Article by Maria Al Makahleh Dubovikova and Shehab Al-Makahleh

Russia is finding it difficult to gain a foothold in the Middle East.

At a time when tensions between Moscow and Washington are on the rise, Russia is determined to have a greater say in global affairs, particularly in the tumultuous Middle East. At present, Russia considers itself as a major serious, honest and active player in the region and blames the United States for the chaos unfolding in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to recreate the former Soviet Union in a new form on the world stage, particularly in the Middle East due to its proximity to Russia.

On the other hand, Washington is committed to Gulf states’ security as well as Israel’s stability and full protection from any aggression. Yet Russia has strong relationships with Middle Eastern and North African states that could function as a springboard for future influence. Indeed, Russia has become a magnet for Middle Eastern leaders who seek a new balance of power, as illustrated by the Jordanian and Saudi monarchs’ planned visits to Moscow in October.

The start of Russian intervention in the region dates back to the fall of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, with whom Moscow had historically enjoyed warm ties and mutual cooperation. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime happened as a result of non-involvement as Russia refrained from voting against the 2011 United Nations Security Council resolution against Gaddafi. This had been a wake-up call for Russia, driving it to re-engage in the region and to take a stronger stance on Syria.

Today, Russia bets on the end of the Syrian conflict before the year’s end. The Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC) that was established by the US and its allies to monitor and train armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army and the Tribes Army, has finally been shut down. With the return of the Syrian Army to the south of the country, near the crossing point with Jordan, there are mounting signs that the conflict is drawing to a close, especially given that America is no longer backing the opposition, which now finds itself in disarray.

As a result, Moscow is driven to focus more on Libya, where it plans to build a strong presence and establish a base from which to control North Africa. To emphasize Tripoli’s renewed importance, Moscow is giving due concern to the country and its affairs. Indeed, on August 13, the Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow. Because Russia supports both Haftar and the Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who along with his government is recognized by the UN, the visit to Moscow appears aimed to broker a peace agreement to end the conflict in Libya, which has become a source of high risk to many countries in North Africa and Southern Europe.

This is the second time Russia received the two Libyan leaders in Moscow in 2017. Such meetings serve as a backdrop for Putin, who seeks to exert more pressure on the West to get more concessions regarding Ukraine and Syria.

Though Moscow wants to establish stable ties with many countries in the Middle East, it is difficult for Russia to find a strong foothold in the region, especially compared to that enjoyed by the US. This is because other players are trying to distract Russia by involving it in conflicts near its borders such as in Georgia and Ukraine. However, the Russian government has been planning, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, to build a presence in the Middle East at the expense of the Americans, the British and the French, benefitting from its impressive arms sales to the region in recent years.

Russia is not only affecting politics in Syria, Iraq and North Africa, but also those in the Arabian Peninsula, such as the crisis between Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council members and the war in Yemen. Moscow tries to balance its policy toward Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain with non-interference. On the other hand, Moscow considers Tehran as a key player in the region and a main pillar of its stability. Russians view Iran as being influential in the Gulf, in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. Thus, this qualifies Russia to play the role of a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran to solve their regional dispute. In 2015, a meeting was held for Arab leaders in Morocco that set the stage for the UAE to align with Moscow, while Saudi Arabia would align with Washington.

In sum, Moscow has started to change the anti-Russian sentiment in the Middle East through its political, economic and media influence by partnerships, economic assistance, military assistance and strategic cooperation. Russia learned from previous lessons in Yemen, Iraq, Algeria and Afghanistan that, in order to be effective, it needs to be symbolically present without being extensively involved in these Middle Eastern affairs, as long as there are representatives or proxies that can help achieve the objectives with fewer harmful repercussions for Moscow.

Article published in Fair Observer:

Photo Credit: capitanoseye /

Published in Tribune
Thursday, 30 March 2017 10:47

The Lesson

“Half claim the vocation of a leader, a quarter believe they are prophets, and at least ten percent take themselves for gods,” former Syrian President Shukri Al Qawatli, speaking about the Syrian people in 1958.

I have lived or worked in the Middle East and the Arab world most of my life. In one way or another, I experienced a half century of its culture and politics. I have seen its spikes, its highs and lows, its impetuous sixties led by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dreams, its more practical if turbulent eras through the 80s and 90s, and then, the death of the Arabs in the first decade of the 21st century, when they were surpassed by the resourceful Turks, the wily Iranians and the ever-inventive Israelis.

I also shared with the Arabs the excitement and the hope of the Arab revolutions of 2011. These seemed to herald a new time, a new Arab, less ideological and defeatist. Somehow, the events even seemed to represent a global leap: politics at its best in the sense of being truly a reflection of the people’s needs. Some of the early events even hinted at a shift towards new kinds of democracy and citizens’ engagement. But, the descent since has been clear and certain. Chaos, fragmentation and disorder are the rule of the day. No one knows what is up or down, left or right, or, most importantly, how to take a country forward.

The region now is the example to all of what not to become, a lesson of human madness and foibles that must be avoided. Reeling in the past, fossilised in ideology and dogma, sustaining the unsustainable (such as the necessity to have many children), the Middle East seems to be its own worst enemy. Above all, the region is soaked in high emotions and distrust rather than a sober and moderate attitude required to address serious, even possibly mortal, resource challenges amidst severe global competition.

It is correct that Egypt is not Sweden nor Iraq - Canada, and that the cultures differ. But, demographic and resource problems, as well as social alienation across the world, are human, not Arab problems. Trying to solve them by an obsessive attachment to cultural identity is madness if it blinds you to the needs of reality – and survival.

The Middle East is exactly what the rest of the world should not be: egoistical, dreamy, distrustful, excessively attached to the past and to identity. It is “I” before anyone, however, that “I” is defined (self, family, tribe, party, religion, or nation), and dreams and excitement before reality, i.e. the triumph of illusion while the body and mind fall apart. One look at Cairo from any height will paint that picture of the body sinking, dust filled air, garbage covered rooftops, a human hive of survival with little consideration for the quality of that life. It’s a credit to Egyptians that they do so well under such conditions, their social culture remains full of humour and generosity, but for how long?

There is no doubt that there are many young Arabs who do not share these unsavoury qualities of the region. Somehow due to virtual or real-life exposure to new knowledge and other cultures, and despite poor educational systems, they have become free of the traditional dead-ends to some degree. However, these youth do not run the region, they do not have the experience to, and will not have this chance for at least a couple of decades, during which time holy havoc may be wreaked through political mismanagement, and the in-fighting between all and all. The Lebanese civil war serves as a good example to the Arabs today, every group fought every other over 15 years and achieved no result at the end of the day. It’s a lesson not likely to be learned but repeated, as we now see in Syria.

There are many that blame conspiracies for the Arab failure. In their neat world of good guys bad guys, the people of the region are once again the victims of the conspiracies of the rich and powerful, i.e. NATO, Israel and the USA. This can mean that the “evil three” is behind Al Qaeda or, the opposite, Assad. During one day recently in the region, one person told me that the Americans are behind the Islamists in Syria, and by another highly educated individual, that they are conspiring to keep the Syrian regime in place. It does not matter, whether the USA intervenes or not, it is at fault. The key point is that it certainly cannot be the fault of the locals; the devil lies elsewhere. Ironically, these Arab views mirror the simplicities of Bush’s Axis of Evil, but no one sees the parallels. The truth of international politics is much more mundane than conspiracies. It is a mixture of blindness and guesswork among leaders that most people outside the system cannot (or will not) fathom. The truth is that the systems and the bases for effective diplomacy, i.e. one that consistently produces results, don’t exist today, and if that in itself is a conspiracy then the conspirators are as much victims as anyone else – for they know not what they do.

The truth is also that the failure in the region is not just an Arab failure. Israel is guilty of a profound self-centeredness in almost all its policies since its inception. The whole program has been about its survival, neighbours don’t exist or don’t belong. No matter whether this is the result of trauma and terror – no one is bound to horror forever – the bottom line is a profoundly destructive policy. It is not possible to build a constructive path out of a starting point that implies deep within it that one group is simply superior in needs and destiny to others.

The Turks and Iranians are not much better. Implicit in their attitudes towards the region is imperial over-reach, each is deeply involved in a trance about an imperial past that must somehow take root in today’s realities. The Ottoman and Persian empires, however, are not destined to show their might again, for the conditions are not those of the 4th century B.C. or the 15th A.D., even if Iran and Turkey may well have a proper and constructive place in today’s world as economic and cultural powers.

The region was not always like this. It was once the font of brilliance and enlightenment so captivating that it infected Europe with its knowledge. The seed of understanding went from the Toledo school of translators, the many interactions of the Crusades with the East, and even from the Islamicized Normans of Sicily up to Florence and the European city-states. From there it developed into the flowering of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the basis of much of the cultural and scientific gains we have today. If we reach back further, the region was also home to ‘Um El Dunya’, Ancient Egypt, truly the Mother of the World (and civilizations), as well as the daring of the original monotheism of the Levant, from the Jewish prophets to Akhenaton, and the creativity and craft of the Phoenicians and the Canaanites, their alphabet and navigational skills the equivalent of our information technology today. Even before that, the Middle East was the source of the most advanced leaps of human development from the cultivation of wheat to the magical draw of Gobekli Tepe, a temple site that may have been one of the most civilising events of history. We would not be who we all are without the Middle East, there is no doubt of that.

However, the world, maybe the universe itself, may be marked, by ascent and descent, and so it is with civilisations. Once the height of human potential, the region is now in full and profound descent, reaching lows as quickly as it can – and with determination. It is true that nothing can continue to rise forever and that decline is inevitable, but there is always the possibility of new adaptation, or of stoically waiting during difficult periods. The rush to insist on reliving the past, of reasserting old identities and rituals over and over again, is however, an action in one direction: sure and fast descent, because it belies the nature of today’s reality. There are many people in the Middle East who would rather die and destroy than give up or change their habits, identities and dreams.

It is here that the region offers a crucial lesson to us all. These are difficult times across the world. We have made a world of our own creation that is not sustainable, and continue to look within its limited logic for answers, looping further into consumerism and techno-distraction, worsening our condition in the downward spiral. We eat too many fish, pollute too much air, and want too many goods, while distrusting those from other tribes around us. Meanwhile, we expect solutions by staring into a screen, a state that only creates a deadened trance or a froth of excitement. Others look to international meetings for answers, but these are processes enveloped in processes, very distant from producing results. This is hardly the ground for real and concrete solutions to our problems. Our challenges are many and, sadly, one of the first steps we may have to do is look at the Middle East, and know what road not to follow. Even long-suffering Africa may be rising in new, wondrous and unexpected ways into wealth and riches while the Middle East spirals into an inchoate psychosis of identities.

It may well be a strange wonder that there are places in this world that serve as a dramatic reminder for the rest of us of what not to do, in a sense so humanity can save itself. Unbeknownst and unconscious of its role, the Middle East may be like a sacrificial lamb so other regions have a hope of successfully diminishing their appetites or seeing more broadly into a common humanity. The lesson is there: self-obsession, whether of the individual or the group, and an insistence on a life of illusions will breed little but war, shortage and suffering. We must absorb this reality by looking clearly how the Middle East mismanages, and avoid that fate.

Indeed, if that lesson is to be learned, then it may be worthwhile to be clearer regarding the problem. From this very region, in Sufi lore, there is the idea of the Commanding Self, the ‘Nafs el Ammara’, that is equivalent to the modern idea of the ego but, clearer in definition: it is that part of us that is crucial to survival, a life force we share with a hamster, but that also ‘commands’ the rest of the mind to sometimes follow its self-centered and potentially selfish ways. It does so through the mortal twins of positive and negative expectation, of pleasure and pain, hope and fear, the tools of basic survival. It can either perform its limited if necessary function, or infiltrate and even take over our minds like a clever parasite.

Over a lifetime of practice, it can lead to endless greed and desire and the desperate anxieties and dissatisfactions that come with those tendencies. It can even take over our dream centres and, in a dark weave, ensure that we only imagine a massive illusion that, it assures, is ‘for our survival’. It also demands stasis in the tentacled house of selfishness it has built, and it does so by speaking in profoundly commanding ways of what to do and not. In other words, the Commanding Self can twist its basic purpose, as a force of life, and use our complex mind for its ends. The result? A self-affirming loop of endless appetite and anxiety. This is a kind of mental greed that is as devastating as the material greed plaguing so much of the planet. It is this state that is behind much of the region’s errors and falsehoods, an explanation of why its problems are cultural and psychological rather than material.

The Middle East is shot through with the vigorous and muscular arms of the Commanding Self. The devil lies there, not elsewhere. From the megalomaniacal speeches of Hassan Nasrallah, to the mother using emotional blackmail to keep her children near her, from Ghaddafi’s African manias to the exaggerated pride of the Arab male, the Commanding Self shows its might. It also translates into daily dishonesty and distrust. Meetings are held, agreement come to, but afterwards, each participant feels the right to ignore any consensus: the right to an absolute veto because “I” am the most important. This pattern causes everyone to take advantage before being taken advantage of, and the fangs of the Commanding Self become finely honed indeed.

At a fundamental level, this is a world of ‘either or’, with me or against me, the greys disappear and the unit trumps the whole. Stimulation and emotion must be immediate. Authority – the Commanding Self – is cherished and sought after and duplicated at all levels. The untamed pride and self-importance prohibit the validity of others, and the new. From parent to child, from the mosque to television, the habit of grasping and emotional turmoil and tyranny of authority, of the ‘command’, is passed on in the broken culture of the region. A consequent lack of creativity, and individual and group self-obsessions, come to define the culture.

There is no doubt that every region in the world shares some of these qualities, but, as media headlines and the chaos on the ground show, the Middle East is ahead of the game. As stated above, it is far from only the Arabs, Israel’s attitude towards its neighbours is also a testament to the power of this part of our psyche. Distrusting of all, dismissive of the needs of Palestinians, and fearful of eternal oppression, the Israelis have fed into the grand pipeline of darkness in the region, feeding it and growing in it: survival at all costs, including life itself.

This way can be given up. Humanity has much more to consider for itself than the Commanding Self. Our imagination, creativity, reason, empathy and many other qualities working in a balanced way, along with a Commanding Self that serves greater interests, can lead to wonders and solutions that are barely a twinkle in any one’s eye now. With the proper level of self-awareness, practise, and learning; above all by deciding to wake up to what is really going around us, we can become fuller human beings. It is when people in the region realize that they are just parts of a whole and not in some way entitled to privilege, including that of the victim, that the healing will begin. Such a sensitive, positive and active humility cannot harmonize with terms like Party of God or Chosen People, the superiority of one faith over another, or of frozen rituals from the past as ways of managing societies today. It is the opposite: our spirits and minds liberated from their regular chains and worn patterns and translated into action that are the road to our answers.

Enchained by the past, the Middle East refuses – so far – to reach these new paths. Yet it is also, ironically, the great lesson from the Middle East that it can be done. Many great people from there have shown the way, from Rumi to Mohammad, from Isaiah to unrecognised men and women of wisdom, to simply those who demonstrate daily their generosity or the courage to change convention. From its past, we can seek out some of the lessons of positive change and human possibility. For now, we must see the region soberly as a lesson of the dangers and disaster of descent. Maybe one day again, it too will join in the chorus of ascent that we are all designed to pursue.


John Bell is Director of the Middle East & Mediterranean Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid and also Director of The Conciliators Guild, an initiative aimed at redefining our politics by addressing key aspects of human nature. IMESClub member.
Initially published by The Strix : 

Published in Tribune

Prominent experts and high-level officials from Russia and all around the world have been trying to find the answer to the question: “The Middle East: When will tomorrow come?”

Russia’s annual Valdai Discussion Club — a prominent, marathon-like two-day dialogue on the Middle East — has just finished. The meeting, held in Moscow, united top officials and experts from Russia and all over the world, with vivid discussions on the burning issues involving the Middle East. 

The Valdai format has once again proved to be an open platform for the free sharing of ideas, views and concerns. And what is more important is that it has proved that Iranians and Saudis, Palestinians and Israelis, and Turks and Kurds can be present in one hall, despite different religious beliefs, political views and affiliations. It shows they are able to talk, listen to each other, speak, peacefully argue, find common ground — and even joke and laugh. 

The key topics on the table were Syria and Iraq, Yemen and Libya, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran and its place in regional affairs, and separately the issue of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation. They are the key issues that are forming the general regional environment and which have a serious impact on the global agenda and stability. 

All these topics were approached from both regional and global perspectives, thus involving global players from the US, Russia, EU and even India and China.

The dialogue revealed several major characteristics of the current historical momentum.

First of all, we are living in a critical moment in history, with the emergence of a new world, the true nature of which is still not clear. Russia’s role in regional affairs is evolving, and is being re-evaluated with more constructive analysis, understanding and sane criticism, instead of a reaction of panic and fear.

Raghida Dergham — the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute, columnist and New York bureau chief at Al-Hayat, and whose columns appear in Arab News — talked about the importance of Russia-US cooperation for the region. She also raised Iran’s role and ambitions in the region, notably in Syria.

Under the pressure of severe challenges the region is facing, there are signs of an attempt to put aside existing differences and make steps toward cooperation, facing up to the threats, and building the future the region hopes for.

At least that is what was clearly heard in the speeches of Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian foreign minister, and Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, founder and president of the Emirates Policy Center. 

Fahmy has assumed that the majority of the regional challenges cannot be faced without the participation of the global players. But he cautioned that this participation and assistance should be constructive, not deepening the schisms with geopolitical games.

A reconciliation in a region facing major threats could be led by Egypt, traditionally taking the cornerstone role of stabilizing player, despite the severe internal crisis it is still going though following the shock of two revolutions in three years.

This call for regional reconciliation and cooperation is coming primarily from societies that are tired of confrontation and conflict. 

Even the guests from Iran pointed out that there is a strong growing middle class in Iran, which is looking forward to modernization and a reconsideration of the policies toward the region and global players. Thus Iranian speakers gave hope for a change of Iranian policies in the foreseeable future. People are looking for peace, not for confrontation.

The last panel in the conference was entitled “The Future of the Middle East: In search of a common dream.” Politically the dreams of the governments are dividing, not uniting the sides. And from this perspective future prospects are quite gloomy, as long as the aspiration for dominance and power that prevails in politics continues, leading to more wars and confrontation. The dream of one government often eliminates the dream of another.

John Bell, director of the Middle East and Mediterranean Program at the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid, said we appear to be in a situation where there are a lot of dreams, but an absence of positive reality; some governments are manipulating Middle Eastern societies. But these same societies, political manipulation aside, are united by the same dreams of peace and prosperity.

This brings a crucial need for the emergence of civil societies that are able to form and determine the policies of governments. And the key to this lies in education, including training to resist propaganda and manipulation and teach critical thinking.

Thus, it is only through the perspective of such societies that the Middle East has a chance to pursue the common dream of peace. Governments stay and governments go. It is time to build bridges between the people.

Article published in Arab News

Published in Tribune
The mass-scale protests in Arab countries triggered a tectonic shift in the Middle East.
Its entire system of cultural, social, economic, and political relations is undergoing reconstruction.

This reconstruction can be attributed to mostly internal causes – political, economic, cultural, and civilisation-related – but there is an obvious link to the most alarming trends of global development. Its gist lies in the loss of control over international processes,the return of the factor of force, the growing role of accidents, the strengthening of the world’s periphery, and the crises of national states and identities.

The material for discussion has been prepared upon the request of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club by the research team of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, IMESClub members.
Available for download [PDF] in:
- RU
- AR

Supervised by: Vitaly Naumkin
 Research team: Irina Zvyagelskaya, Vasily Kuznetsov, Nikolay Soukhov

Published in Research
Friday, 11 December 2015 01:31

Russia in a Changing Middle East

Interests and opportunities

The Middle East has always had a special meaning for Russia. The area provides access to the Mediterranean Sea, linking Russia with the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa. Any threat of war, a concentration of foreign armies, civil wars in the states located there, conflicts and terrorist attacks can cause concern to Russia, given that the border around the perimeter of the former Soviet Union is not well fortified, and the flow of radical ideas, terrorist fighters and recruiters into the Caucasus and Central Asia can make Russia particularly vulnerable.

Before the Arab Spring Russia managed to build relationships with different players in the Middle East, including Iran, Israel, a number of Arab states, Hamas and Hezbollah. Under today's conditions of deepening interstate and inter-confessional confrontation in the Middle East, the problem of conflicting interests has become very acute for the Russian policy makers. Russia's policy in and towards the Middle East has become more biased. A choice of options was caused mostly by new trends and profound changes in the region itself.

Political processes developing in the Middle East have marked the formation of a new regional landscape. As a result of powerful social, ethnic, tribal, religious, and ideological contradictions many Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa have suffered most serious crisis. Mass protests, revolutions, revolts, coups seriously violated domestic political balances, challenged local elites, turned into civil wars and questioned the preservation of statehood itself. Many authors who have been analyzing the Arab Spring phenomenon draw attention to the fact that its causes and results were the crisis of the nation-states in the Middle East. Ethnic, sectarian, confessional identities, local loyalties and solidarity groups have turned to be much more viable than it could have been expected within a paradigm of a modernity.


Domestic developments in the region were either caused or accompanied by much more militant policies of regional actors and global powers. By the degree of the impact on the situation regional powers have been increasingly overplaying external actors. They are successfully trying to strengthen their role in the region and to spread their influence beyond its borders. The list is long enough -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, UAE .

Global powers also contributed to making the situation even less manageable. Attempts to reestablish institutions in Iraq were only partially successful. Sectarianism turned to dominate political transformation; Sunni politicians and managers were replaced mostly by Shiites. The law on "debaathization" and the dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces put many Sunni professionals on the street. No wonder that later on a significant number of them joined the ranks of ISIS.

An important element of the Middle East scene is the deepening Sunni-Shiite confrontation. The tensions between the two are not a new phenomenon. However, in recent years a number of factors contributed to the strengthening of interconfessional tensions and to their politicization. For example, the predominance of Shiites in various institutions in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein gave a signal to Shiite communities and groups in other countries. Hezbollah became much more active in Lebanon. The defeat of Iraqi military machine and the new balance of political forces in Iraq have led to the consolidating of Iran's role in Iraq, in the Gulf and beyond, of its claim to leadership in the Middle East and in the Muslim world. Even more obvious was the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Especially clear it has been manifested in Yemen.

Along with heightened Shiite-Sunni contradictions the situation was also marked by a deep split in the Sunni camp. The reason of it was a cross-border activities of an extremist organization - the Islamic State. ISIS has positioned itself as a champion of a global project - the caliphate. Its activists denounce and condemn the Arab national movements and states. The Islamic State has huge resources and ideological appeal, control vast territories, and unites supporters from around the world. This is a new phenomenon, since it has not only been fighting against all that is contrary to its concept of the world order, but has put forward its own project of state-building.

With the Middle East coming to the forefront of international relations Russian objectives in the region have acquired new dimensions.

First, Moscow has tried to put an end to the interference of the US and its NATO allies into domestic affairs of the Middle East states motivated by a regime change goal. The toppling of dictators (Iraq, Lybia) has resulted in chaos, new waves of migration and the emergence of new jihadist groups. According to Russian analysts, such interference is becoming more universal and its most recent manifestation was evidenced in Ukraine. Thus, Moscow has been trying to create new rules for the world order. These rules imply that neither the United States nor anyone else could declare one or another regime as illegitimate and demand its dismissal. Russian leadership believes that the UN should develop clear criteria to distinguish between genuine national uprising and rebellion inspired by outside forces. The practice of "color revolutions" and the use of intervention to support the opposition should be renounced.


Second, Russia was ready to proceed with a new activist policy in the region which was to prove its indispensability as a major international player. Hence, it's policy vis-a-vis Iranian nuclear program and its intervention in Syria.

Third objective can be reached as a result of the success of the second. Russian leadership has been trying to overcome sanctions and political isolation imposed on the country after the Ukraine crisis. Western sanctions were a factor leading Mr. Putin to seek new diplomatic openings and exploit growing Arab frustrations with the US as he did during a visit to Egypt, which also included a Saudi-financed arms deal. Mr. Putin and Prince Salman on the sidelines of a St. Petersburg economic forum reportedly signed six deals, including contracts on space cooperation, infrastructure development, and a a nuclear cooperation agreement that could see Russia helping to build up to 16 atomic power stations in the kingdom.

Russian involvement into Syria has aroused tensions with the Saudis, while the explosion of the Russian Airbus over Sinai stopped the flow of Russian tourists to Egypt thus almost bringing down the Egyptian tourist industry.

The terrorist attacks in France and arrests of terrorists in Belgium and Germany have marked a new turn of the situation. Russian military operation against ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria has acquired additional logic and legitimacy. What's more, France was called Russian ally in the course of military operation in Syria.

Why Syria?

The Russia's military operation in Syria and the creation of a new coalition (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Kurds) to fight the enemy on the ground has drawn greatest attention to the policy of Russia in the Middle East. From a military and a political point of view, Russia's actions are unprecedented. The combination of air and naval forces; an element of surprise both at strategic level and at the level of decision-making; new types of arms and equipment, high flight training of pilots. Russian military intervention in the conflict in the Arab world has no historical precedent - unlike other global powers neither the Russian Empire nor the Soviet Union ever fought with the Arabs.

To answer the question what factors prompted the Russian Federation to start a military operation, it makes sense to look at the history of Soviet-Syrian and Russian-Syrian relations. A transformation of Syrian Baathists into the main Soviet ally in the Arab world was not accidental. Syria as a secular regime and one of socially and economically effective had become a kind of showcase for the Soviet aid and support. Syria had acquired for Moscow even greater significance than Egypt, which even at the height of friendship and cooperation sought to diversify its ties and tried to distance itself from a tight embrace of the USSR.

While for the Syrian regime the development of the relationship with the USSR meant its following in the footsteps of Soviet policy, for Moscow it meant lending a more responsive ear to Syrian concerns, phobias, fears, which sometimes did not coincide with broad Soviet interests in the Middle East. For example, the Syrians, who had been in a permanent hot conflict with Israel, affected the Soviet policy on the eve of the 1967 war.

Hafez al-Assad, after coming to power in 1971, made a bid for a more realistic course and a greater autonomy in Syria's domestic and foreign policy. Huge military aid and training of Syrian military enabled Syria to achieve a very limited, but psychologically important gain in the October 1973 war. Syria became the number one Soviet ally after the US mediation had brought Anwar Sadat to sign the Camp David Accords in 1978.


In the early 1990s a relative decrease in importance of the region in Russia's priorities was dictated primarily by a fundamental reformation of the system of international relations after the collapse of the USSR. The rejection of confrontation with the West as the main component of the bipolar world; limited resources of Russia; the gradual formation of a polycentric world with the leading role of the USA still maintained; elimination of the ideological factor in the foreign policy decision-making - all this could not but affect the Russian approach to the Middle East.

Russia under President Boris Eltsin kept an interest in cooperation with the former Arab allies, though in limited amounts and without binding obligations. It meant that Syria had remained on the list and there were good reasons for it. First, Damascus was still a Soviet debtor; issues related to the resolution of this problem were constantly discussed at the bilateral meetings. Second, the Syrian army, once armed with Soviet weapons, was still in need of spare parts and supplies that could be obtained only from the Russian Federation. In turn, Russia was striving to stay on the arms market in the Middle East. Third, Syria has continued to play a leading role in the region, including its impact on the prospects of the Arab-Israeli conflict settlement. Accordingly, the Russian Federation had to take into account the position of Damascus towards the Palestinian problem and even try to influence it, since Moscow wished to retain its traditional involvement in the Middle East peace process.

The situation has changed after the death of Hafez al-Assad and Bashar's access to power. The last has never been as close to Moscow as his father; were it not for the civil war and foreign interference in Syria, Russian policy towards this country would have not become as activist. Moscow's intention to prevent the overthrow of the Assad regime was caused by the following considerations. First, the Russian Federation opposed the creation of preconditions for the repetition either of the Libyan scenario ( Russia felt to be deceived in the case) or that of a color revolution.

Second, the events in Syria in case of the regime collapse could have had a powerful destructive consequences for the entire region. An option would be a capture of Damascus by ISIS with an idea of caliphate almost coming true. Meanwhile the situation on the ground has been getting more and more dramatic. Suffice it to say that ISIS and other Islamic radical groups got in control up to 80 per cent of Syrian territory. In practical terms, the Russian Federation would prefer the preservation of the secular regime in Syria, which may possibly be encouraged to carry out necessary reforms and to prevent a spillover of radical Islamist project to other countries in the Middle East and beyond. A resurrection of Syrian statehood would secure Moscow's foothold in the area, including the infrastructure on the coast such as a modernized naval base in Tartus (providing refueling, repair, etc.) required for the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, and an airbase in Latakia . This logic can explain Russia's actions vis-a-vis Syria, which is often interpreted solely as support for Assad. Unfortunately certain Russian propagandists have contributed a lot to this misperception.

Third, the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups is caused for Russia by domestic concerns. Thousands of Russian citizens from the North Caucasus, from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan have already fled to fight on the side of ISIS. Their departure does not mean that they will not come back some day. No less dangerous from the security point of view, is the activities of ISIS in Central Asia, given the absence of a visa regime and porous borders.

Pros and cons of military operation


Russian activism in Syria may have for it both positive and negative consequences. Political gains may proceed from demonstration of determination, increased international role and responsibility of the Russian Federation, its ability to cooperate under crisis with a variety of powers - the US, EU, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, the Syrian leadership, part of the Syrian opposition (although with different degree of success). A significant contribution of the Russian Federation to the collective efforts to achieve a settlement could engender international trust, so much needed at the moment.

Moscow has leverage on Assad, who is known for his stubbornness, lack of vision, and rejection of even minor compromises. For Assad his departure at the end of the transitional period or even before would not be acceptable. For him an obscure future of his political heritage, built up by his father, seem to be a sort of a personal trauma. Syria was ruled by his family for over the years, and a thought that he could not keep this system intact is, probably, unbearable to Bashar. Still coordinated international efforts could make him accept the outcome of the eventual negotiations and national elections as well as guarantees which could be extended to him. This said, the reasons for a cautious optimism should not be overestimated.

Military involvement in Syria is fraught with serious risks for Russia. It has already strongly affected Russian relations with Turkey. From the very beginning Turkey took anti-Assad stand. It extended support to the radical opposition like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, allowed Islamic fighters and volunteers to snake through its border into Syria, it preferred to bomb the Kurds, rather than ISIS. Turkish leaders believe that Russian military operation in Syria has been contrary to the Turkish interests. The increasing tensions resulted in the shooting down of the Russian SU-24 by the Turkish F- 16. This threatens to endanger bilateral relations and to put a concept of wide international coalition under question. The fact that Turkey is a NATO member makes the situation even worse. It's obvious that cool heads are needed, but it's not clear if President Erdogan would be interested in defusing the crisis.

The worsening of recently improved relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states is also possible. For them the presence of Iran and Hesbollah who have been fighting along with the Syrian army in the Russia's coined up coalition is totally unacceptable.

Certain tensions with Iran are not excluded either. Now Iran and Russia are on the same side against a common enemy. However a significant Iranian presence in Syria may put Russia protecting Syrian state, in a difficult position.

There could be some friction with Israel as well. The Israelis have been trying to keep open sky over Syria for the Israeli air force to operate freely in case of emergency. A containment of Hezbollah is much more important for Israel than the fight against ISIS. Israeli bombing of Hezbollah positions in Syria have already taken place. Israel is also concerned that the Iranian army will become stronger due to a military experience in Syria.

Finally, ISIS have been continuously threatening Russia with terrorist war on its soil. The November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris proved once again that these threats should be taken very seriously.

Any war tends to acquire a logic of its own. So, a military operation, which is required to achieve a quick victory, implies a significant increase in strength. Sluggish war does not bring positive results, and becomes counterproductive. Some experts fear that Russia may eventually be forced to start ground operation with all related consequences. If the offensive of the Syrian army and its allies run out of steam, the airstrikes alone would not be able to defeat the extremists. Whether Russia will be forced then to deliver its own boots on the ground is a question that has no response right now.

One cannot ignore the fact that Shiite allies of the Russian Federation in Syria do not add to its popularity in the Sunni states, including a part of the Islamic community in Russia itself.

Prospects for liberation of the Syrian territories remain vague. Despite the Vienna agreement among the 20 that the territorial integrity for Syria shall kept intact, realistically speaking the international community might end up with a "small" Syria, having taken for granted an uncertain future of its other parts. Even if the Syrian troops and their allies will be able to make significant progress, it is unclear who and how will ensure good governance in the territories, and who will provide enormous financial assistance for their recovery. In other words, a military victory could be just the beginning of an unknown path with the notion of victory becoming increasingly blurred and non-obvious.

The focus of the November 2015 meeting on Syria in Vienna was changed by Paris terrorist attacks. It was stressed that ISIS is an overt threat; it cannot be defeated without ending the crisis in Syria which requires a political process. High-level talks have produced an agreement to seek meetings between the opposition and the government of President Bashar al-Assad by year's end. The elections in Syria are supposed to take place within next 18 months.

The move from international discussions to action will not be easy, given the differences of goals and approaches of the parties involved. For Russia, a political process may open up a chance of improving relations and building trust with global and regional actors. It's important not to allow present and probably upcoming crises to undermine this trend.



Published in Tribune

Of course, the 100 years indicated in the title of the project is merely a poetic metaphor. In reality, we can only speak with some degree of certainty about two far closer forecasting horizons.

One is five or ten years away.

Let us assume that very soon somebody will win and somebody will lose the civil wars raging in the Middle East. Let us further assume that the conflicts that are tearing this world apart will be settled, or at least frozen, tomorrow or in a year’s time.

Then all the countries in the region would need about five years just to make up their minds about the main parameters of the new regional and country configuration.

If tomorrow and the following year turn out to be different, if the situation in Syria and Iraq is not normalized, if no serious efforts are made to stop the violence and strengthen statehood in Libya, if the national dialogue in Yemen is not resumed; in short, if things remain as they are today and the wars in these countries drag on, then regional transformation will extend over at least another ten years.

Finally, if the current conflicts spread to more countries, including the relatively shock-resistant Gulf monarchies, Jordan and Algeria, as well as Egypt, which seems to be stabilizing after two revolutions, all countries relatively untouched by the turmoil, then the turbulence may continue for longer still.

Within a few decades, the oil-exporting states will lose the advantages they enjoy today in the world energy market. 

The system that will emerge by the end of this period (by around 2030) will probably exist for several decades (30–50 years) before the Middle East again plunges into chaos, the aftermath of which will have to be sorted out by new generations.

Thus, the arithmetic average of the long-term prognosis could be anywhere between 2030 and 2070.

This means that the second possible forecasting horizon is approximately 2050.

For all the vagueness with regard to the distant future, some things can already be discussed with a fair degree of certainty.

Socioeconomic Determinants

Within a few decades, the oil-exporting states will lose the advantages they enjoy today in the world energy market. They have already passed the peak of their oil production and, accordingly, they will either have to develop alternative sources of energy (above all solar energy) or drastically restructure their economies, diversifying them and distancing themselves from energy-dependent economies. The small Gulf States, Bahrain for example, are already following that path. But it is a big question whether others are ready to follow suit.

If these countries do not manage to adapt themselves to the new conditions, serious trials – economic degradation, increased conflict, a reversal to archaic societies (which are very traditional even now) and political radicalization – may lie ahead. The country most at risk, of course, is Saudi Arabia, which may have to deal with the problem even earlier: today, the kingdom needs relatively high oil prices (significantly, for the first time in many years, it is entering 2016 with its budget in the red) in order to meet its social obligations.

If in the coming years the political elite, institutions and society prove relatively resilient in responding to internal and external challenges and the ruling class manages to continue modernization, spreading it to the social and political spheres, then there is a chance that the kingdom will be able to transform itself successfully and thus occupy a new niche in the world economic and political systems.

For the countries of North Africa, especially Maghreb, the dynamics of their relations with Europe will play the key role. 

However, there are two obvious obstacles in the way of this optimistic scenario becoming a reality. The surviving archaic political institutions in the context of social modernization make the political system still more backward and cumbersome, and less able to meet internal challenges; while the lack of modern civil institutions leads to society feeling alienated from the government. The combination of these two factors deprives the ruling class of the motivation for change, which it sees mainly as a source of threat, rather than as an opportunity to strengthen the system.

For the countries of North Africa, especially Maghreb, the dynamics of their relations with Europe will play the key role. Under favourable conditions, we can predict greater social and economic interaction and eventually even partial economic integration. The unfavourable scenario (including the deepening of the crisis within the European Union) suggests that Maghreb risks being thrown back in its socio-political development, which would increase social tensions and possibly political degradation.


The shortage of water, which is already a cause of conflict at all levels – from the local to the intergovernmental – may become even more acute. North African states have some resources to compensate for the deficit (for example, by using ground waters), as do have other countries. But it is unclear how they can be used realistically if political instability persists. If the water problem is not solved, we can predict growing conflicts, at least in relations between Egypt and Sudan, Syria and Israel, Syria and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Palestine, Jordan and Israel.

Looking at the social sphere, we can say with confidence that in 40 years’ time the Arab world will face a new demographic crisis. Those who are 25 now will be reaching retirement age. This is the generation that constitutes the so-called “youth spike”, whose employment problems were one of the causes of Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries. Thus, by the future period under consideration, the financial load on the economically active population in the region will increase, which may lead to greater social tensions.

Another social factor directly influencing the situation in the region is the system of gender and sex relations. If the current trend of moving towards an increasingly archaic social structure continues, including the specific ideas about the social role of women (not previously characteristic of the majority of Arab societies) – ideas that owe a great deal to Salafist discourse – and ideas about relations between the sexes, then the coming years will see continuing frustration among the Arab youth on that basis. The inability to lead a normal sex life before marriage, coupled with the increase of the marriageable age (primarily for economic reasons) and the increase of gender segregation, will fuel social tensions and social aggression.


Finally, we should mention the possible transformation of the social role of religion: it plays an important role today and apparently will continue to play such a role in the future.

Unless a new attractive ideology is formulated in the region (and the chances are that it will not, due to global rather than regional causes, such as the declining role of ideologies in the modern world in general) religious discourse and faith identities will remain the main sources of inspiration and production of meanings for the intellectual elite. The differentiation of interpretations of religious texts is likely to increase.

On the whole, religious transformation will depend on social transformation.

In those countries that have covered a greater distance on the path towards modernization, “the gates of Ijtihad” (the right to freely interpret holy texts) will open wider and wider, leading to the individualization of religion, and to some extent even its privatization.

The shortage of water, which is already a cause of conflict at all levels – may become even more acute. 

Thus, Tunisia (under favourable conditions) will develop the national tradition of moderate Islam laid down by the Sadikiya School in the 19th century.

Egypt, if it solves some economic problems and speeds up modernization, may turn to the heritage of Muhammad Abduh and other early 20th century reformers.

The religious evolution of Morocco will probably see the development of Sufi schools that challenge archaic Salafism. However, the reverse is also possible, that is, “modern” Salafism (in the spirit of early 20th century reformers) could challenge “archaic” Sufism.

Regardless of the specific versions of development (depending on country characteristics) in all the steadily modernizing Arab societies, Islam may end up occupying the same place as religion in Anglo-Saxon countries. As a result, these societies may break with the tenets of “Islamic Reason” described by Muhammad Arkoun and turn to the tradition of “Islamic individualism”.


The underlying danger is that religion understood in this way ceases to be the basis of common values, which threatens atomization of societies and the proliferation of social cleavages.

At the same time, in the countries that face the arduous task of post-conflict rehabilitation, the role of religious identity will remain high. And religion may form the basis of the recreation of statehood and the system of social relations. These countries are more likely to see the development of Salafist Islam, which focuses on society and effectively consolidates and mobilizes it, not just lending higher meaning to man’s earthly existence, but investing it with higher social value. While such interpretations of religion may meet an urgent need at the first stage of the existence of societies post-conflict, they may gradually start to hamper social development.

The trend that will persist in the entire region is the religious homogenization of societies and the ousting of religious minorities. But this would be the result, not of events in 2050, but of the specific features of current conflicts.

Dynamics of Conflicts and the Differentiation of States

The dynamics of their development will be yet another factor determining the evolution of the Middle East. It is clear that under any scenario, many socioeconomic, political, religious and other knots of contradictions and development imbalances will remain in the Arab countries, making them particularly vulnerable to internal and external challenges. Their existence increases the likelihood of social and political crises, as well as conflicts of various degrees of intensity in the majority of countries in the region, including the countries that appear to be stable today, such as Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. However, while it makes no sense to predict the emergence of new conflicts, the dynamics of current conflicts – in Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries – that are less intensive will probably influence the map of the region and the whole character of its development for years ahead.

We can say with confidence that in 40 years’ time the Arab world will face a new demographic crisis. 

Each of the conflicts may follow one of three scenarios.

Under the positive scenario, statehood and governing institutions are restored throughout the state.

The moderately negative scenario would see the de facto fragmentation of states, including through their formal (con-)federalization, which, given weak or dysfunctional institutions, will in reality deprive the centre of its control over the periphery and create alternative centres of power and the potential for secession in the periphery.

Under this scenario, Libya may break into two or three states (more likely two); Yemen will break into two states; and Syria will break into at least three, although some experts predict up to a dozen possible variants.

Some parts of the disintegrated states may become parts of existing ones, with Cyrenaica joining Egypt, Syrian Kurdistan uniting with Iraqi Kurdistan, etc.

Religious discourse and faith identities will remain the main sources of inspiration and production of meanings for the intellectual elite. The differentiation of interpretations of religious texts is likely to increase. 

The result of fragmentation would be the emergence of weak and even unviable state entities deprived of economic development resources. The shortage of resources and weakness of institutions would sharpen the struggle within the elites, bringing the risk of new conflicts flaring up of and possibly further fragmentation.

Finally, the third – still more negative – scenario would see conflicts continuing for years, total degradation of state power institutions and an increasingly archaic society.

The two last scenarios make it highly likely that conflicts would continue to spill out into neighbouring countries – Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia in the Syria–Iraq zone; and to Tunisia and Algeria in the Maghreb zone. However, this outcome seems to be slightly less likely here for purely geographical reasons (vast and sparsely populated territories in North Africa diminish the concentration of threats).

However, even under the most positive scenario, it is clear that total economic restoration of the strife-torn countries would take not a year or two, but at best ten to twenty years.

As a result, in the longer perspective, we will in any case see archaic societies that will have to build their economic and political structures practically from scratch.

If the positive – or at the very least, not the worst – trend prevails, there will be greater economic, social and political differentiation among the countries in the region.

In those countries that have been lucky enough to not be drawn into the vortex of conflicts, or have managed to get out of it relatively quickly and without incurring too much damage, the development of state institutions, civil society and social modernization will continue. There are three main candidates for this scenario: Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. To these, we can add Algeria and the small Gulf States, primarily Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and possibly Kuwait.

Of course, the process will proceed in its own way in each of these countries. The Maghreb countries will most likely draw on the experience of European modernization, while preserving its own specific features.

So far, Tunisia has advanced along the road of modernization more than others. It already has a civil society and democratic institutions that actually function, while traditional elements in the system of political relations, economics and social structure are less pronounced than in other countries. In spite of the current volatility of the internal political situation in the country, the authenticity and deep roots of civil institutions augur well for successful development, given a favourable regional situation and a diminished level of external threats.

On the whole, religious transformation will depend on social transformation. 

If real reforms are initiated in the near future, Algeria may follow the Tunisian path towards modernization, with the process, like in Egypt, complicated by problems associated with socioeconomic development (the high illiteracy rate, poverty, strong traditional social institutions, etc.). Given the similarity of the political systems in Egypt and Algeria (the role of the Army and special services, high centralization of power, etc.), both states will continue to develop as presidential republics while the conservative element will be more noticeable than in Tunisia.

Finally, as regards Morocco, it will probably see continued delegation of the powers of the monarch to parliament and the government. This will result in the traditional elements of Alawite power becoming decorative elements of the political system. The legal norms in that country will continue to approach European standards, which, may at a certain point lead to increased internal tensions. The gradual Europeanization of the political system and the development of the social sphere will entail the modernization of society. As a result, first, the monarchy will gradually lose its sacred character and the royal house will see its authority diminished; and second, society will demand greater participation in the political process. At the same time, as soon as modernization puts the interests of the monarchy under threat, the latter, not wishing to renounce its economic and other interests, will have to take a conservative position, putting its stake on the traditional foundations of its power. All this may seriously aggravate the potential for conflict in the future.

Even under the most positive scenario, it is clear that total economic restoration of the strife-torn countries would take not a year or two, but at best ten to twenty years. 

In the small Gulf States, the process will proceed somewhat differently because the European influence there is weak and the starting base of their social and political modernization is low. Of course, the young Western-educated elite that is already beginning to occupy positions of power in these countries is capable of becoming the driver of progress. It may use the economic advantages that it still enjoys to speed up modernization processes, seeking among other things to strengthen state institutions and (much less likely) develop civil society institutions. If that is the case, then in 40 years’ time, i.e., by around 2056, these states will survive as monarchies; however, the role of the legislative branch and of civil society will be greater. At the same time, traditional elements of governance and traditional values will be felt more strongly than in Morocco, for example.

Although various scenarios may materialize in various Arab states – from positive to highly negative – the preservation of certain regional unity would make the total isolation of countries or sub-regions impossible. Therefore, it is impossible to predict that this or that scenario will come true in its pure form.

Regional Perspective

Considering the region as a whole, its look will be determined by several circumstances. We are talking first of all about integration processes. Today, there are three potential hubs of sub-regional integration: the Persian Gulf, Levant and Iraq, and Maghreb.

In the Persian Gulf, the integration processes carried out within the framework of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) have advanced further than elsewhere in the Middle East. Given favourable development conditions in the Council’s member states, this trend will continue. But it is unlikely – even in the longer term – that it will commit itself to building strong supranational political institutions. Attention will most probably be focused on economic, military and possibly legal cooperation between states. The fear of losing political sovereignty will continue to determine the approach to integration processes for a long time to come.

If the integration process is launched at all In Levant and Iraq, it will proceed in the extremely difficult conditions of post-crisis development in the sub-region and the partial loss of independence in the world arena. While economic integration here appears to have little chance, some forms of political integration – for example, the creation of a large sub-regional confederation – may prove useful precisely for the purpose of mitigating conflicts and solving the problem of redrawing the map. In general, if the crisis of nation states continues on the global level and the trend of these states being replaced by other political entities persists, the implementation of ideas of democratic confederalism in the Levant may hold considerable promise.

In the long term the region will continue to be dependent on power centres outside the region. 

Finally, East–West integration does not hold out much promise in Maghreb, as the political systems of the states in the region are diverse and largely (with the exception of Libya) self-sufficient, and their economies are not closely interlinked. It is more likely that some forms of economic integration will develop within the Mediterranean and along the North–South axis.

It would seem that in the long term the region will continue to be dependent on power centres outside the region. To some extent, the dilution of sovereignty will be a consequence of integration processes, the deeper integration of Arab countries in the global economic system and other aspects of globalization. In addition, this dependence will arise because these countries – which have lived through profound upheavals and conflicts – need massive economic aid. And this would saddle them with new obligations to the donors.

All this paints, if not a gloomy, then certainly a fairly alarming picture of the future, replete with conflicts, socioeconomic threats and political upheavals. To meet the future challenges, the Arab world will above all have to be able to look for creative ideas, discover new intellectual solutions, and draw on current world experience of modernization and state development. One resource for that may be the powerful Arab communities living in the West today, communities that are rapidly modernizing, but preserve their historical, cultural and religious identity. With conservatism gaining the upper hand in the West and increased isolationism in these countries, the notion of returning to their home country may grow in Arab communities in the West. And these returnees may become real drivers of progress, who would simultaneously contribute to the accelerated development of the Arab world and its socio-political harmonization.


Initially published on the web-site of RIAC:

Published in Tribune

This September is a 25-year anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic contacts between Russian Federation and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the level of ambassadors. The countries have many connections. In 1926  Russia was the first non-Islamic country to recognize the state, which eventually (in 1932) became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And the founder of the state Abdulaziz ibn Saud highly estimated the role of Russia in the world and tended to develop relations with it.

Active political contacts between Russia and the KSA and other GCC countries are just a recent trend. They were encouraged by the important changes on the international arena during that period, the advancement of the common challenges and threats that required joint decisions. The historical visit of Saudi crown prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Russia in September 2003 has created a new basis for the long-term relations of the two giant states – Russia in the world, and Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula. 2007 was marked by the first visits in the history to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The economic cooperation was one of the central topics of the negotiations. The parties have reinforced the legal basis of the relations, discussed the conditions and the prospects of the cooperation in oil and gas sector, in the investment, military and technical partnership, development of the transit infrastructure.

The visit of Russian Minister of Foreign affairs Sergei Lavrov to Saudi Arabia in the beginning of November 2011 has not only revealed the balanced approach of Russia towards the complicated situation in the region, but has obviously laid the foundations for the new period of relations between Russia and Arabian oil monarchies. The first joint ministerial meeting on the strategic dialog between the GCC ministers of foreign affairs and Russian minister of foreign affairs during his visit gives evidence of a higher level of cooperation.

I would like to distinguish several vectors of bilateral cooperation that have both important potential for rapprochement and certain difficulties in cooperation, I hope, manageable ones.

  1. The issue of international security. Now it is possible to definitely state the overlapping or similarity of Russian and Saudi positions on the majority of international and regional issues such as the non-proliferation of the WMD, organized crime, drug trafficking, conflict situations in the Middle East and in other regions of the world.

However, there are many problems as well. As Sergey Lavrov has declared in his speech in MGIMO on the 1st of September, “The current lack of cooperation between the big states may cause an irreparable damage to the world order. It is primarily connected to the growth of the terrorist threat”.

In order to minimize the challenge of the international terrorism, that comes from the Middle East as well as from other regions, to prevent the spread of radical Islamism in Russian regions, where the Islamic population prevails, the antiterrorist activity should be coordinated with the Council of GCC and with its particular member countries as well, firstly with the KSA. Our countries are close in their uncompromised position to struggle the international terrorism, which covers itself behind the banners of Islam.

Russia will obviously promote its plans to strengthen the regional security. The Arabic countries paid much attention to Russian concept of security in the Gulf region proposed in 2007, which based on the collective principle with the participation of all the regional and other interested parties. The signing of a corresponding international treaty will not only decrease the level of Iranian-Arabic tensions, but will also significantly improve Russia’s authority in the Gulf region.

During the second ministerial round of the strategic dialog, the parties have confirmed their resolution to further promote the creation of WMD and delivery systems free zone in the Middle East. They have also emphasized the importance of joint work on the preparation to carry the conference envisaged by the decisions of the Review conference of the NPT in 2010.

Regarding the Middle-Eastern peace process and its main vector, I would like to notice, that our countries have close positions in the Israeli-Palestinian settlement, promoting the total and just settlement in the region, which supposes the termination of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories that started in 1967, and the creation of the independent Palestinian state. Our country is firm in its support of the Arab Peace Initiative that was adopted by the League of Arab States.  This document is aimed at achieving the overall peace with Israel and the end of Arabic-Israeli conflict on the main condition of Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 and its recognition of the Palestinian State on the West Bank and in Gaza strip with the capital in the Eastern Jerusalem. The initiative was proposed by the crown price of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

There are several dimensions of the mechanism of international security maintenance. In the domain of economic security Russia and Saudi Arabia cooperate with other important countries and make joint effort to overcome the aftermath of the global financial and economic crisis within the framework of G20, which is considered the main mechanism for the coordination of approaches towards the global macroeconomic issues, reform of the international financial architecture, the increase of financial sector regulation efficiency.

  1. The strengthening of trust: prospects of cooperation with Islamic political movements. Humanitarian contacts.

Radical religious movements may have a dangerous response in the North Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia should attentively examine the situation as during the last years it has managed to have agreement with all the existing regimes that they will control their radical Muslims.

As a result, in the middle of the 90ies the influx of radical Muslims from these countries to our North Caucasus region has almost stopped. If the current uprisings and anarchy do not stop, and the overthrown regimes leave nothing but vacuum of power, Russia, as well as many Western countries and Israel, should be concerned, as the radicalization and Islamization of certain countries without leadership become imminent.

The positions of the parties towards the religious issues have a specific importance in the complex of the relations. The fact that Saudi Arabia is a particular center of spiritual life for Muslims from all over the world, that it is a guardian of the Islamic holy places, attributes an utmost importance to this domain. Russian politics towards Islam is based on the humanitarian element as well. The Saudi funds subsidize the pilgrimage of thousands of Russians to the holy places, building and reconstruction of mosques, and provide humanitarian aid. During the talks in UAE in November 2011 Sregey Lavrov has declared: “We are thankful to the leadership of Saudi Arabia for the constant attention to the needs of Russian pilgrims.” The first Russian Orthodox Church on the Arabian Peninsula was built in Sharjah (UAE) under the cooperation of the leadership of this country.

Russia thankfully accepts the support given to our country by Saudi Arabia which it received getting the observer status in the Organization of Islamic Conference (now – OIC).

The strengthening of trust, the increase of knowledge about each other between the peoples of Russia and the KSA, are extremely important to develop bilateral relations. Russian Ambassador to the KSA Oleg Ozerov has assessed the state of current Russian-Saudi relations as “…the sufficient experience of cooperation has not been accumulated yet, and the lack of knowledge about each other is visible. A complex approach is required to correct the not always correct perceptions about each other and improve understanding of the realities: to use personal and business contacts, to increase intergovernmental ties and to implement the means of “soft diplomacy’, mainly the ones of intercultural dialogue that should consider the particularities of both countries.” (“International Life. №11, 2011). It is possible to add that the development of studies of the languages of the partner countries is quite valuable.

In order to increase the efficiency of the cooperation on the intergovernmental level, the social institutes should be involved in this process; the humanitarian exchange should be intensified. Scientific contacts, youth and NGO delegations exchange will strengthen the trust between Russia and countries of the Arabian Peninsula. During the talks the parties have agreed to cooperate in the higher education and scientific research by maintaining contacts between universities and think tanks.

MGIMO is involved in shaping the Arabian vector of Russia’s foreign policy. The Center of Arabic language studies was opened in the University in March 2009. It was created at the initiative of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and he funded it as well. In November 2007 the crown prince was granted a title of MGIMO Dr. h.c. There are established regular contacts, student and professor exchange between MGIMO and scientific and educational centers of Saudi Arabia. Highly qualified graduates of our University implement the knowledge acquired during their studies in their diplomatic service in Russian embassies in the GCC countries. The employees of the Center of Middle Eastern studies of MGIMO propose the improvements for the mechanism of cooperation of our country with the Arabian states in their analytic research.

The creation of an adequate information space through the organization of days of culture and science, exhibitions, support of Russian and international printed and online media, radio and television in the respective countries is an effective measure in this direction.

  1. Economic cooperation

A new level of economic cooperation is required. Once kerosene oil was the most important article of Soviet export to KSA. International economic relations are essentially on a new stage of development. Thus, it is desirable to:

  • Promote the creation of a positive climate for the increase of bilateral trade (e.g. to create new free-trade zones) and investments through the stimulation of contacts between the representatives of business circles in order to use the investment capacities of the parties;
  • Develop the cooperation in industry, transit, communications, agriculture, tourism and healthcare;
  • Continue the cooperation in the energy and conduct joint meetings of experts and technical professionals, and cooperate in the peaceful atom, energy security and renewable sources of energy;
  • Start the creation of projects in peaceful space exploration;
  • Attract funds of GCC countries to upgrade Russian economy – implement the newest medical, energy and information technologies, develop space and telecom systems, decisive increase of energy efficiency

There is a good basis of the development of hi-tech cooperation. In his speech in Sochi on the 1st September 2015 Vladimir Putin asked “Will we create unique technologies ourselves, make a breakthrough in the economy, or envy the triumphs of others?”. It is an eternal question. Today both our countries may answer this question in favor of their national interests in cooperation with friendly countries.

The composite indexes of Saudi Arabia’s economic growth confirm its potential attractiveness as an international economic partner.

Considering the dynamics it is impossible not to mention that the KSA and Oman are among top 10 countries with the greatest progress in the humanitarian development, even without taking into consideration the performance of national economies.

Among the countries of the Arab world Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt are by far the most invested ones. According to UNCTAD, before the crisis, in 2007, the net influx of FDI in these countries was 12, 11 and 5 billion dollars respectively. Thus, Russian investors will get new opportunities with the opening of the Arabian capital markets.

However there are several restrictions:

  • The GCC countries compete with Russia not only in the energy markets. They produce 12% of world chemicals and fertilizers, and are an important player in the aluminum market. From the point of view of the development of trade relations with this group of countries such structure does not allow to definitely state the initial predisposition of Russian and Arabian economies for the intense exchange of services and goods. The similarity of industrial structures makes the countries search for the contact points on the intrasectoral level and in the industrial cooperation, including the orientation on the markets of the third countries.
  • Unfinished process of market liberalization that complicates the activity of economic partners, at least in small business
  • On the Arabian Peninsula Russian companies face competition from Western, Chinese and Indian ones (supported by their states) mainly regarding big contracts.
  • Differences in business model. Islamic economy.


The Arabian markets in their broad definition are a difficult target for Russian business. Continuous economic orientation of these countries to the West, South-Eastern and Eastern Asia, abundance of consumer and investment products challenge the strategy of Russian entrepreneurs and state’s economic institutions. Thus, I would like to present a hypothesis that the industrial cooperation on the basis of mutual exchange of direct investments, technologies and qualified workforce will become the “launching pad” of the renewal of the whole system of business partnership, instead of the trade exchange, which is prioritized by a number of notorious Russian arabists. Entering the peninsula through the “investment gates” seems more realistic.

Consequently, Russia has wide prospects for the development of cooperation with Saudi Arabia. A task–oriented and balanced policy is required in order to implement all the opportunities. It should be aimed at securing economic and political goals of our country in this region. A mechanism of multilateral cooperation with the KSA is currently being created. The adaptation of such approach is quite realistic.

Published in Research

Mustapha Tlili, novelist, Director of the UN information Center for 30 years and columnist for the New York Times carries an optimistic and confident outlook on Tunisia and its ability “to meet the challenges of democracy and modernity”.

However, he is more cautious about the development of the situation in other countries of the region (Syria and Lybia).  “We opened the Pandora's box”, says Mustapha Tlili.


Published in Interviews

Migration flows in the Mediterranean are nothing new. According to the official data, an average of almost 40,000 people (on the basis of monitoring between 1998-2013) cross the Mediterranean sea per year to reach its northern shores. It’s a drop in the sea if we were to compare this figure to the numbers of immigrants admitted to the EU every year, that is reportedly over 1.5 million persons.

South to North migration in the Mediterranean is a given reality preconditioned by the differences in the development between the two shores of the Mediterranean, and by the challenges and problems in the southern part as well. In other words, by the issues plaguing Africa and the Middle East. Running from extreme poverty, low levels of living quality, and conflicts, the issues are forcing people to seek a better life in the developed Western world, notably in Europe.

However, dreams about the European paradise soon crumble as the migration flows are more intensive than the capabilities of the receiving side and the final destination is far from paradise itself. The problem resides also in the historical insufficiency and inadequacy of the measures in the majority of the receiving countries to effectively integrate the newcomers into society. It is the aggregate disillusionment of newcomers and the limited migration policy that creates a delayed-action bomb in Western societies.


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Published in Tribune
Monday, 27 April 2015 01:04

The Kremlin's unexpected decisions

April has been a month of vibrant Russian foreign policy activity in the Middle East. A number of Middle Eastern leaders visited Moscow; Russian diplomats held the second consultative meeting between representatives of the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition; Russian planes evacuated all Russian citizens from Yemen, as well as citizens other countries, including the United States and Europe; Russia took an active part in reaching an interim solution in the Iranian nuclear talks; and Russian diplomats have been working on draft resolutions at the UN Security Council.

Some of the Russian leadership's decisions turned out to be rather unexpected. These included President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that a ban on deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran be lifted, causing a negative reaction from some influential global and regional players, especially Israel, with which Russia has recently been successfully developing multilateral cooperation. Significantly, when explaining this decision, Russian officials put forward both commercial and reputational arguments related to the suspension of the contract with Iran between 2007 and 2010, as well as political ones.

In particular, during his four-hour televised conversation with Russia’s citizens April 17, Putin declared, "In no way is this a threat to Israel. This is only a defensive weapon. Moreover, we believe that given the conditions that are unfolding in the region, especially in connection with the events in Yemen, the supply of such weapons functions as a deterrent." Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was even clearer: "For Iran to have a modern air defense system is very urgent today, especially considering the rising tensions in the region, including around Yemen."

It's wrong to suggest — as some Western analysts did — that behind this decision stands Moscow’s desire to torpedo the deal between six world powers and Iran: The systems won’t be delivered any time soon, and Iran won’t be in a position to put serious pressure on Russia in the oil and gas market for some time. It's significant, however, that in this case the concerns of Israeli leaders were not taken into account. I recall that in the recent past, Moscow canceled the delivery of analogous weapon systems to Syria because of Israeli objections, as Putin mentioned in his TV appearance.

No less surprising was Moscow’s decision to refrain from vetoing the draft UN Security Council resolution on Yemen that didn’t include all of Russia’s proposals. Words of gratitude were expressed from Arab capitals to the Russian leadership. Undoubtedly, Tehran didn’t like this decision, but this is hardly reason enough to explain the restoration of the contract with Iran for the S-300 as a way to sweeten the pill.

Also unusual was the Kremlin’s activity in the Libyan context, which many already thought was a lost battle for Moscow. On April 14-15, and for the second time this year, Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni traveled to Moscow. He stated that the main purpose of his visit was to persuade Russia to participate in "restoring Libya’s stability and military might."

But there was no agreement on an immediate supply of arms. Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin’s representative for the Middle East and Africa, declared that Moscow may begin arms shipments to the country only after the lifting of the embargo by the UN Security Council. At the same time, he added, Russia "is of the opinion that there is a legitimate government in Libya that should be helped to strengthen its position." Bogdanov said Russia is not only interested in supplying weapons to Libya, but also stands ready to "assist in strengthening the Libyan army, government agencies and security forces." During the visit, the issue of reviving old Russian contracts was discussed, in particular the construction of a railway in Libya and energy resources exploration.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Moscow in April. Although the details of the high-level talks are unknown, the fact that on April 17 the issue of the Middle East peace process was raised in the Russian Security Council testifies to its importance. This can clearly be interpreted as a sign of the increasing relevance this issue has among the country’s foreign policy priorities. So far it's unclear whether we are talking about any new initiative by Moscow or only about the possible buildup of its activity, for example in the framework of the Middle East Quartet. On the Palestinian issue, however, one cannot speak of a change of course, as at its base are the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

Russia reiterates its commitment to the concept of the peace process, but it is conceivable that it will renew its efforts to promote the unification of the Palestinian organizations, whose fragmentation continues to hinder their participation in negotiations with Israel. A factor in the intensification of Russia’s attempts to revive the struggling Middle East process is the desire to preserve cooperation — in these times of crisis in relations with its Western partners, primarily the United States — in those areas where Russian and Western positions are close, positive experience has been gained and where without Russia, it would be very difficult to make progress.

At the same time, some Arab analysts drew attention to the constant attacks by some Russian experts on Moscow’s Middle East policy. In particular, a presentation by Yevgeny Satanovsky at the Moscow Conference on International Security April 16-17 stood out. Satanovsky is known for his critical statements about the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Middle East policy, and he regularly appears on air on the main Russian TV channels. Following Russia’s support of a draft UN Security Council resolution on the necessity of ending the occupation of Arab Palestinian land, Satanovsky earlier this year accused Russian diplomacy of "betraying national interests," stating, "Either the Russian Foreign Ministry is still living in Soviet times, or, even worse, diplomats are taking care of their own business, or the lobbying of some elderly, yet influential colleagues made them take this position." One journalist acquaintance suggested that with the latter, Satanovsky had clearly in mind Yevgeny Primakov, who has long been an object of his attacks.

At the Moscow Conference, Satanovsky made a statement, the essence of which was that there is no need to create any new Arab state (namely, a Palestinian one) in the current circumstances, in which all other Arab states, as he put it, are crumbling before our eyes. It's good, of course, that this expert has the opportunity to express his point of view, which contradicts the official position of the state. However, Arab participants and journalists — who hotly debated Satanovsky’s speech with me on the sidelines of the conference — expressed surprise that he was given the podium at a respectable official conference (with Lavrov and other officials), and that he was almost the only representative of the expert community who was given the floor in the session dedicated to the Middle East region.

Baffled Arab journalists asked whether this speech wasn’t an indication that Moscow had been thinking to revise the plan to create an Arab Palestinian state alongside Israel. In my response, I expressed my deep conviction that there is absolutely no basis for such an explanation, as this expert’s bias on everything that concerns the Arab and Islamic world is well known and doesn’t reflect the official position of the state.

Equally surprising for international observers were the direct accusations of Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia of supporting Islamic terrorism in the same speech by Satanovsky. Given the fast developing relations between Ankara and Moscow, that such a charge would be uttered at an official event by an expert — sometimes considered close to the Kremlin and, at the very least, influential on public opinion — also raises some questions, as some guests from the region told me privately on the sidelines of the conference. Usually it's acceptable to make such statements on a confidential basis, behind closed doors. But again, I am positive that we are only talking about this expert’s personal stance, which reflects the point of view of a small group of individuals.

In summary, we can draw some conclusions about Moscow’s Middle East policy at the present stage. First of all, it maintains a strong focus on bilateral relations. Second, it attempts to refrain from confrontational statements and, even more so, actions toward those countries with which Russia disagrees on certain issues of global and regional policy. (Thus, criticizing the Arab coalition’s use of force against the Houthis in Yemen does not prevent Moscow from actively reinforcing ties with Egypt.) Third, it strives to diversify or develop relations with states in conflict with each other. Fourth, it wants to create active contacts with opposition forces, in addition to official authorities (to whom Russian diplomacy was limited in the past). And, finally, it wishes to play a mediating role in conflicts, without claiming a monopoly or opposing other players, in particular the United Nations.


Published in Tribune
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