think there's, what, 10,000 African students who were in Ukraine and had to flee and have now been dispersed throughout Europe and are still struggling to find that financial and emotional support to continue their studies. They're not exactly being prioritized when it comes to scholarships, for example.
And so, how do universities formulate their policies when it comes to aiding students whose home countries are at war? What about other crises? Or other types of violence that also affect students and their security? And so this issue of race, universities, and conflict, and the impact of the international reaction to the Russia-Ukraine conflict on the daily lives of university students I think is an area that could use some more attention, especially in light of these reactions to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
And, secondly, I think that since we're discussing the Russia-Ukraine conflict from global South perspectives, one of the most important issues when it comes to the global South is this idea of transnational solidarity. So what does transnational solidarity look like right now? Has it changed? Do Ukrainian victims seek out alliances with victims from the global South? If not, why not? Or do global South movements seek out alliances with victims of the Russia-Ukraine conflict? Are there potential new spaces for such transnational solidarity that perhaps transcend racial differences? And, speaking of victims and solidarity, what does the picture of a victim or a survivor look like right now? Has it changed or not? So I think that these are some important questions that literally have an impact on the daily lives of people, and it would be worth examining those more closely.
Anita Fuentes: Those are really great questions, and I think you made a very original point bringing up the role of educational institutions in all this. Nobody is really discussing that. So it's actually very necessary.
Thank you so much for talking to us. I hope that we can have you as a guest at the Security in Context podcast in the future.
Noha Aboueldahab: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me!