Restoring Russian influence in the Middle East

The visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz next week to Washington will reaffirm U.S.-Gulf ties

Raghida Dergham
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Among the things both Russia and the high-level Arab leaders visiting Moscow want is developing Arab-Russian relations to overcome the barriers erected by Russian-Iranian relations and the doubts and mistrust they caused; and second, filling the void left behind by U.S. President Barack Obama’s policies on the Arab Gulf and Egypt, which have strained US-Arab relations.

Yet this does not mean that the Gulf nations, Egypt, and Jordan have decided to discard the United States and are about to replace it with Russia as their security partner.

The visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz next week to Washington will reaffirm U.S.-Gulf ties on the back of the emerging U.S.-Iranian partnership, launched by the nuclear deal with Tehran – albeit cracks in these ties are hard to conceal. However, the Saudi king’s visit must carry firm demands and pressure Washington, which has become too accustomed to seeing is charm convince the Arabs to back down and adapt, or cave in to its demands..


The tango between Arab and Russian leaders will not be enough to make Washington sense something is afoot in its long-held relations with the Arab world. Washington does not likely believe that the Arabs have a full-fledged, viable alternative in Russia. It will not suffice to express artificial acceptance of U.S.-Iranian partnership that confers leading regional role upon Tehran.

The tango between Arab and Russian leaders will not be enough to make Washington sense something is afoot in its long-held U.S.-Arab relations

Raghida Dergham

No, what Arab leaders need to do is to go to Washington and Moscow with clear demands and firm stances on major issues like Yemen, which directly impacts Saudi and Gulf national security, and smaller issues like Lebanon’s slide into chaos at the instigation of Iran – to avenge Yemen – and with Saudi absence out of preoccupation with Yemen.

Unresolved, Lebanon’s crisis will spawn extremist sectarian forces in both Sunni and Shiite iterations and will re-export them to the Gulf nations.

Neither Russian engagement nor U.S. isolationism will change the course of events in the Arab region unless Arab leaders make bold decisions and redress past mistakes as part of a new careful plan.

The pragmatism being shown now by Arab leaders is a good step to counter Iran’s realpolitik with Moscow, Washington, and other major capitals. The key Arab visits this week and the visits to follow to Moscow are a sign of a new necessary approach. The starting point to understand them is to understand what Moscow wants by engaging the Gulf while retaining its alliance with Iran.

In part, President Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov want to restore Russia’s prestige in the Arab world. The ties with the Arabs were very warm in the Soviet era, including the ties with Egypt. In the present time, Russia’s relations with the Arab world went from lukewarm to antagonistic because of Russia’s position on Syria and because of doubts surrounding Russia’s goals behind its alliance with Iran.

In past, Moscow was one of the world’s two superpowers closely involved in the region’s crises and solutions. Washington would subsequently monopolize sponsorship of the Arab-Israeli peace process, reducing Moscow’s role to merely being a part of the international Quartet alongside the EU and the U.N. today.

New issues

Under Putin, Russia is striving to restore Russian influence in the Middle East through new issues, not the Arab-Israeli question. Moscow chose Tehran to be its gateway to the Gulf, while the United States chose to end its traditional relations with the Gulf through the Iranian gateway.

In other words, the Russian-Iranian relationship will remain a constant no matter what happens to Russian-Arab relations. The Arab leaders must have acknowledged this, as they headed to Moscow to establish new relations. Indeed, previous attempts to coax Russia through various inducements to break with Tehran have now stopped.

The Arab leaders who went to Moscow recently seem to have made several important conclusions. First, the U.S.-Russian relationship is deeper than otherwise suggested by the differences over Ukraine and alleged differences over Syria. Second, Washington and Moscow both benefit from turning a new leaf with Tehran, and have a lot to gain for their economic, political, oil, and defense industries from the nuclear deal.

Third, there is no Russian-American rivalry over resolving regional crises, and Washington does not mind for Moscow to lead the efforts on Syria or to reach understandings with Tehran over its role in Iraq and Lebanon. Fourth, defeating ISIS has become the main common denominator between Russia and the United States.

The Arab presence this week in Moscow was prominent and distinctive. The Russian capital simultaneously received Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It is expected that the Saudi King Salman would visit Russia in two months, and the Emir of Qatar Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani will be in Moscow next month.

Egypt was perhaps the top issue in the talks in Moscow, especially since the UAE together with Saudi Arabia are determined to support Egypt recover economically and restore its regional and military standing, including by financing Russian arms deals with Egypt. Moscow thus benefits from the Egyptian issue on a number of levels, politically, financially, and militarily, with both Egypt and the Gulf nations.

Egypt is spearheading the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood’s plans to take power in the Arab region, which is consistent with Russia’s anti-Islamist policies – though Russia does not seem to mind the theocracy in Tehran and is practically allied to Hezbollah alongside the regime in Syria. Essentially, Moscow fears allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to rise to power in Muslim republics with borders with Russia, which would then give Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who backs the Muslim Brotherhood, strategic cards.

The other item on Russia’s list of priority is fighting Islamic terrorism represented by groups like ISIS, al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda.

Conflicting agendas

However, there are multiple and often-conflicting agendas under this title, in what is a remarkable ambiguity shrouding the positions of Moscow, Washington, London, Ankara, and Arab capitals. In Libya, for instance, the backyard of both Egypt and Europe beyond it, the international decision to allow chaos, extremism to continue without showing considerable concern or taking measures to rein in the situation is astonishing.

With the Libyan model of international indifference in mind, the developments in Lebanon are troubling, and there is legitimate concern regarding the implications and repercussions of regional and international inaction.

It is clear for example that neither Washington nor Riyadh care much for the situation in Lebanon. The opposite is true, with U.S. and Saudi withdrawal from Lebanon, despite the risk its collapse would carry for the Gulf countries. Other Gulf countries are aware of the danger of disengaging from Lebanon, and their diplomats are taking action to head off a vacuum there that would leave the country open to the agenda of Iran’s hardliners and hawks.

But this does not change anything with regard to the responsibility of the countries traditionally active in Lebanon. It is important for US-Saudi high-level talks in Washington next week to demand Iran to prove its good faith in Lebanon and to push for both the United States and Saudi Arabia to steer this country towards building institutions and reforming the dominant political class.

Corruption has become a disgrace for most in this class, and the slogan ‘You Stink’ has exposed scandals beyond the garbage crisis. It would be a grave mistake for regional and international powers to ignore Lebanon. Lebanon is in a critical crisis that requires the United States and Russia to influence the Iranian policy on Lebanon, and requires serious Arab efforts and follow-up of Lebanese and not just Syrian developments.

Seeking a role

The Syria issue dominates the priorities of Riyadh, Cairo, Amman, Doha, and Abu Dhabi. For this reason, the leaders of these capitals have taken the Syrian issue to Moscow and Washington, looking for ways to reach accords. Moscow is open to overcoming tension and estrangement with the Gulf over Syria through trade and arms deals in addition to joint ventures in nuclear energy and other sectors.

Moscow is moving in this direction not just on account of its geopolitical priorities and economic and military opportunities. Another reason is what was mentioned by Al-Hayat’s reporter in Moscow Raed Jabr, who quoted political analysts as saying Russia is seeking to have a major role in resolved regional crises led by Syria. Another reason is “rearranging Russian agendas in the region, and opening new horizons to preempt a possible loss in Syria, as well as responding to new realities following the nuclear deal with Tehran.”

Political realism has thus made its way to many capitals, based on loss and benefit accounts. What matters is for the indifference not to continue and destroy more Arab countries, after Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. Only this way can good faith be proven in this new realpolitik.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on August 21, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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