A Russian revival in the Middle East?

Russia seems to be trying to capitalize on recent tensions between the United States and two of its most important Arab allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

Russia seems to be trying to capitalize on recent tensions between the United States and two of its most important Arab allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - both of them regional powerhouses. Last week, Moscow’s foreign minister and defense minister met with their Egyptian counterparts in a landmark visit to Cairo. Days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the Saudi king to discuss bilateral, regional and international issues.

At first glance, Moscow’s position in the Middle East looks like it is improving. Egyptian and Saudi relations with Washington are strained, the Russian-backed Syrian regime is making military gains against U.S.-backed rebels, and Moscow’s ally Iran has seemingly been coming in from the cold since the recent election of reformist President Hassan Rowhani.

“The upheavals of the Arab Spring have helped bring about a revival in Russian fortunes,” wrote BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner. This statement is simplistic and inaccurate. The developments that are leading some analysts to claim a bolstering of Moscow’s regional influence are either cosmetic, temporary, or miscalculated.


Cairo hailed the Russian visit as “historic,” and a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said the talks were at the highest level “in the history of our friendly relations.” The visit took place a month after Washington aroused Egyptian anger by suspending part of its annual military aid in protest at the crackdown on dissent since the ouster of President Mohammad Mursi.

There were immediate reports and speculation that Cairo would turn to Russia to fill the void, and that there may be a resumption of the close ties that existed during much of the Cold War. However, despite Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy saying relations with the United States are in “turmoil,” he has insisted numerous times that his country is not trying to substitute the world’s only superpower.

Indeed, in the present circumstances, that would not be possible anyway. Regardless of the aid reduction, Washington is still a major military and economic donor to Cairo. It also has a great deal of influence on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, from which Egypt is seeking much-needed help for its battered economy. Fahmy has acknowledged that a prolonged deterioration in ties would “reflect negatively on the entire region.”

Even in the field in which Moscow is most interested - military sales - the potential is limited. Last week’s visit resulted in a Russian proposal to sell modern fighter jets, helicopters and air defense systems worth $2 billion. Egypt is reportedly seeking $4 billion of Russian weapons to substitute the shortfall in U.S. military aid.

However, “since Mursi’s ouster in July, Egypt’s economy has survived on international aid,” wrote Al Arabiya journalist Shounaz Mekky. “Ongoing unrest has dealt a major blow to the country’s various economic sectors and drained the state budget.” As such, Moscow is tempting a client with almost empty pockets.

A high-ranking official in Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport has said arms deliveries will depend on Cairo’s ability to pay for them. Since its ability is limited, so might the deliveries. The $2 billion Russian proposal reportedly may be financed by Arab Gulf states, but it is implausible that they will bankroll Egypt’s army indefinitely, not to mention politically sensitive and potentially damaging to their relations with Washington.

Furthermore, Russia has neither the will, resources or incentive to provide military aid to Cairo, as Washington has done since the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in 1979. Russia’s interests are commercial, whereas U.S. motivations are more wide-ranging.

Some analysts have described Egypt’s turn to Russia as a flirtation. If this is the case, it may be more accurate, at least for the foreseeable future, to view Cairo’s intentions as trying to make its current partner jealous to reaffirm its commitment, rather than considering a break-up.

Indeed, Fahmy described the Russian visit as “an important political message that reflects care, appreciation and respect for Egypt and its history.” That message looks like it was aimed at Washington rather than Moscow. If so, it seems to be working, judging from the U.S. secretary of state’s visit to Egypt days before the Russians.

“We’re committed to work, and we’ll continue our cooperation, with the interim government,” said John Kerry, describing Egypt as a “vital” partner, and stressing “as clearly and as forcefully as I can, in no uncertain terms, that the United States is a friend.” Cairo felt sufficiently loved and appreciated for Fahmy to say Kerry’s visit “left better sentiments here in Egypt.” For now at least, Russia may have to settle for being Cairo’s ‘bit on the side.’

Saudi Arabia

Riyadh has been angered by what it sees as Washington’s insufficient backing for Syria’s opposition, and for its more conciliatory tone towards arch-rival Iran since Rowhani’s election. This led Kerry to visit Saudi Arabia last week in a bid to ease tensions, saying bilateral ties should stay “on track.”

Russia has neither the will, resources or incentive to provide military aid to Cairo, as Washington has done since the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in 1979

Sharif Nashashibi

However, if Putin’s phone call was an attempt to take advantage of the situation, he will be sorely disappointed. Riyadh has expressed far greater condemnation of Russia’s support for the Syrian regime, and of its help with Iran’s nuclear program.

Besides, Saudi Arabia is the second-largest supplier of oil to the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Since oil reportedly accounts for 92.5 percent of the kingdom’s revenues, maintaining a good relationship with Washington is vital to Riyadh, and vice versa. Russia cannot be a substitute client in this regard.


President Bashar al-Assad may be gaining the upper hand in the Syrian conflict, but the country is crippled economically, politically and socially. As such, its usefulness to Moscow - primarily, its ability to trade, buy arms, and host Russian businesses - is limited as long as the war continues, and there is no sign of a resolution on the horizon.

The Syrians are “old customers, but they’re very poor,” said Ruslan Aliev, an arms-trade specialist at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow research group.

Furthermore, Assad “for a number of months has stopped paying his bills, so he’s not a reliable customer,” said Dimitri Simes, president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, a non-partisan public policy institution founded by former U.S. President Richard Nixon. He “isn’t in a position to buy new Russian weapons.”

Assad may be staying put for the meantime, much to Russia’s satisfaction, but Moscow will nonetheless remember with nostalgia the days when his rule, and his alliance with Russia, were unchallenged. The status quo may be better for both parties than it was a year ago, but it is still far worse than it was before the Syrian revolution began.


International sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy, and forced the country to develop its own armaments industry. Both factors have limited the extent to which Russia has been able to benefit financially from its ally. Some analysts believe that if current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program succeed, and hence bring about the lifting of sanctions, this will benefit Russia.

However, it is likely to be of far greater benefit to Western countries, whose companies have long been forbidden from doing business with Tehran. As such, successful negotiations will result in Russian firms and industries facing stiff competition for a large and very lucrative market.

Last week, a senior U.S. official said it is “quite possible” that a nuclear deal could be reached later this month. Though they are long-time allies, what is good for Iran might not necessarily be good for Russia.


Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

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