American Studies, Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Russia and the Middle East Working Group I

Russia and the Middle East

On January 20-21, 2019, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held the first working group under its research initiative on “Russia and the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, scholars were convened to discuss different aspects of Russian-Middle Eastern relations, including: Russian “responsibility to protect” in the Middle East; Russian “sovereign democracy,” Middle Eastern investments in Russia, migration between Russia and the Middle East, ISIS in the North Caucuses, Russia-GCC relations, the Yemeni civil war, and Russia-Iran and Russian-Maghreb relations.

Roy Allison started the working group discussions with his presentation on “Russian vs. Western “Responsibility to Protect” in the Middle East.” Allison suggested that RTP is too narrow for understanding normative claims-making competition between Western States and Russia in the Middle East. He added that Middle East is just one theater among others where Russia and the West have been competing over international norms relating to sovereignty and rights, as well as international justice and international order. Germane to this discussion, Allison suggested that the West is not a united bloc when it comes to normative claims making in the region, as a number of Western countries, such as the United States, currently appears to have slightly withdrawn. Allison highlighted a number of areas that could benefit from in-depth study, among which: the reception of Russian legal and normative claims by Middle Eastern states, the controversy of international legal claims, and the development of laws and norms about drones and other efforts to fight transnational terrorism.

Following Allison’s discussion, Viacheslav Morozov presented on the “Prospects of Russian ‘Sovereign Democracy’ in the Middle East.” Morozov argued that while Russia is not actively promoting sovereign democracy as a principle as strenuously as has done previously, the thinking behind sovereign democracy still exists in Russia’s foreign policy approach. There is complexity to determining exactly whether sovereign democracy is a model of governance that evolved in Russia or whether it is more of an ideology. Sovereign democracy is characterized by direct intervention by the state in running state affairs and the emphasis in “sovereign democracy” is on sovereignty rather than democracy. The rationale is that individual rights can only be protected when there is a strong state that can act as the vanguard of rights. In this line of thinking, sovereignty is understood as being non-interventionist. But given that democracy is an empty signifier, similar to “humanity,” Russia is questioning the universality of international constitutions. Finally, Morozov discussed the applicability of the Russian model of democracy in the Middle East. 

Caner Bakir shifted the working group discussions to “Russia: An Emerging Market for Middle Eastern Investments?” Bakir claimed that Middle Eastern foreign direct investments in Russia are increasing, particularly by the United Arab Emirates. However, the share of Middle Eastern investments in Russia’s inward foreign direct investments is significantly small. Such reality provokes questions around Middle Eastern multinational corporations. Bakir proposed a number of areas related to Middle Eastern multinational corporations that deserve study. Among such topics: the dynamicity, drivers and challenges of multinationals; the impact of multinationals on state bureaucracy; the difference in multinational corporations’ behavior from one sector to another; the competitive advantages of Middle Eastern multinational corporations; and what Middle Eastern multinational corporations can offer to the Russian economy.

Andrei Korobkov discussed another aspect of Russian-Middle Eastern relations, particularly: “Contemporary Migration Patterns between Russia and the Middle East.” Korobkov stated that Russia and the Middle East, given their multiethnic histories, have always been key players in global migration patterns. However, particularly with the creation of the modern state in the Middle East and fall of the Soviet Union, Middle Eastern countries and Russia have followed the European model of immigration, by developing strict naturalization policies. Korobkov added that while the numbers of Middle Easterners immigrating to Russia—as students, former students, refugees, or spouses of Russians citizens—have been increasing, only two to three percent of Russians intending to leave Russia say they want to immigrate to the Middle East. Finally, Korobkov claimed that environmental and political factors will continue to drive migration from the Middle East to Russia. 

Sergey Markedonov focused the discussion on “Russia, the Islamic State, and Wilayet Qawkaz.” Markedonov argued that the Middle East is of symbolic importance for Russian foreign policy, particularly with the ongoing Syrian conflict. Russia discovered new horizons in the Middle East that could help in Russia’s desire to compete once again with the United States for global dominance. However, besides the Russia-US rivalry, Markedonov claimed that the Islamic States in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is yet another major driver behind Russia’s recent involvement in the Middle Eats. ISIS is seen as one of Russia’s main security threats. The North Caucuses’ allegiance to ISIS and the establishment of the Wilayat Qawkaz have become a security priority to the Russian government. Markedonov delved deeper into investigating Russia’s state-Islam relations. 

Nikolay Kozhanov shifted the discussion to “The Drivers of Russia-GCC Relations Post 2011.” Although the Soviet Union always had interest in forming closer ties with the Persian Gulf states for geostrategic motives, the Soviet Union and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf had had troubled relations instigated by ideological differences. With the fall of the Soviet Union, and particularly with the ascendance of Vladimir Putin to power, Russia started becoming increasingly pragmatic in its foreign policy. Kozhanov argued that over the past few years, Russia has been attempting for a rapprochement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states; an attempt with high chances of success. However, Kozhanov highlighted the fact that Russia does not have diplomatic experience is dealing with the GCC states, with exception of Kuwait to a certain extent. The attempt of rapprochement is driven by Russia’s economic and security interests at the backdrop of sanctions imposed on Russia, Russia’s relations with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and the government’s pursuit to maintain a higher oil price. Kozhanov stressed the argument that the willingness for a rapprochement between Russia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is not one-sided. For the GCC states, better relations with Russia are important given Russia’s increasing involvement in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. As far as oil and gas production are concerned, it is in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have Russia “dance around” OPEC. Saudi Arabia is also interested in economic diversification. To that end, Russia could be a potential investor, and exporter of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) given Saudi’s current troubled relations with its main LNG exporter, Qatar. However, it is important not to limit the economic relationship between Russia and the GCC states to merely oil and gas. Russia also has developed economic relations related to high-tech and agriculture in the region. In conclusion, Kozhanov suggested that Russia’s close relations with Iran will remain an obstacle to solidifying its ties to the GCC. Further complications are caused by the current geopolitical rift between Qatar and its neighbors, as Russia is reluctant to pick sides in the matter.

Samuel Ramani focused his discussion on “Russia and the Yemeni Civil War.” Ramani argued that Russia has been reluctant to pick sides in Yemen unlike in Syria. However, it has been trying to bring conflicting parties to the dialogue table. In such attempt, Russia has been banking on its historical relations with Yemen, particularly South Yemen. Hence, Ramani claims that when studying Russia’s current mediation role in Yemen, one has to consider the Soviet Union’s role in the Yemeni civil war and unification process in 1990. Ramani claimed that one of Russia’s strategic interests in having a stable Yemen is to use it as a naval base to project power in the Red Sea. In addition, the administration in Russia has been finding ways to project and build up on its soft power to reintroduce itself as a key player in international institutions and multilateral negotiations. These attempts by the current Russian administration are palpable in Russia’s addressing of the humanitarian situation in Hodeidah, and the sending of a humanitarian convoy to whitewash its image in the Middle East, and project an image better than that of the “destructive” United States internationally. Ramani added that Russia’s diplomatic engagement with the Houthi rebels is worth exploring. Russia has consistently maintained its stance on inviting Houthis to the negotiation table while supporting the arms embargo and criticizing the Houthis’ missile attacks on Saudi and assassination of Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, Russia appears to have a disaggregated image of the Houthis. They draw a distinction between radical Houthis and the Houthi leader. Ramani also argued that there seems to be an ostensible synergy between Iran and Russia when it comes to perceived solutions to the Yemeni civil war. Both countries prefer diplomatic dialogue and object American military intervention.

Ghoncheh Tazmini sharpened the discussion on Russian-Iranian relations by presenting on “Iran: A Strategic Partner or a Provisional Counterweight?” Tazmini claimed that the relationship between Iran and Russia, at least on the surface, is inconsistent. There is a degree of ambiguity around the quality and durability of Russian-Iranian relations. Such ambiguity is stirred by actions such as the Russian delay in constructing a contracted light water reactor in Iran from 1995 to 2003, and the delay in delivering the Russian S300 missiles, which were dispatched a decade later. At the same time, Russia has supported Iran’s economy by inviting it to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana and supporting a three-year provisional free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union in 2018. As far as Iran is concerned, the Iranian leadership allowed Russian boots-on-ground on its territory, which is undoubtedly against the Iranian revolutionary, anti-imperialist narrative. Tazmini also claimed that Russian-Iranian relations have developed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, the intensity and depth of Russian-Iranian relations have been significant. Having said that, Tazmini highlighted the importance of studying the Russian-Iranian relations through the prisms of ideations, preferences, and identities.

Yahia Zoubir concluded the working group discussions with his presentation on “Russia’s Maghreb Moment.” Historically, particularly during the Soviet Union era, Zoubir claimed, Algeria was the Soviets’ only partner in the Maghreb region. While it could be argued that Libya was military aligned with the Soviets, politically it was not. In recent years, Russia has been seeking a grand ingress to the Maghreb. Russia sees the Maghreb states as potential economic partners. Hence, the Russian government is in talks about establishing a free trade zone in Morocco and has recently signed a number of contracts with Maghreb states. These contracts include agricultural agreements with Morocco; tourism agreements with Morocco and Tunisia; and oil and gas, and infrastructural cooperation with Algeria. Zoubir explained that one of the reasons behind Russia’s increasing interest in the Maghreb is that, unlike the Americans and Chinese, the Russians see the Maghreb as an extension of the Mashreq. Hence, its importance stems from the Middle East’s importance to Russian interests. In addition, the Maghreb is part of the Mediterranean; a region Russia has interests in. In forging stronger relations with the Maghreb states, Zoubir claimed that Russia banks on the Russian oil and gas companies operating in Algeria, and its relations with the Algerian military.

It is worth mentioning that this research initiative will be published in an edited volume by CIRS in the near future.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Roy Allison, University of Oxford, UK
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Caner Bakir, Koç University, Turkey
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Andrei Korobkov, Middle Tennessee State University, US
  • Nickolay Kozhanov, European University, Russia
  • Anatol Lieven, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Sergey Markedonov, Russian State University for the Humanities
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Viacheslav Morozov, University of Tartu, Estonia
  • Abdul Rehmaan Qayyum, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Samuel Ramani, University of Oxford, UK
  • Ghoncheh Tazmini, London Middle East Institute at SOAS
  • Tatiana Usova, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Luciano Zaccara, Qatar University
  • Yahia H. Zoubir, KEDGE Business School, France

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS