Towards a strategic Arab-Russia dialogue

Arab engagement with Russia covers issues related to regional security architecture…

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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No sane person today expects the Arab countries to have consensus on the conflicts in the region with a unified position like that of Russia or the deliberately absent United States. The reputation for division and rivalry behind the scenes emerges – and is even part of the policies foreign ministers draft – ahead of any meeting among Arab leaders. The biggest problem, however, is when Arab diplomatic readings conflict with Russia’s positions, for example, leading to conflicting policies, as this only serves to continue the bleeding. This applies to the various readings of US policies in the Middle East as well as Russian policies.

The problem essentially lies in the structure of Arab-Arab relations, and in the Arab region’s lack of firm and necessary action to reconfigure the Arab region in the global space. The Beirut Institute in partnership with A.T. Kearny, presented this week a number of bold policy recommendations following a unique summit that brought together key decision makers and young leaders in Abu Dhabi last year. These recommendations to policymakers included a strategic roadmap for the reconfiguration of the Arab region, containing five main elements designed to: stop the bleeding; align and reinforce the core; unleash transformative growth; strengthen societal cohesion; build a regional security architecture.

Stopping the bleeding is extremely crucial in Syria and Yemen, but also Libya and Iraq. Starting out from Syria and an Arab assessment of Russian and American policies there is self-evidently important, especially since the Arab engagement with Russia covers both the issues of the bleeding and the regional security architecture. To be sure, Russian-American partnership in Syria could evolve into a broader-based partnership, including in restructuring regional security, and talks in this direction have already started in various capitals. Regardless of whether this happens or not, the Arab region must avoid denial and burying heads in the sand in light of the historical developments taking place. They must confront geopolitical arbitrariness with a practical vision and strategy.

A short pause at the conflicting Arab readings of Russian policy shows the depth of the problem. On the one hand, a segment of the people of the Gulf were worried when they heard the statement that Russia sees its relationship with Iran as a long-term strategic one, as this column quoted high-level Russian sources last week. On the other hand, diplomats skeptical about this said the information in their possession from decision makers in Moscow directly contradicts this statement.

The bottom line of what these diplomats say is that the Russian-Iranian relationship is not a permanent strategic one, but is one of rivalry even in Syria. They say the Russian military intervention in Syria serves the interests of the Gulf countries, because it disallows their rival Iran from dominating Syria. They believe the GCC countries stand to benefit from the Russian intervention because it aims to defeat ISIS, which is an existential threat to these nations.

The proponents of this view, however, deliberately ignore two issues: First, the Russian intervention has targeted primarily the moderate Syrian rebels, which some in the Gulf claim to support. Second, Russian policy is to rescue the regime in Damascus and keeping Bashar al-Assad in power until further notice. In this regard, some like to insist vehemently that Moscow’s support for the regime is to support the Syrian state and not necessarily Bashar al-Assad. Others like to claim that Moscow wants a secular Syria and not a pro-Shiite pro-Persian Syria. In their view, all this proves that there is a Russian-Iranian dispute over Syria.

There is no need to delve into a rebuttal of these interpretations. Perhaps Russian diplomacy itself is distributing roles in its messages to the Arab regions in a deliberately contradicting manner. Perhaps Russian diplomacy’s vision for relations with key Arab countries is that having long-term strategic ties with Iran does not conflict with having strong ties with Saudi Arabia, for example. Moscow does not want to acknowledge that the regime in Tehran is a theocracy one of whose stated goals is to export the Shiite revolution to the Arab countries. The reason is that Russia is fully invested in fighting the rise of Sunni Islamists to power, because this would allow them to export their radical ideas to Russia where the 20 million Muslims are mostly Sunni.

In the view of one senior Emirati official, the Russian interest requires having strong and strategic relations with Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina. His opinion is that Russian diplomacy must consider two issues when upholding its policies on Syria and Iran: One, the fact that its leadership of the battle against what it terms Sunni Islamic terrorism could invite revenge in the Russian homeland and the five Muslim republics formerly in the USSR.

And two, the fact that Russia’s alliance with Iran and the Shiite militias in Syria reinforces the view that it is at war with Sunnis. Therefore, in order to avoid being implicated in Sunni-Shiite war, Russia must develop special ties with Saudi Arabia, according to the UAE official, who said that the kingdom’s stability is crucial for his country and the Arab Gulf nations, and must therefore be taken into account by Russian diplomacy.

Some Russian diplomats agree building strong relations with Riyadh is as important as having strong relations with Tehran, and Saudi already welcomes the bid to develop relations with Russia. Others believe there is no choice but to make a choice between the two, because it is impossible to reconcile the two. Therefore, these diplomats believe it would be best for Moscow to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The reconfiguration of the Arab region in the global space requires accelerating institutionalization of Arab strategic and operational integration by creating a cohesive plan and vision

Raghida Dergham

The view of the group of elite thinkers from both the government sector and the private sector meeting at the Beirut Institute summit, as stated in the recommendations, was that “the bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran arguably represents the single most important driver of the evolution of the Middle East geopolitically, economically and socially. Therefore, a disciplined, energetic effort to regularize dialogue between these two powers is a critical imperative for the region and the world.”

I am the founder and executive president of Beirut Institute – an international think tank focused on the Arab region. The 21 pages of recommendations, and the names of those who attended the summit in Abu Dhabi, are available on The second summit will convene in Riyadh in partnership with the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies next fall.

The recommendations for decision-makers refer to the need to build momentum gradually in the bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, to include efforts for a “second path” away from the limelight for confidence-building measures and establishing a strategic dialog. Russia can play an active role in this context, provided that it turns from a partner of Iran in the bleeding of Syria to a serious partner in international efforts to stop that bleeding.

Stopping the bleeding has become a moral and strategic imperative, as the recommendations state, and establishing the necessary security basis to achieve comprehensive progress in the region. This also requires funding and a region-wide plan for stability and reconstruction, led by the Gulf nations with international assistance. It also requires systematically intensifying of the military, financial and strategic communication efforts to defeat ISIS.

The reconfiguration of the Arab region in the global space requires accelerating institutionalization of Arab strategic and operational integration by creating a cohesive strategic plan and vision for the region. It also requires improving the pillars of good governance across the Arab region, strengthening governance and the rule of law based on agreed norms grounded in local legitimacy and engaging youth in building the regional future.

Political realism does not prevent conflicting readings but by its nature, that does not require a lot of diligence. There is no need to deny what is clear just because that would fit with wishful thinking. The task ahead for the Arab region is huge. The least thing to do would be to admit to the facts even if they are painful, in order to develop rational policies to deal with them.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Feb. 26, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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