Analyzing Arab Opinion on the Invasion of Ukraine

Published September 19th, 2022 - 05:24 GMT
Moroccan families went for news from Ukraine
Moroccan families in Rabat during a rally demanding the authorities to return their nationals from Ukraine. (Photo: AFP).

The violent memories and moods of Russia have been stamped on subdued parts of Syria. Yet popular sympathy and apathy in the Arab world for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suggest its harsh legacies have thawed elsewhere. This curious response has been shaped by autocratic anxiety, Russian propaganda, and the unyielding culture of anti-Westernism in the Middle East.

Despite the majority of regional states supporting a U.N. resolution condemning Russia in March, Arab media – usually in lockstep with state policy by virtue of sharp regulation – has been strongly supportive of Moscow.

A popular view in local Arab media is that NATO expansion has provoked Russian military action. As observed in an Algerian newspaper: “This war could have been avoided if the West had acted responsibly…and proceeded not to provoke (Russia).” Despite raising concerns about the negative implications for Arab economies, a writer in Egypt’s Al-Ahram echoes this position: “Russia has the right not to accept a direct threat on its borders.”

The perception of double standards has also stirred scepticism towards Western outrage. As argued by a Kuwaiti columnist, the West’s “pretext of defending international law” betrays “hypocrisy” given its disregard for human rights issues in Palestine. Explicit support for Russia is also commonplace. Washington is reproached for its “demonization” in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Okaz, whereby a columnist claims it “used Ukraine as bait to entangle Russia in a war of attrition, as it had done successfully in Afghanistan.”

This is not to say that pity for Ukrainian people is absent from Arab media; on the contrary, there is plenty. But on the war’s politics, sympathy towards Russia holds sway. 

The quiet disparity between official responses to Ukraine and those of local media speaks to a common desire of Arab regimes to inspire local sympathy towards Russia. The dogged defence of liberal democracy in the face of autocratic power is a narrative ripe with risk for Arab leaders; after all, they have been dousing democratic dissent with untold levels of repression since the Arab Uprisings in 2011. This sympathetic coverage of Russia, therefore, smacks of autocratic anxiety and craft.

Although state media is certainly not a sound reflection of public opinion, it can shape perceptions over issues which have little public understanding or knowledge.

In the event of China’s reunification with Taiwan, the viscerally disturbing picture of an autocratic state stifling an open and free democracy will similarly prevail in the West. And, as suggested by reactions to Ukraine, Arab authorities will take careful measures to distort this representation in public consciousness in order to defuse its unwelcome symbolism.

Another force swamping facts on the ground in the Middle East has been Russian propaganda. Like China’s CGNT, Moscow has used Arabic-language state media, Russia Today (RT), to penetrate public discourse in the Middle East.

According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), RT Arabic has a considerable 85 million users; and strikingly, RT has boosted its audience by 10 million users since the invasion in February.  On Twitter, RT has 5.2 million followers, no longer dwarfed by BBC Arabic’s userbase of 8.9 million.

However, as ISD’s Executive Director for AMEA, Moustafa Ayad, emphasised to DW: “It’s important to look beyond state-affiliated agencies to the impact of Facebook-only media outlets which are sharing, repurposing and rebranding RT and Sputnik content…(like) entities that exist solely on social media platforms.”

To this end, ISD identified 10 Twitter accounts, with a combined following of over 350,000. Publishing only in Arabic, their tweets promoted Moscow’s narratives and heaped scorn on Western leaders.

Remarkably, these accounts (which have been closed by Twitter) ostensibly belong to striking Russian women: adorned in leopard print and khaki-coloured clothing, they display heavy eyelashes, dramatised lips, and liquid eyes. Though the women are not immodestly dressed, a hint of Russian regard for regional sensitivities, the Kremlin’s use of sexuality to sell its propaganda to male audiences in the Middle East is blunt.

Arab social media reveals further evidence of popular support for Russia. As Nadia Oweidat, an academic researcher of digital activism, noted: “with rare exceptions, the dominant narrative deflects sympathy away from Ukraine to focus on the supposed evils of Western liberal democracies, and often defers to the Russian narrative about the war.”

An Arab News-YouGov survey suggests that indifference, rather than support, is the dominant reaction amongst Arab general publics. Taken in May, it found that of 7,835 respondents from the Arab world, 66% did not have a stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.  

In explanation of the absence of Arab outrage towards Russia, many commentators have shared observations found in Arab media about perceptions of Western “double standards,” from Palestine to Iraq. The instinctive reaction of the public, so the argument proceeds, is of deafening scepticism to Western postures in foreign affairs (arguably, this also has tamed Arab hostility to Western-led criticism of Muslim repression in Xinjiang). 

Feelings of anti-Westernism course richly in the Middle East. However, in defining popular reactions to Ukraine, a jarring contradiction is laid bare: forgiveness or forgetfulness of Russian brutality in Syria – to which crumpled cities like Aleppo pay direct witness – and its suppression of al-Assad’s democratic opposition.

Indeed, whatever the failings of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the fact that it sought to overthrow, rather than salvage, a merciless dictatorship is a moral distinction of no consequence in the region.

Public opinion seldom impacts foreign policy in the Middle East, whether that of Arab governments or external powers. But popular reactions to Ukraine do shed light on the political considerations of Arab citizens encountering an unfamiliar global order throwing out shadows of conflict and competition.

And much like Arab regimes, they appear sceptical of Western anxieties or simply incurious. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.

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