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Russia and the Islamic world; Differences do not mean disagreement

Zuhair al-Harthi

Published: Updated:

Present-day Russian elites do not deny their respect for the history of their nation, i.e., the former Soviet Union, but they publicly affirm on every occasion that they are free from its shackles and obsessions, thanks to an objective and rational outlook. The Russians have changed in terms of thought, culture, and vision, becoming more open and breaking free from the impasse of ideology. President Putin reformulated the new goals of Russian policy according to a nationalist path by which he restored his country's radiance, entailing the establishment of a new multipolar world order, which is indeed the case.

The Russian motherland comprises different territories with diverse cultures and heritage, interlinked by a civilized system of harmony, respect and cooperation, leaving no room for imbalances or divides in the fabric of social life and its growth, and precluding any schism between social awareness and material development. They do not suffer from an identity crisis, but rather, they live in a state that embodies the meaning of coexistence in its most sublime form.

The observer of the developments in Russia senses a new climate associated with intellectual and cultural modernity, that is, the production of cultural, intellectual and developmental awareness in the social system. Some thought that the Russian societal fabric was torn after all the hardships and transformations they went through, but they persisted in their societal cohesion, as well as their pride in their abilities and competencies, underscoring their contribution to enhancing security and stability around the world. The Russians do not deny that they are misinformed about the Arab world, but on the other hand, they opine that we as well have false convictions and misperceptions about their country, culture, and even about the nature and objectives of their political decisions, insisting that every decision they make stems first and foremost from their interests and national security. When you visit Russia, you leave with a conviction regarding the history and heritage of this great country, the friendly manners of its people, and the extent of their appreciation for Saudi Arabia.

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Russia, despite everything, has always been in the spotlight and has maintained its position in spite of the difficulties it encountered, and has reclaimed much of the matriarchal prestige of the Soviet Union. In the other corner of the world, a country like Saudi Arabia was also the subject of global attention and often came under the spotlight. So what’s the story?

A few days ago, 33 government and public figures from 27 Islamic countries, including former prime ministers, former foreign ministers and many religious figures from the Islamic world, gathered in Jeddah for the meeting of the Strategic Vision Group under the banner "Russia and the Islamic World". The gathering came within the framework of Russia's efforts to strengthen its relations with the Islamic world, and in light of the Saudi initiative ‘Dialogue among Followers of Religions and Cultures’. This meeting was hosted by the Kingdom for the second time, after hosting its fourth round in Jeddah in 2008.

King Salman (Stock image)
King Salman (Stock image)

This forum was held this year under the slogan “Russia – Islamic World: Prospects for Dialogue and Cooperation", which aims to discuss common issues between Russia and the Islamic world, and to enhance cooperation in facing existing challenges. The Strategic Vision Group had been established in 2006 under the supervision of Yevgeny Primakov and the first president of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev, after the Russian Federation joined the Organization of Islamic Cooperation as a non-Muslim observer state. Since then, the group has held its meetings in Moscow, Kazan, Istanbul, Jeddah, Kuwait and other locations.

King Salman affirmed the Kingdom’s partnership with Russia based upon several key principles, including “respect for international legitimacy, establishing relations on the basis of mutual respect, sovereignty, independence and unity of states, and non-interference in internal affairs,” stressing “the adherence of both countries to a fair world order under international law.”

When King Salman says that Saudi-Russian relations are strong and historical, running for over 95 years and witnessing quantum leaps in recent years, as evidenced by the signing of many joint agreements in all fields—the message he wants to send it clear to all.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, in a speech delivered on his behalf by Deputy Foreign Minister Eng. Walid al-Khuraiji, during the meeting of the Strategic Vision Group for Russia and the Islamic World, said: “The Kingdom seeks to spread a culture of coexistence and tolerance, and has made concrete efforts in this context towards establishing international dialogue. The Kingdom has sought to build an effective internal dialogue among all spectrums of society through the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue, and contributed internationally to spreading the culture of dialogue among the followers of different religions and cultures, through several initiatives, most notably the contribution to the establishment of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, alongside adopting the Makkah Document, and supporting the efforts of the UN’s Alliance among Civilizations, and was keen to follow up and nurture all such efforts through the establishment of a national committee to follow up on the initiative of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for dialogue between followers of religions and cultures, stemming from its conviction in its active role regionally and internationally in building bridges of communication raising the banner of coexistence and peace in a world teeming with conflicts”. On his part, Deputy Foreign Minister al-Khuraiji said: “The Saudi-Russian relations have witnessed a steady development based on mutual trust, joint understanding and continuous coordination on issues and topics of concern to both countries and to the region, which has enhanced opportunities for cooperation in various fields, politically, economically, culturally, and otherwise, and contributed to achieving growth and prosperity for our two friendly countries, and played a role in protecting international peace and security.”

There are 24 million Russian Muslims who are spiritually affiliated with Saudi Arabia, which fuels the strengthening of relations between the two countries. The Russians welcome the rapprochement with the Kingdom and seek to consolidate the relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially given that both countries’ capabilities have the potential of advancing their relationship that is yet to be fully utilized, albeit the visits of the King and his Crown Prince to Moscow at the time had bridged the gap in bilateral relations.

The current Saudi policy, in my view, confirms that differing viewpoints on a particular issue with any country do not necessarily entail a break-off with it. Therefore, what brings Riyadh and Moscow together is much more than the points of disagreement, as demonstrated by their willingness to proceed towards strengthening their relationship strategically, despite the presence of discrepancies in certain issues. Partnership with the Russians represents a dire necessity, and their presence manifests a balancing factor in the equilibrium of power. You may agree or disagree with the Russians, but ultimately their intentions are clear. If they make a promise, they will abide by it. Changing their political positions is within reach if dialogue and mutual benefit are guaranteed.

As my colleague, writer Muhammad Qawas, said, Moscow has changed, and so has Riyadh. The Kremlin no longer operates according to the rules of the Soviet Union, and Riyadh is no longer captive to the constants of the Cold War.

Russia is seeking to rise from a setback caused by the fall of the Soviet empire, while Saudi Arabia is involved in a major workshop to re-read the entire international scene and to position itself according to new conditions. There is “Moscow’s acknowledgment that Saudi Arabia has become (the main party) leading the Arab direction on various key issues, and Riyadh’s acknowledgment that Russia is a superpower making a comeback to the international and regional arenas. The relationship takes on a characteristic of equality that guides the behavior of both parties, highlighting a common need for integration and communication, rather than collision and discord.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, British newspaper Independent Arabia.

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