Saturday, 18 March 2017 22:11

A Saudi Royal Visits Trump

While Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was on the fourth leg of his three-week Asia tour, his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), became the first Saudi royal to visit the White House during the administration of US President Donald J. Trump. With the king wrapping up his state visit in Japan before going to China, and MbS in Washington, the timing sent a message that Riyadh is seeking to work with allies, friends, and partners across the world. These visits occurred at a time when the kingdom is pursuing an economic transformation in line with Vision 2030, a blueprint for improving the future of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is also facing a host of financial challenges stemming from cheap oil as well as ongoing security crises near and within its borders.

MbS’ visit to Washington and his meeting with Trump on March 14 provided clear signals that the United States considers Saudi Arabia a major ally and MbS a credible partner. Trump and MbS’ meeting may suggest that the White House views the thirty-one-year-old deputy crown prince as the next king of Saudi Arabia, a future leader to depend on in the Middle East, and a representative of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Yet the meetings in Washington may also leave the impression that the United States is trying to balance its relations with both MbS and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef (MbN), suggested by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo’s visit to Riyadh in February where he met with MbN and awarded him with a medal for his counterterrorism efforts.

MbS, who is charge of all Saudi economic portfolios and is a businessman who owns many companies, seeks to establish a sovereign wealth fund (SWF), a pillar of Vision 2030. This could possibly be the largest SWF in the world, worth $2 trillion, depending on the sale of 5 percent of Saudi oil company Aramco’s shares.

The reception MbS received in Washington sent a signal that the Trump administration has given the deputy crown prince carte blanche to discuss all economic, political, military, and security portfolios as he has, arguably, become the kingdom’s first decision maker. 

At the top of the agenda in Washington, Trump and MbS discussed countering “Iran’s destabilizing regional activities,” and exploring “steps across a broad range of political, military, security, economic, cultural, and social dimensions to further strengthen” US-Saudi strategic relations, according to a White House statement.

Trump and MbS also discussed former US President Barak Obama’s decision to suspend the sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh in response to high civilian casualties caused by the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. US officials pointed out that Trump was considering ending the ban and approving the sale of such munitions, and all that is left is a White House approval. It should be noted that the kingdom’s military spending, which surpassed $87 billion last year, has almost doubled since 2006. 

Saudi investments in the United States were also discussed on the Washington visit. Saudi Oil Minister Khalef Al Faleh, who is close to MbS, said that the kingdom would invest in US infrastructure projects, including fossil fuel. These investments could help to grow the economy and create new job opportunities, which Trump promised during his election campaign.

The visits of both the king and his son to Asia and the United States, respectively, aim to strengthen the kingdom’s economic, military, and political alliances with major world players. This could set the kingdom’s economy on a positive trajectory. The Saudi economy suffered a setback because of plummeting oil prices that have left a huge budget deficit in the kingdom.

An outstanding issue, which will remain a source of tension in Washington-Riyadh relations, is the controversial Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). The US law, which passed last year despite Obama’s veto, implies that the Saudi government was partially culpable for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and permits victims’ family members to sue the kingdom in US courts. Trump, on the campaign trail, supported JASTA. It is unclear how his administration will address the legislation and future problems it will undoubtedly create in US-Saudi ties.

MbS’ trip to the White House was about resetting US-Saudi relations in the wake of the Obama presidency, which one of the crown prince’s senior advisers described as a “period of difference of opinion” between Washington and Riyadh. The Saudi leadership is cautiously optimistic that the Trump administration will reverse what it sees as the Obama administration’s flawed policies and strategies vis-à-vis Iran, which, either intentionally or unintentionally, empowered Tehran to expand and consolidate its influence across Middle East. MbS’ visit to Washington signaled that Riyadh is determined to foster close ties with the Trump administration.

Shehab al-Makahleh (Sam Mak) is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics with experience as a political advisor in the United Arab Emirates.

Initially published by Atlantic Council:

Published in Tribune

“Patience is a virtue,” according to an ancient piece of wisdom. There is no doubt that for the eight long years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Riyadh’s patience was tested to the max by an administration that seemed — intentionally or not — adamant on punishing allies and rewarding foes.
Yet the Saudis persisted, and like a true and solid ally, they took it on the chin. They refused to follow the Iranian model of exploiting such situations to their benefit by advocating anti-Americanism, and kept on giving honest and valuable advice to Washington.
Toward the end of Obama’s tenure last year, America failed to respond adequately when the Houthis attacked a US Navy ship in Bab Al-Mandab no less than three times. At that point, it became clear that the “Obama Doctrine” jeopardized the position of moderate US allies in the region, empowered rogue states such as Iran, allowed the Syrian regime to continue murdering its own people, and shattered the image of the US as a superpower that is able to maintain order and intervene for the sake of peace and stability worldwide.
At that point, it seemed Riyadh and Washington could not have been any further apart regarding their perspectives on regional affairs. Yet Obama was replaced by a president who also could not have been further apart from him.

The historic Saudi-US relations are back on track. We should now expect a serious joint effort to restore stability to our region.

Faisal J. Abbas

Relations back on track
It was ironic to see how Obama went from hero to zero over his two terms. One cannot help but remember all the optimism that accompanied his rise to power, particularly in the Arab world after his now-famous Cairo speech. Yet given that all his talk of a “new beginning” nearly brought an end to the region as we know it, most Arabs now hopefully know that actions speak louder than words.
President Donald Trump may be criticized for his rhetoric, and he may not be all hugs and kisses like his predecessor was. But when it comes to the stuff that really matters to us — his policies — one cannot but give them two thumbs up.
If anything was proven during the recent meeting between Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the first Arab/Muslim official to meet him at the White House — it is that historic Saudi-US relations are back on track. As such, we should now expect a serious joint effort to restore stability to our region.
I say this not only because of the change that has occurred in Washington, but because of the change that has occurred in Saudi Arabia over the past two years. Today there is a young, dynamic, proactive leadership in Riyadh that the new US administration can work with.
The new Saudi spirit, embodied in the deputy crown prince, is one that means business, and has made reform and progression its main mandate (compared to Tehran, which has only used the money from the nuclear deal to further spread chaos and terror in the region).
Riyadh has also established, and is home to, the Islamic military alliance to combat Daesh, something the Trump administration has been clear it intends to pursue seriously. The White House understands the importance of having Saudi Arabia, as the land of the Two Holy Mosques, on its side in such delicate matters.
It is easy for a country such as Iran — which harbors and supports Shiite militias and Al-Qaeda leaders — to say placing additional security measures against its citizens is an attack on all Muslims. But this is simply not true. Each country has the right to secure its borders, especially when it comes to countries that do not share biometric or intelligence data with it.
Saudi Arabia can play a vital role in both offering correct advice and weighing in when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This will prove crucial for Trump if he intends to fulfill what he said about brokering a historic deal to end this longstanding conflict.
Riyadh can also revert back to having a reliable ally with significant influence to help end the conflict in Yemen and push through a political solution that can restore a legitimate government, end the misery of the Yemeni people, and launch a massive reconstruction campaign that will bring back peace and prosperity.


• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. He can be reached on Twitter @FaisalJAbbas :

Published in Tribune
Tuesday, 21 February 2017 00:00

Can Iran change? We hope it will!

Our region is rife with turmoil. We have a crisis in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, Libya. We have an Iran that is rampant in its support of terrorism and interference in the affairs of other countries. We face terrorism, we face piracy, we face challenges of economic development and job creation. We face challenges in terms of reforming our economies and bringing the standard of living of our people to a higher level. We have the challenge of trying to bring peace between Israelis and Arabs.

I am an optimist, because if your job is to solve problems, you cannot be a pessimist. We have to do everything we can in order to deal with the challenges that we face. I believe that 2017 will be a year in which a number of the challenges will be resolved. I believe the crisis in Yemen will be brought to an end and the attempt to overthrow the legitimate government will have failed. We can then work on putting Yemen on the path of economic development and reconstruction. I believe progress can be made in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If there is a will to do so, we know what a settlement looks like. We just need the political will to do so. And my country stands ready with other Arab countries to work to see how we can promote that.

I believe that a political settlement in Syria is also possible.

One of the biggest factors that will help to resolve many of these challenges is the new American administration. Yes, I am very optimistic about the Trump administration. I know there are a lot of concerns or questions in Europe about the new administration, but I like to remind my European friends that when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1981, there was a lot of concern in Europe. People thought World War III would take place. And yet, how did it all turn out?

Ronald Reagan reasserted America’s place in the world. He made comprehensive arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, he pushed back against the Soviet Union and he ended the Cold War. It is a wonderful history. When we look at the Trump administration, we see a president who is pragmatic and practical, a businessman, a problem-solver, a man who is not an ideologue. We see a man who has a certain view of the world. He wants America to play a role in the world.

Our view is that when America disengages, it creates tremendous danger in the world, because it creates vacuums and into these vacuums evil forces flow. And it takes many times the effort to push back against these evil forces than to prevent them from emerging in the first place.

For 35 years, we have extended our arm in friendship to the Iranians, and for 35 years we have gotten death and destruction in return. This cannot continue.

Adel Al-Jubeir

Trump believes in destroying Daesh. So do we. He believes in containing Iran. So do we. He believes in working with traditional allies. So do we. And when we look at the composition of the Cabinet and the personalities that he appointed — secretary of defense, secretary of state, secretary of homeland security, director of the FBI, secretary of commerce, secretary of treasury — these are very experienced, highly skilled, highly capable individuals who share that world-view. So we expect to see America engaged in the world. We expect to see a realistic American foreign policy and we look forward to working with this administration very, very closely. Our contacts with the administration have been very positive and we are looking at how we can deal with the challenges facing our region and the world.

When I look at our region today, I see a challenge that emanates from Iran. Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has — as part of its constitution — the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite — the “dispossessed,” as Iran calls them — all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. This is unacceptable for us in the Kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world.

The Iranians do not believe in the principle of good neighborliness or non-interference in the affairs of others. This is manifested in their interference in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan. The Iranians have disrespected international law by attacking embassies, assassinating diplomats, by planting terrorist cells in other countries, by harboring and sheltering terrorists.

In 2001, when the US went to war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the board of directors of Al-Qaeda moved to Iran. Saad Bin Laden, Osama Bin Laden’s son, Saif El-Adel, the chief of operations for Al-Qaeda, and almost a dozen senior leaders went and lived in Iran. The order to blow up three housing compounds in our nation’s capital (Riyadh) in 2003 was given by Saif El-Adel — while he was in Iran — to the operatives in Saudi Arabia. We have the conversation on tape. It is irrefutable. The Iranians blew up Khobar Towers in 1996. They have smuggled weapons and missiles to the Houthis in Yemen in violation of UN Security Council resolutions in order to lock these missiles at our country and kill our people.

And so, (when) we look at the region, we see terrorism, and we see a state sponsor of terrorism that is determined to upend the order in the Middle East. The Iranians are the only country in the region that has not been attacked by either Daesh or Al-Qaeda. And this begs the question, why? If Daesh and Al-Qaeda are extremist Sunni organizations, you would think that they would be attacking Iran as a Shiite state. They have not. Could it be that there is a deal between them that prevents them or causes them not to attack the Iranians? This is a question that we keep asking ourselves.

The Iranians talk about wanting to turn a new page, wanting to look forward, not backwards. This is great. But what do we do about the present? We cannot ignore what they are doing in the region. We cannot ignore the fact that their constitution, as I mentioned earlier, calls for the export of the revolution. How can one deal with a nation whose objective is to destroy us? So until and unless Iran changes its behavior, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this. Not just for Saudi Arabia, but for other countries.

We are hopeful that Iran will change. We respect Iran’s culture, we respect the Iranian people. It is a great civilization, it is a neighbor of ours. We have to deal with them for many, many years. But it takes two to have a good relationship. For 35 years, we have extended our arm in friendship to the Iranians, and for 35 years we have gotten death and destruction in return. This cannot continue.

• These are edited excerpts from Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s address at a session — titled “Old Problems, New Middle East” — at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday. The session was moderated by BBC’s Lyse Doucet.

Video of the address is available here : 
Initially published by IMESClub's partner : Arab News

Published in Tribune

Russia's relationship with the Persian Gulf and the independent Arab monarchies, which have formed in the region over the past century, is proving complex and malleable. It ebbs and flows, characterized by significant political differences, which are related to various aspects of regional and global politics and are ultimately also a function of internal political transformations, both within Russia itself and the states of the region.

However, it should be pointed out that – all disagreements and heated discussions about the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear deal notwithstanding – Russia and the GCC have never been such close partners, as they are during this current complicated and painful turn in Middle Eastern history, in that they share a wide range of common interests and understand each others' concerns. There is a mutual impact between, on the one hand, prolonged regional destabilization, multiple sources and theatres of violence and the loss of governability in the region, and the internal processes within the GCC member states, on the other. The GCC, a political-military alliance with great financial and economic potential, has - in Russia's view - transformed into a real power centre, exercising leverage on the overall situation not just within the region.

Everything is relative, so the mutual appeal between Russia and the Persian Gulf is best understood in its historical context. Let us take, for instance, the longstanding relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which plays a leading role in the GCC:

The Soviet Union was one of the first states to recognize, and establish diplomatic relations with, the Saudi Kingdom in 1932. The Soviets viewed the momentum towards integration on the Arabian peninsula as a progressive development, especially against the backdrop of the colonial policies of Western powers, which had competed to divide the spoils of the Arab world amongst each other. The Saudis never forgot that Moscow, in those difficult initial years of the Kingdom's development, provided Riyadh with oil products, especially gasoline. This interesting historical fact must appear amusing and paradoxical today.

Later, after the Russian Ambassador was recalled from Riyadh, bilateral relations were frozen for a protracted period. The reason was not any foreign policy disagrement, but rather the internal political repression arising within the Soviet Union, which claimed many respected diplomats as victims.

During the post-World War II period of bipolar confrontation, the Soviet leadership viewed the Gulf region as a sphere of Western preponderance. This view was reflected in Soviet ideology at the time, which divided the Arab world into states characterized by a Socialist orientation and perceived as acting compatible with Soviet foreign policy doctrine, and into the «reactionary» oil monarchies, considered US satellites. This artificial distinction was also fuelled by Nasserist Egypt, which at the time was ambitious to spread Arab nationalism across the region, especially towards the Arabian peninsula with its significant oil resources. Soviet Middle East policy was then undoubtedly driven by apprehensions about Cairo's intentions, and it was occasionally difficult to establish, who was exercising the greater influence on whom.

A reinstatement of relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the end of the 1970s – a period when conditions seemed ripe for reconciliation – was complicated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which caused great damage to Moscow's position in the Muslim world. It was not until the 1990s that both countries established diplomatic representations in each other's capitals, though bilateral relations were overshadowed by a whole range of irritants, such as the conflict in Chechnya and events in Kosovo. While the Saudi perspective on these conflicts prioritized the need to protect the Muslim population, the Russian leadership, urging the reestablishment of constitutional legality in Chechnya and refusing to recognize Kosovar independence from Serbia, looked at the situation through the prism of international legal norms, such as the sanctity of territorial integrity and the principle of noninterference in internal affairs.

Russia's internal problems in the 1990s, causing it to reduce its political activity and economic ties in the Middle East, additionally complicated relations with Saudi Arabia, as well as the other GCC states. To many in the world, Russia appeared to have turned its back on the region. This impression was reinforced by the fact that Moscow, against the backdrop of rapidly unfolding democratic changes inside Russia, embarked on an increasingly pro-Western oriented foreign policy course. Hence, the Persian Gulf was not so much looked at from Moscow as a region that ties should be fostered with bilaterally, but its importance was rather assessed within the overall context of Russia's partnership with the US, which was to provide the framework in which to devise a reliable Middle Eastern regional security system[1].

Russia's return to the region from the early 2000s then occurred under very different circumstances. There was a change in the very paradigm of Russian-Arab relations, which became mutually beneficial and evolved in different spheres. Purely pragmatic considerations assumed priority: the support of a stable political dialogue, whatever the disagreements, the strengthening of economic ties, as well as regional security. On this basis, Russia started building relations – rather successfully – not just with traditional partners, but with all Arab Gulf states, which were gaining in political and economic weight at the time.

During the same period, the GCC underwent a process of increasing institutionalisation internally, for instance in the spheres of common defense, coordination of actions on the international stage, coordination of oil policies, as well as economic integration. Given the emergence of this new, more integrated center of power in the Gulf, relations with Russia acquired an additional dimension.

From 2011, a Russian-GCC dialogue started to develop in parallel to the nurturing of bilateral relations; the former was aimed at the convergence and coordination of the participants' positions on regional and global problems of common interest, as well as the development of trade and economic relations. Five rounds of talks between all foreign ministers were held in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Kuwait, Moscow, as well as New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Regional security, especially the fight against international terrorism and a political solution for the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen – both intended to stabilize the Middle Eastern situation more broadly – became the central item on the Russia-GCC agenda. In this context, the Gulf participants emphasized, in particular, Iran's regional role and its relations with Russia, since they viewed Tehran as the main threat in the region.

The extent to which questions related to Gulf security are of utmost priority to the Arab states of the region is well understood in Russia. These questions already acquired heightened significance in 1990 during the First Gulf War. At that time, the priority for both the GCC and, by the way, Russia was to neutralize the threat emanating from Iraq. Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the GCC started to view Iran – a state with substantial military might and wide-ranging possibilties to influence the Gulf states through its support for their Shiite communities – as their main enemy.

As a result of this development, the challenges of Gulf regional security acquired a new, more complex character, especially considering the heavy legacy of relations between these two centers of power in the region, a legacy that has its roots in the emergence and spread of Islam as a world religion.

The destruction of the old state foundations and the social and political upheavals, which afflicted the entire MENA region with the beginning of the «Arab Spring», forced the GCC to adapt to changing circumstances and to seek additional resources, in order to forestall the spillover of destabilization into the Persian Gulf at a time when power relations between major regional players were in flux. Egypt, living through two revolutions and suffering from their disruptive consequences, was temporarily weakened. Syria and Iraq have been torn by internal strife between groups close to either Saudi Arabia or Iran. And Turkey, which claimed the universality of its model of «Islamic democracy», has ceased to be regarded in the Arab world as a role model, given its growing domestic and external problems.

Unlike Jordan and Morocco, which swiftly embarked on a path of political modernization, the Saudi kingdom decided for more gradual development, starting by introducing economic reforms. And this is understandable: Saudi Arabia, as the guardian of the holy sites of Islam, carries a particular responsibility for the maintenance of stability, especially at a time when it found itself, as officials in Riyadh argued, caught between two perils: that of revolution and acts of terrorism, on the one hand, and that of surging Iranian regional ambitions, on the other. It should be noted that, while these worries shared by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies were not entirely unfounded, they were in some instances overexaggerated, according to most Western and Russian experts.

It is certainly true that Shiite Iran has enhanced its position in Iraq over recent years, paradoxically enabled by the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which changed the sectarian balance in positions of power in favour of the Shia, a fact that Iran has used in its favour. Saudi hopes that the Assad regime, close to Iran, would be swiftly overthrown did not materialize. Iran's influence in Lebanon, exercised through the militarily well-equipped Hezbollah movement, also increased. And at the same time, the Shia opposition in Bahrain became more active, as did the Houthis in Yemen, which are considered an outright product of Iran, though this is well known to be a stretch of logic.

Developments North to the Gulf, where a Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis was perceived to form, as well as South, where the Houthis overthrew a legally elected President, were seen by the Arab Gulf states as a real threat to both their security and very existence. A new strategy, comprising a whole range of political, military, financial, economic and propagandist counter-measures, had to be devised. Changes at the top echelons of power in the Saudi kingdom hastened this strategy, which was ultimately intended to contain Iran, into action.

Given these assessments of developments in the Middle East, which are prevailing among circles in the Gulf, the US' changing regional policy, especially in relation to Iran, and its possible impact on regional relations, has been of particular concern. Should recent US policy be understood as the manifestation of a new regional strategy, aimed at rapprochement with Iran and the creation of a new regional equilibrium, or rather as a tactical feat? Especially Saudi Arabia viewed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak as resulting in the loss of a trusted ally and, even worse, as evidence of the unreliability of American patronage. America's flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood, ascending to power at the time, caused yet more suspicion, which was then further exacerbated by President Obama's decision to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. The not unfounded Saudi allegations that the US' policy of supporting Shia authoritarian leaders in Baghdad further allowed Iran to enhance its sphere of influence in Iraq, became an additional irritant in Gulf-US relations. The two sides also differed sharply on how to deal with the conflict in Syria. US policy in Syria was regularly criticsed in the Gulf as weak and inconsistent. As a result of the above-discussed irritants, and for the first time in history, US-Saudi relations were seriously tested, a development which reached its apogee in Riyadh's renouncing of the strategic partnership and heralding a «sharp turn» in its foreign policy[2].

Worries about losing the US as the traditional security guarantor in the region also precipitated the GCC's activisation of political contacts with Russia, including at the senior level. The Saudis figured it wise to assess the extent to which Russia could play a moderating role with respect to Iran, as well as to broaden their foreign policy ties in the international arena, given the new system of flexible and self-regulating balances in the region. Russia, in turn, had already from the early 2000s adopted a balanced foreign policy course intended at the levelling of relations with states of the «Arab bloc», which it viewed as an increasingly influential player and serious partner not just in the region, but also on global political and economic issues.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran and the «P5+1» on July 14, 2015, generated a whole range of commentary and prognoses. Two opposing camps, each assessing the deal in terms of its likely global ramifications for the nuclear non-proliferation regime, as well as its impact on Iran's regional politics, emerged.

The JCPOA's opponents in the US, like those in the region itself (including Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states) are far from convinced that the deal will lower Tehran's nuclear ambitions and moderate its regional strategy. Some even fear a regional nuclear arms race, driven by Iran's apprehensive neighbours[3]. The Gulf States do not hide the fear that the financial resources released to Iran post-sanctions relief will be used by Tehran to support the pro-Iranian forces and movements within the entire so-called «Shia crescent». The JCPOA's supporters, on the other hand, argue that the deal will not lead to a distortion of the region's military balance and that the US remains committed to its security guarantees in the Middle East. They also hold that the deal will strengthen moderate elements in the Iranian leadership, which compete with those who continue to support a harder line, especially on Syria. According to the supporters' logic, an Iran emerging from international isolation will act more responsibly, be ready for compromises, and the other Gulf states, having received guarantees that they will be protected against possible Iranian expansionism, will equally conduct a more restrained foreign policy in the region.

The agreement with Iran did not have any negative impact on Russia's relations with the Gulf countries. There is even reason to argue that – the disagreements regarding Iran and the Syrian crisis notwithstanding – meetings and conversations at the heighest political and diplomatic level became more frequent and assumed a more pragmatic outlook.

 President Putin, for instance, met with King Salman in Antalya in November 2015, and with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud in June 2015 in St. Petersburg, as well as in October of the same year in Sochi. Of course, in view of the complexity and multifaceted nature of the situation prevailing in the region, it was difficult to expect any major breakthroughs. Nonetheless, the two sides agreed on those issues, on which they differ most acutely and agreed to continue the political dialogue and cooperation in the trade and economic sphere. A mutual understanding prevailed that differences, whatever they may be, should not become a pretense for breaking relations. Both sides were cognizant of the fact that their disagreements were outnumbered by their converging interests and approaches on a wide range of issues on the regional and international agenda, including the Middle East peace process, regional security (including in the Persian Gulf), the promotion of a dialogue among civilizations, the fight against terrorism, extremism, piracy and drug trade. Such agreements, if carried out by both sides, would in themselves be a good achievement, if compared with the ups and downs in the history of relations between the two countries.

It is possible that the change in the very style of negotiations – from emotional outbursts to candid, business-like conversations – occurred precisely because both sides recognized their own and  their respective partner's important role in averting the materialization of worse-case scenarios in the region. This is especially true after Russia called for a broad antiterrorist coalition and started supporting the Syrian army decisively with airstrikes.

It is also worth pointing out a special relashionships between Russia and the Kingdom of Bahrein which are on the rise in all spheres – political, economic, banking, scientific, cultural etc. The relationships of the kind are based on close personal ties on the highest level between President Putin and His Majesty the King Hamad who had been visiting Russia four times during the last six years.

The Russian side, in the context of bilateral and multilateral (with the GCC) consultations, has been eager to convey to its Arab Gulf partners which regional and global considerations drive its policy in the Middle East. This has concerned, in particular, Moscow's relations with Tehran and its views of Iran's regional role, as well as Russia's perspective on international cooperation in the fight against ISIL and other terrorist organizations, which instrumentalize Islam to hide their political objectives.

It is critical to pause and discuss these issues, which take a central place in the Russian-Arab common agenda, in somewhat greater detail – especially given that mutual mistrust and mistaken interpretations of the respective other's intentions and motivations prevail in both the Gulf countries and Russia. From time to time, distorted ideas about Russian strategy in the region circulate in Gulf political circles.

For instance, before the Moscow meeting between the Russian and GCC foreign ministers in May 2016, the Al Hayat newspaper alleged that Iran assumes «the central place in Moscow's system of regional and international alliances», that «whoever rules Iran, be it radical or moderate mullahs, or even the Revolutionary Guards, Moscow views its bilateral ties with Tehran as of overriding concern, whether the Gulf Arabs like it or not» [4]. It is also no secret that, besides those who support building a constructive relationship with Russia, there are also those in Saudi Arabia who believe that an «either-or» choice – being with the Saudis or with Iran – will be inevitable for Russia[5].

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed these questions, which appear of particular concern to the Gulf, during yet another round of the Russian-GCC strategic dialogue in Moscow. At the joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir, Lavrov noted that any country has the right to develop friendly relations with its neighbours and to strive to grow its influence beyond its borders. He also emphasized that this has to be done with full respect for the principles of international law, transparently, legitimately, without pursuing any hidden agendas and without trying to interfere within the internal affairs of sovereign states. The Russian side has also always warned of the dangers associated with portraying disagreements between Iran and the GCC as reflecting a split in the Muslim world. Russia believes it is unacceptable to further provoke the situation exploiting sectarian prisms[6].

The majority of Russian experts view Iran as one of Russia's major southern neighbours, with whom mutually advantageous cooperation on a wide range of bilateral, regional and international questions – including trade, energy and (military) security – is absolutely essential. Not just the Middle East counts here, but the entire Eurasian context. Russia is interested that Iran become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a political alliance comprising non-Western states, which was founded by China and Russia.

Given these considerations, it is not realistic to confront Russia with an «either-or choice»: either Iran or the GCC. And though Russia and Iran have many common interests and their cooperation looks promising, their relationship is not without challenges. Moscow's and Tehran's foreign policy objectives coincide in some areas, but diverge in others, depending on the concrete circumstances. Russia recognizes Iran as a major player in the Middle East, yet like the Arab states does not want Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons. And the Rouhani regime understands perfectly well that Russia cannot build relations with Iran to the detriment of the GCC states' security. In Syria, Russia and Iran form a close military alliance, which however is not tantamount to a common political strategy. While both Moscow and Tehran seek to prevent the victory of Islamist extremists, their long-term goals and visions for a post-Assad Syria differ substantially. Russia is not set on retaining Assad personally, or the Alawite minority, in power, but is principally concerned with the integrity of the Syrian state, albeit a reformed one friendly to Moscow. In the security realm, Russia also closely coordinates its actions with Israel and therefore views Iran's reliance on Hezbollah suspiciously[7]. Iran's most prominent politicians are also far from contemplating the formation of an outright alliance with Russia. As Rouhani stated, «good relations with Russia do not imply Iran's agreement with any of Moscow's actions.» [8]

In general, many Russian and Western experts agree that, regarding Syria, there is Russian-Iranian agreement on the basis of  a situational confluence of interests, but that one cannot speak of a full-fledged military alliance between the two powers[9]. Unlike Tehran, Moscows maintains pragmatic contacts with a wide range of political forces inside Lebanon, eager to support national consensus and to prevent a slide of the country into the abyss of violence and religious strife. And regarding Yemen, their positions equally clash. While Tehran unequivocally supports Ali Abduallah Saleh and the Houthis, Russia has adopted a more neutral position on the conflict.

Drawing conclusions, it is critical to emphasize that Moscow does not support any Iranian great power ambitions in the Persian Gulf and categorically avoids interference in the Sunni-Shiite conflict, aware that - in conditions of acute rivalry for spheres of influence in the region - Iran instrumentalizes various Shiite forces in pursuit of its narrow political interests. Relations with Saudi Arabia are without a doubt valuable in themselves for Russia. Therefore, it is important to appreciate, just how difficult a balancing act it is for Moscow to simultaneously develop what it views as an indispensible partnership with the Saudi kingdom, to strengthen friendly ties with the other Gulf monarchies and to deal successfully with its Southern neighbour Iran, with which it shares a centuries-long history. Especially at the current stage, when the regional confrontation has gone too far and, most alarmingly, has become conceived as a clash between the two religious centers of the Muslim world, the Saudi leadership has decided to contain Iran by force.

As the two opposing camps deplete their resources, and the international community feels increasingly tired and powerless to stop the vicious circle of violence, conceptualizing a new regional security order, as proposed by Russia, will become all the more urgent. The Arab states have agreed in principle to such an initiative, but are against Iranian integration into a regional security system until Tehran starts pursuing a policy of good-neighbourliness and non-interference. But without Iran, the Russian project is not viable. Therefore, Russia has signalled its readiness «to use its good relations with both the GCC and Iran, in order to help create the conditions for a concrete conversation on the normalisation of GCC-Iranian ties, which can only occur through direct dialogue.» [10]

However Russian-American relations will develop, the Gulf States need to understand that, in recent years, the balance of power in the Middle East has been changing, alliances have been forming and breaking. The level of unpredictability is growing, new risks are emerging. Today, the US' allies in the region are not necessarily Russia's enemies, in the same way that Moscow's friends are not Washington's foes. All their disagreements about Syria notwithstanding, a further escalation in the Gulf – a region of utmost importance for the world economy and global financial systems – is not in the interest of either power. In the search for what would be a historical reconciliation in the Gulf, the common terrorist threat posed by ISIL and Al Qaeda could be a critical uniting factor. The number of supporters of the «caliphate» in Saudi Arabia and in the South of the Arabian peninsula is far from insignificant. Both also have ambitious plans for economic development and are very interested in creating a favorable external environment for their aspirations.

Dr. Alexander Aksenenok, Ambassador (ret), member of Russian International Affaires Council, senior researcher, Institute for Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Siencies.



[1] См. Свободная мысль, Россия и Саудовская Аравия: эволюция отношений, Косач Григорий,

[2] см. http://lenta/ru/articles/2013/10/23/unfriended/.

[3] См. РБК, Ричард Хаас, Скрытая угроза: чем опасно ядерное соглашение с Ираном,

[4] «Москва арабам: Иран наш первый союзник», «Аль-Хаят», 19 февраля 2016 года, http://www.alh

[5] «Аль-Хаят», 26 февраля 2016 года,

[6] Выступление и ответы на вопросы СМИ министра иностранных дел России С.В.Лаврова, http://www/mid/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/...

[7] Russia and Iran: Historic  Mistrust and Contemporary Partnership, Dmitry Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center,

[8] См. Газета RU, 06.03.2016

[9] См. Брак по расчёту. Перспективы российско-иранского регионального сотрудничества, Николай Кожанов, Россия в глобальной политике, №3 май-июнь 2016

[10] Выступление и ответы на вопросы СМИ министра иностранных дел России С.В. Лаврова 15.09.2016,

Published in Research

Following the launch of the ambitious Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has started a new chapter in its history, turning itself from a US dependent indecisive closed shadow-country, to the mighty power of the Middle East, with enormous potential, strength, opening its doors to the whole world step by step.

Saudi Arabia is intensifying its diplomatic efforts to change its perception to start a new era.

The kingdom uses current challenging circumstances as opportunities for taking a new path and succeed in it. It successfully diversifies its investment flows, thus putting money in different baskets. It attracts foreign technologies that assist with boosting innovation in the kingdom, and it lays the basis of its independence from natural resources. It invests significant money in youths, their studies in Western countries, because upon their return they will bring the most precious treasure - knowledge - that will contribute to the successful development of the country. Through all these moves the kingdom also cuts its dependency from the US - an ally that is becoming less reliable and less predictable. So diversification of political ties is also an important move of the country to become stronger and less dependent on vicissitudes of fate.

Russia is one of the partners of the kingdom in its far reaching ambitious plans is, however not such an evident one. Bilateral ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia are permanently developing the last couple of years opening new opportunities for both countries and their business circles, but not moving as fast as they really could. Potential of bilateral relations development is extraordinary. But this potential is not opened and not properly used.

Russian purposes in Syria are not clear for the Kingdom at all. Why does Russia declare that its military contingency in Syria is to fight terrorism, but ISIS stays, mostly unhindered by Russian fighter planes, Palmyra is lost again, but Russia announces ending its military contingency in Syria after the fall of Aleppo?

Maria Dubovikova

Bilateral ties, despite the more or less warm relations between the two governments, are dominated at least in the level of the two societies in general, by suspicions, mistrust and ignorance.

Facing barriers

Saudi business circles are very poorly informed about doing business in Russia. They face significant language barriers each time they try to find counterparts in Russia, due to the low level of English proficiency among Russians. Western media is their key source information about Russia, as long as there is no Russian media source in Arabic or English they consider reliable and of a high quality. The public opinion of Saudis is dominated by numerous traditional stereotypes - vodka, bears on the streets, Matryoshka - no one really tries to tackle from the Russian side.

Russian laziness and passiveness of business also does not add any positiveness in the situation. Another problem business risk facing each time coming to Russia is at the least being stuck with security officers for several hours in the airport, or at worst being deported right from the border in the Russian airport - even with the relevant visa. It is hard to explain that this can happen to all people coming from the Middle East because of security measures, as such a situation happens to innocent people coming to develop business ties, and it is humiliating and demotivating to do anything on this track. Also business circles are paralyzed by the restrictively short visas given, limiting their business opportunities.

Getting Russian visas is in general the talk of the town. I still remember how I was inviting my colleague from France to take part in a conference in Moscow, and she decided to go with her husband, thus applying for a business visa herself, following the official invitation, and her husband applied for a tourism visa. He was refused for strange reasons, as his wife was going for business reasons, he could not go for tourism. She was given a three-day visa.

Common interests

Nevertheless there are many common interests that can finally break down boundaries. Investment projects have all chances to be a true ram. However some political issues remain as sensitive points between the two countries. Two of them are Iran and Syria, and mostly they are connected.

For Riyadh, Russia’s close partnership with Iran is a reason for strong worries as it is considered as a threat for national interests. Mostly it is perceived as Moscow’s refusal to build on strong cooperation and friendship with the kingdom. This approach to the analysis is not right, however its roots are quite understandable.

In this context Russian cooperation with Iran in Syria raises many questions. The main being if Russia considers the possibility that Iranian geopolitical strengthening in the region through Shia communities has been used for its own interests, to bring destabilization of the region and sectarian wars?

Russian purposes in Syria are not clear for the Kingdom at all. Why does Russia declare that its military contingency in Syria is to fight terrorism, but ISIS stays, mostly unhindered by Russian fighter planes, Palmyra is lost again, but Russia announces ending its military contingency in Syria after the fall of Aleppo? These questions rarely receive properly articulated answers. And the problem is not even that there is nothing to say, but that Russia still does not pay much attention to the straight articulation of its positions and principles, that sometimes can have a feeling that it does not really know what it is doing and what the target is.

This vagueness creates a mistrust and an unwanted freedom to interpret as they choose. It also forms the climate where members at all levels are inclined to see the spread of obstacles, instead of forests of opportunities. Meanwhile positions of the two countries on many issues are common and can lay the perfect basis for an intense bilateral boost. The core is a proper communication and articulation of positions. Russia and Saudi Arabia both stand strong against terrorism, in the face of which both stay vulnerable.

In Syria both countries agree upon the need for a period under the control of the international community, the impossibility of Syrian federalization and fragmentation. Both countries consider the installation of a secular government in Syria important. In case of Iran Russia could play a role of a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran, assisting in easing of tensions and helping to build a constructive dialogue. As long as Donald Trump occupies the White House, Iran will supposedly become far more flexible and compliant.

No matter the difficulties experienced, the two countries have a mutual interest of developing bilateral ties and strengthening cooperation. But the main precondition of successful development of ties is firstly effective mutual prejudices fighting, the improvement of the climate of trust and fair cooperation.


Initially published by Al Arabiya English: 

Published in Tribune

The Saudi-Iranian conflict will compel Moscow to make a hard choice: stand with its Iranian partner or step aside and remain ostensibly neutral.

However Russia decides to react to the ongoing spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the consequences for the Kremlin’s goals in the Middle East will be negative.

On the one hand, keeping quiet would affect the dynamics of Russian−Iranian relations that had been on the rise. Moscow invested diplomatic and economic effort in improving the dialogue with Tehran,includingthe opening of a credit line. It cannot afford tolosethese dividends considering Russia’s economic dire straits.The Russian authorities are desperate to retain Iran within its sphere of influence and avoid any drift westwards. Without Iranian ground forces fighting the opponents of the Assad regime, it will be difficult for Moscow to attainits goals in Syria −Russia needs Iran’s military and political support to compel the Syrian opposition and its sponsors to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s silence on the diplomatic quarrel between Tehran and Riyadh would also provide opponents of Russo-Iranian rapprochement among Iranian reformists and Russian pro-Western policymakers with furtherproof that the two countries are unable to forge any kind of effective partnership.

If, however, Moscow takes the Iranian side, this would affect Russian relations with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)−whose money is still considered by the Kremlin as a potential source of investmentintothe Russian economy. The financial support and political blessing of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is important for the successful implementation of joint projects with Egypt such as the creation of a joint industrial zone or the development of the nuclear industry in Egypt. The Russo−Iranian alliance undermines Moscow’s diplomatic efforts to settle the Syrian crisis by making the Saudis less willing to talk to Russiaand effectively drags Moscow into the middle of the broader Sunni−Shia confrontation, allowing anti-Russian political forces in the Middle East to portray Kremlin as an enemy of the Sunni world.

This will be a serious threat, not only to the Russian position in the region, but also, conceivably, for the domestic security of Russia, where the 15 million-strong Muslim community is predominantly Sunni.Salafi groupingsin the Gulf have depicted Russians as new crusaders at least since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. Moscow received a warning in October 2015 when approximately50 Saudi clerics signed an open declaration calling for jihad against Moscow. Thishas created an ideological background for the unification of radical forces in Syria and provides motivation for supporters of radical Islam in the GCC to intensify their financial support for Islamists inside Russia.

(Russian silence on Tehran’s diplomatic confrontation with Riyadh might also be an attempt to improve Moscow’s image in the Sunni world.This image severely suffered after the beginning of the Russian bombings of the Syrian opposition that together with the radical Islamists became one of the main targets of the Russian airforces in the autumn of last year.)

By supporting Tehran, Moscow will most likely harm relations with its ‘silent partner’ in the Middle East – Israel – whose position on the annexation of Crimea, on Western sanctions against Russia and on Russian air forces in Syria corresponds to Russian interests. Recent statements by Israeli officials demonstrated concernsabout growing Russian−Iranian cooperation in Syria and beyond. Previously, Israel tolerated the rapprochement between Moscow and Tehran as long as it was not considered as a threat to the national security of the country. Yet, recently, Israeli officials have begun to openly worry that the Russian government may begin to close its eyes to anti-Israeli moves by Tehran. Although these speculations seem to have little basis, active Russian support of Tehran in its confrontation with Saudi Arabia would almost certainly be considered in Israel as further proof of the growing Russian-Iranian alliance.

There is also a dilemma related to Russia’s image on the international stage. Putin tries hard to maintain an image ofaleader who does not leave his partners in trouble, but the Kremlin also traditionally positions itself as the main (sometimes only) protector of international law. Iran is a partner. Yet the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran was a clear violation of international norms. From this point of view, backing a country with a laissez-faire attitude towards the rights of foreign diplomats might not be in Moscow’sinterests.

The Russian authorities dounderstand the difficulty of their situation. Consequently, they are trying to fudge it and avoidboth complete neutrality andallying fully with Tehran. Are there any alternatives?Shortly after the beginning of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in early January, Russia declared its readiness to play a mediating role between Riyadh and Tehran.This would allow the Kremlin avoid a further diplomatic disaster and to burnish its image internationally. Sadly, the initiative has little chance of success: the Saudis simply do not trust Russia.Theyconsider it aloyal ally of Iran.Besides, Riyadh is interested in Tehran’s isolation, not its reintegration.

So Moscow must choose between two bad options– both of which involve losing investment and influence.

Initially published by Chatham House

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

Russia’s recently declared decision to lift the embargo on S-300 deliveries to Iran has a particular meaning and puts Moscow in the face of hard decisions to be made.

The term “S-300” - referring to long-range surface-to-air missile systems that have been in service since 1978 - has already become an international term of discord that appears regularly enough on the world agenda. .

The system has a next generation version, S-400, and an absolutely new version – S-500 – will reportedly soon be seen. Russia had signed a contract to deliver it to Iran in 2007. Then the delivery was cancelled. The official reason for this step was the sanctions imposed by a U.N. Security Council resolution. But several experts suggested that the true reason of the delay was Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow at that same time and his promise not to deliver arms to Georgia, as well as remarkable pressure from the U.S. Five years later and Russia has lifted the embargo, met with a controversial international reaction.

S-300, even being a rather old system and having an absolutely defensive design, could be a game changer in the geopolitical battles in the Middle East and over it. The possibility of Russia’s S-300 delivery to Syria was a matter of deep concern to the international community.

And even there is no proof of the S-300 delivery to the Syrian regime; a significant number of experts believe it is being delivered. Thus this uncertainty, besides other factors, has prevented the international community from the repetition of the Libyan scenario in Syria. 

The main player that opposes any S-300 delivery – is Israel, which believes that S-300 shipments will break the relative balance of forces existing in the region and will make it more vulnerable in the face of the Iranian threat. Saudi Arabia does not approve of the Russia’s decision as well. Russia’s support of Iran and condemnation of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen strains the country and aggravates the relations between the two powers. S-300 delivery causes strong debates in Europe and in the U.S., however the reaction coming from the White House was surprisingly calm, as Obama was “frankly surprised that it [the ban] held this long.”

To read the whole piece : 

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
Wednesday, 22 April 2015 03:07

Yemen: the motives of Saudi intervention

On the 26th of March 2015 Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen under the codename Decisive Storm. Fortunately, all the nine countries that allied with Saudi Arabia still remain passive members of the coalition. Adel A. Al-Jubeir, the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia in the US, made the first official announcement about the intervention. Some experts have noted that this “Storm” has just overthrown the mission of the UN Security Council in Yemen that was launched as far back as in 2011. The war was declared just in three days after the resolution of the Security Council of 22 March 2015, which expressed the firm conviction of the Council that the solution of Yemeni problems can be fount only through a peaceful, inclusive and structured process by the effort of the Yemeni themselves (United Nations S/PRST/2015/8, p. 2/3).

The US military take part in the united staff, and the forces of the coalition are under the command of Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the son of the King of Saudi Arabia and Minister of Defense. It is widely though that the results of war in Yemen will influence much the distribution of forces in the ruling dynasty. They also regard the war as a revenge for the defeats of Saudi military during the Saada wars in Yemen against the Hothis in 2004-1010, in which they secretly participated or were episodically involved for sure.

The invasion started by the request of the Yemeni President Hadi made on the 23d of March 2015. In his speech to Riyadh he asked to send rapid deployment forces “to offer the legitimate government of Yemen the required aid and to prevent a potential Houthi aggression against Aden city that was possible any time”. In the meantime Hadi asked to consider the situation in the country as a “coup” that was caused by the “pro-Iranian Houthis”.

 The oddity of such declaration hits the eye. During the last four years Yemen was under unprecedentedly close attention of the UN Security Council, which reacted to all the numerous movements within the country in a timely manner and in fact took care of the country all this time. The special counselor of the Secretary General of the UN Jamal Benomar has received a mandate to promote a peace plan created by Saudi Arabia (that turned troublesome though), and almost never left the country. The various participants of the extremely difficult process of peace settlement in Yemen were often criticized by the Security Council and they even violated the VII chapter of the UN Charter. This also refers to the Ansar Allah movement (the Houthis). The criticism by the Security Council in regard to the Yemeni peace settlement participants has become particularly harsh after the sudden victories gained by Ansar Allah over the pro-Saudi Salafiparty Al-Islah in September 2014. Then the framework of the new and sudden intrapolitical alliance between the Houthi and the block of ex-President Saleh who still controls the GPC - the leading party of the country, Parliament and the majority of the armed forces, has become evident. However the Security Council has not diagnosed a “coup”.

Till the beginning of the intervention there were ongoing peaceful inclusive negotiations in Sana under the aegis of the representative of the UN. What is more, in the period between the 22d of January and the 21st of February 2015 they were focused on the issue of the emergency filling of the vacuum of power that was created by the sudden simultaneous resignations of President Hadi and the Prime Minister Bahahon the 22d of January. The hopes that Hadi would revise his decision himself were so low that the Parliament did not even put his resignation upon approval! The President was left a right to determine his fate and this in fact allowed him to preserve his legitimacy after the 21st of February and after the move to Aden. But this happened in the same time when the Supreme revolutionary Council (SRC) and a number of other institutions of the half dead country were already created and when the parties of Sana dialogue have already prepared a package of  more fundamental  decisions to compensate for the resignations.

What was the real motivation for Hadi’s resignation? The answer to this question may throw a light on all the further chain of events. This was provoked by the active conflict of President Hadi with the leaders of Ansar Allah, that started on the 16th of January 2015, when the Houthis have blocked his attempts to launch a referendum on the project of a new constitution of Yemen without the right to make any amendments. In fact it was about a single statement that limited the number of the members of the federation that was being created. The Houthi have demanded a right to amend this statement, and the special councilor of the UN has finally recognized their right. The inflexible statement about the creation of six members of federation in Yemen could provoke new conflicts. The case is that the so-called “Hadi’s variant” adopted in February 2014 about six members, two of them on the South (Hadhramautand Aden) and four on the North (Al Janad, Tihamah, Azal and Saba) with a capital in Sana as a special federal district, has already caused much anxiety of the majority of the Yemeni political elites by its colossal separatist potential that can lead to the disintegration of the country into the rival fragments. But the most important thing is that this project was highly disapproved by the representatives of the South -  the Hirak. The “Hirak’s variant” renounced by Hadi supposed the creation of two iklims (regions) with wide autonomy rights in the geographic borders of The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen and Yemen Arab Republic of 1990. The same variant was supported be the YSP – the third most powerful party of the country.

An open discussion could ameliorate the known beforehand position of the South on such an important issue and decrease the separatist tendencies on the South. But it is not the only issue. While in the North the critics of “Hadi’s variant” stressed the inevitable increase of “regionalisms”, the South was sure that the project aims at the further divide of the ethnical and political unity in the South, that has emerged during the existence of PDRY, in order to open doors to the splitting “Hadhramaut” project in the interests of the Saudi Arabia, that was created as far back as in the 1960-ies.

Hadi’s move to Aden, unprecedented militarist rhetoric of the number of the Embassies towards the interim government that remained in Sana, were perceived by them as a signal about the transition to the practical realization of the splitting plans.

The situation has rapidly aggravated and put the country on the verge of civil war. Besides the tribal militias (lidjan al-Shaabi) the partisans of Hirak and the structures of Al-Qaeda turned out to be ready to oppose the alliance of Houthi with Saleh. But the tribal militias mobilized in Aden by president Hadi were mainly countered not by the Houthis, but by the regular units of Yemeni army and security forces loyal to Saleh. That is why the attacks of the new presidential coalition were aimed primarly on the military camps and armament warehouses on the South that represented the key to the defensive capabilities of the country. So, the movement of the Houthis to the South, along with the military reinforcements of Saleh, probably, should not be considered as their tactical mistake. Otherwise, the chance of capturing of the arsenals by Al-Qaeda could dramatically change the distribution of forces on the South and significantly increase the risks of a sectarian massacre on the much wider scale, ruining all the hopes of the Yemeni to create a civil and just country.

Published in Tribune
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