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Is the West Losing the Battle of Narratives in the Middle East?

Russia's Putin
Russian President Putin. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Amid Western outrage at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, Middle Eastern views of the conflict are colored by attitudes toward the West itself. Arab narratives are typically ambivalent in their presentation of Western reactions. They include accusations of American hypocrisy and double standards. 

Political cartoons offer unique insights into these perceptions. They also help show how the Middle East perceives itself within the broader great-power competition between the United States, Russia, and China.  

Since the war in Ukraine began, Arab-language cartoons have offered divergent viewpoints on Russia’s actions. These range from neutral calls for negotiations to open condemnations of Russian atrocities – and of Arabs willing to praise a dictator such as Putin. Emirati newspaper al-Ittihad is illustrative of the first view. Its featured cartoons lack any attribution of victimhood or guilt. On the other hand, cartoonists such as Emad Hajjaj – regularly featured in the UK-based New Arab – openly condemn the Bucha massacre.

Hypocrisy Is the Theme

Despite the variety of views, however, a dominant theme has emerged in the Middle East – one that sees a profound imbalance between the West’s response to Ukraine and its reaction to other conflicts. 

Arab cartoonists’ depictions of Western hypocrisy take front and center in many presentations of the war. Often cited is Syria, where bloodshed and atrocities have been worse so far than what we have seen in Ukraine. From a regional perspective, Europe has shown a double standard by opening its doors to Ukrainians more readily than to Syrians – or to refugees from elsewhere in the Middle East.

Then there is the Palestinian issue. Here, the region’s perception of Western hypocrisy takes center stage. In cartoons, international concern over other conflicts is pitted against approaches to the Palestinian cause, or seen as subservient to American control over world opinion. Indeed, Arab political cartoons repeatedly compare Ukraine and Palestine – in terms of the international perception of violence against occupying forces, or of refugees, or of the destruction of civilian buildings. When the Kuwaiti political satirist Shuaib conducts a mock interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the latter laments that Putin is shelling and destroying Ukraine while “the West has left me by myself.” Shuaib responds that it sounds like Zelenskyy wants to be bundled together with Syria and Palestine. 

A Descent Into Whataboutism

These comparisons reveal a serious misunderstanding of what is driving Western outrage and the deep, direct impact the war in Ukraine is having on the West. For one, the war in Ukraine is right at the European Union’s doorstep – Poland alone already hosts more than two and a half million Ukrainian refugees. Western outrage also stems from Putin’s intent to restructure Europe’s security architecture. Fears of possible Russian escalation into a war with NATO, and of the possible use of nuclear weapons, are uniquely haunting factors that Western policymakers must navigate when they look at the war in Ukraine. This context helps explain why the war in Ukraine hits a deeper nerve than other conflicts.  

However, a number of journalists in Western media have contrasted Ukraine with the Middle East using language that implies the suffering of Ukrainians is somehow worse. These attitudes have been duly rebuked. Numerous think-pieces have attempted to explain and understand this reporting gap, in publications such as NPR, Al-Jazeera English, and others. But the soundbites exist nevertheless, and they chip away at Western credibility. According to Google trends, the attention Americans have given to the war in Ukraine easily outpaces the attention placed on Syria from 2011 onward. Yet Russia’s role in Syria is no less destructive than its actions in Ukraine. In this sense, Arab cartoonists have a point.

But cartoonists’ accusations of hypocrisy sometimes descend into whataboutism. Carlos Latuff is a case in point. The Brazilian cartoonist, popular on Arabic social media, has dedicated much of his career to championing the rights of Palestinians and Palestinian statehood. Like others, Latuff has created a number of cartoons calling out hypocrisy by comparing Ukraine and Palestine. 

However, Latuff has also tweeted views such as, The war in Ukraine is probably the only one in which only one side’s version is taken into account. Ukrainian Nazi militias are heroes, and Russian troops are villains. Pure Western propaganda.” The outlet that regularly publishes his work, Mintpressnews, is also known for characterizing the chemical attack on Ghouta by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as a false-flag operation. Here, Latuff’s apparent predisposition for Russian narratives warps reality. In fact, neither the West nor the Ukrainian government extol the very small neo-Nazi militias in Ukraine. 

A Very Different Impression

Looking at the bigger picture, many Arab cartoonists repeatedly portray the war in Ukraine as a conflict between two forces – the United States and Russia – trapping Ukraine and the rest of the world in their tussle. This criticism of great-power competition was a common theme before the war. Illustrative of the trend are images showing the United States and China trudging off toward another Cold War, or of four boots, belonging to Israel, the United States, Russia, and China, crushing peace. Criticizing the international community’s values, another image shows a Pinocchio-like world with “human rights” and “fighting poverty” scrawled across its lengthy nose. 

In other words, Arabic media is likely to depict the war in Ukraine as a reflection of a broader, cynical struggle for control between great powers. This is a long way from the West’s impression of the war, wherein a free and peaceful nation defends itself against a bigger aggressor.

Understanding and addressing this perspective is important, especially since other state actors are happy to bolster these narratives in order to erode Western credibility. A lengthy Twitter thread from Cao Yi, a Chinese diplomat in Lebanon, is instructive. Along with memes comparing Ukrainians and Palestinians and critiquing U.S. interventionism, the diplomat tries to discredit all sorts of Western stances, from its accusations against Russia to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s support for protests in Hong Kong. In these cases, similar headlines belie the very different contexts of the cases they compare. There is no moral comparison between the bombing of Serbia, which followed its horrific attacks on Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Russia’s bombing of Kyiv.

And herein lies the lesson for the West. Moscow and Beijing can incorporate prevalent narratives from the Middle East into their own worldviews. The West cannot afford to  leave these narratives unchallenged, but it has yet to effectively express its own perspective. The West needs to highlight its rivals’ own hypocrisy to Arab audiences.

 Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of “Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence.” 

Catherine Cleveland is the Wagner family fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and managing editor of the Fikra Forum.



  1. MN

    May 9, 2022 at 4:35 pm

    The West has to stop trying to convince other world regions which maintain different views from our own.
    Western values are predominantly Western and belong there. East is East and West is West. Globalisation has failed miserably and is not working to the West’s benefit anymore.
    The time has come to protect Western interests economically, military and industrially. We need to go back to a situation where we can hold our own without dependancy of Eastern and that includes the Middle East.
    We have to mobilize our science to come up with feasible alternatives to rare earth metals we have to import or buy as ready to use components from Asian countries. And is has to be quick, we do not have years to spend on developments. We are at war and we need to shield our interests with a maximum effort and investment on military means. We need to become more destructive than our adversaries; it is all they respect. The gloves need to come off, now!

    • CK

      May 10, 2022 at 9:50 am

      Agreed, up to a point.

      Also, is it any surprise Middle-Eastern countries are wary of the West, after the wars we have waged there recently? Not to mention in terms of values, there are big differences, especially between democratic governments and (mostly) autocratic and/or corrupt ones.

  2. Alex

    May 10, 2022 at 10:59 am

    And now, instead of tantrums and fantasies, let’s face it.

    Zelensky is a Kremlin agent.

    So in just two months:

    1. Actively extorted money from the West.

    2. Strengthened the ruble.

    3. In addition to the Crimea, he gave Donbass to Russia.

    4.. Turned off the gas at the whole of Europe, sending it to the Middle Ages.

    5. Ruined the pockets of drivers, farmers, entrepreneurs and manufacturers in the EU and the US.

    6. Since the beginning of the special operation, almost all major competitors from Russia have left, making room for Russian entrepreneurs.

    7. Begging for so many weapons that even Scholz said that the Bundeswehr was running out of weapons “for himself.”

    8. He collected all the crap of the Ukrainian Nazi subculture – tattooed Nazis, outcasts, idiots, maniacs, murderers from Europe and other countries in one place, where the Russians kill them in batches and promptly deliver them to Bandera.

    9. United the Russian people around their leader. Russia has never known such powerful support for the actions of the President and his cabinet during all the terms of his reign.

    10. He sent into emigration the entire corrupt beau monde of the Russian stage and cinema, with pockets full of “wishes” from the grateful Russian people.

    Never before has Russia been as good as under Zelensky.

  3. Alex

    May 10, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    Jim Chambers (Fergie Chambers) – a journalist from NY spoke about how he SAW the attacks of Ukrainian fascists on peaceful Ukrainians. He told how he SAW what horrors the Bandera Nazis were doing to the Ukrainians. He said that food and medicine appeared when the Russian Liberators came.

    He told how he SAW Nazi paraphernalia wherever the military of Ukraine abandoned their positions (swastikas, Mein Kampf books, paintings by Hitler, Bandera, etc.).

    He SAW how opponents of the regime of the Ukrainian authorities were detained, tortured and killed. He told how the people of Ukraine are waging their struggle for existence and for peace without Bandera Nazis. He spoke about how the Russian liberators help civilians and the Ukrainians ask the Russians not to leave. The Ukrainians are upset that the Russians came late, they should have come earlier.

    He said: “Our American weapons have only exacerbated the useless bloodshed in a battle that the Ukrainian fascists can never win. I am ashamed to carry an American passport with me. The world desperately needs a Russian victory: at the end of Ukrainian Nazism and at the end of the American NATO empire. World needs victory for freedom.”

  4. Alex

    May 10, 2022 at 1:58 pm

    Graham William Phillips is an outstanding British journalist who objectively and unbiasedly covers events in Ukraine.

    He is in a war zone and interviews all sides. He confirms the existence of Bandera Nazis who brutally torture and kill Ukrainians just because they do not want to see Bandera Nazis in their country.

    He confirms that the Ukrainians are asking the Russian liberators not to leave them anymore and not to leave.

    It is interesting to see how Graham interviews Aiden Aislin, a Briton who fought on the side of Ukraine as part of the Nazi Azov Battalion and was taken prisoner in Mariupol.

    The truth will always see the world thanks to such professionals, and not propagandists, who sometimes have never been to Ukraine and are thousands of miles away.

    No Nazism. We – free people will win.

  5. Alex

    May 11, 2022 at 12:08 pm

    A bit of truth.

    The head of the UN monitoring mission, Matilda Bogner, said that the organization has reliable information about the torture of Russian soldiers in Ukrainian captivity:
    “Ukraine and Russia must promptly and effectively investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners of war,” she said.

    The military-civilian administration of the Kherson region announced their intention to appeal to Putin with a request to include the region into Russia:
    “We intend to live as part of the Russian Federation. We fully cooperate and feel as one with the regions of Russia.”

    Pfizer, Moderna, Merck, Gilead are testing medicines in Ukraine, bypassing international safety standards, reducing the costs of research programs and gaining significant competitive advantages. Coronavirus vaccine manufacturers have been involved in US military biological activities.

    Along with American pharmaceutical companies and Pentagon contractors, Ukrainian state structures are involved in military biological activities, the main tasks of which are to conceal illegal activities, conduct field and clinical trials, and provide the necessary biomaterial.
    The American side expanded its research potential both in the field of creating biological weapons and in the field of obtaining information about antibiotic resistance and the presence of antibodies to various diseases in the population of specific regions.

    Ukraine has long become a training ground for Western countries to create biological weapons components and test new samples of pharmaceuticals.

    The United States, as part of its military biological program in Ukraine, used Mariupol as a regional center for work with the cholera pathogen.
    Evidence was obtained of the emergency destruction of documents confirming work with the US military department. A preliminary analysis of the surviving documentation indicates the use of Mariupol as a regional center for the collection and certification of the cholera pathogen.

    The selected strains were sent to the public health center in Kyiv, which is entrusted with the functions of further sending biomaterials to the United States.
    This activity has been carried out since 2014, which is confirmed by the acts of transfer of strains.

    Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Fox News recalled that the United States supplied weapons to Ukraine long before the start of the Russian special operation.
    “The Biden administration was supplying weapons long before the invasion. The first billion dollars that the president allocated for Ukraine did indeed include assistance with lethal weapons … The United States, Canada, Britain, other allies actually helped prepare the Ukrainians, ”Kirby quoted the TV channel as saying.

    As military experts and analysts had previously assumed, Ukraine would have brought down all its military power on the Donbass in any case, but Russia was the first to come to the aid of Donyuass.

    The world is watching. The world sees. Lies are dying.

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