Russia’s Geopolitical Prospects in the Middle East
by Salman Rafi Sheikh on 22 Mar 2024 0 Comment

With Russia able to withstand – and virtually defeat – the combined military strength of NATO in Ukraine, its foreign policy and its diplomatic outreach to the rest of the world is bound to gain not only confidence but also become a lot more assertive than it was during the first year of this conflict when Washington launched its so-called “isolate Russia” project. Translating its military gains in Ukraine, Moscow, for instance, recently hosted Palestinian factions to unify them not only for a durable solution to the longest-lasting conflict in the Middle East but also for developing a strong position vis-à-vis Israel.


This approach towards Palestine – which also exhibits a visible anti-Israel position – is directly motivated by Moscow’s broad Middle East outreach at a time when the political opinion in the region has turned against Israel and Washington, leaving Israel virtually isolated despite having established ties with several Muslim states in the recent past.


At the same time, this opinion has also become more favourable towards Russia. A recent survey by the Washington Institute showed that a majority of respondents in the UAE (66%), Saudi Arabia (67%), Kuwait (62%), Egypt (57%), Bahrain (68%), Qatar (63%), and Lebanon (72%) agree that the US is no longer a reliable partner and that the Middle Eastern countries “must look more to other nations like Russia and China as partners”.


On top of that is the strong credentials Moscow carries as a security guarantor. Since at least the end of the Cold War, Washington has dominated the region as its key security guarantor, both through its direct military presence and its supply, i.e., sale, of weapons worth billions of dollars to the region. But Moscow dismissed Washington’s dominance via the key role it played in Syria to defeat the US-backed “regime change” operation.


Subsequently, it has been successful in helping Syria’s relations with several Arab states, including Saudi and the UAE, to become normal. Moscow, in other words, was successful in translating its military gains into diplomatic victories by becoming a peacemaker in the Middle East. Washington, on the other hand, has not been able to bring peace to the Middle East and/or prevent Israel from committing genocide.


Russia’s Middle Eastern forays are, therefore, in part motivated by Washington’s failures. At the same time, Russia also sees itself as a great military power and a great power needs to have a strong foothold – which does not have to be a military presence – in the region.


If the ultimate objective of any superpower policy is to advance its core interests, non-military means can be very useful too. In the recent past, Russia’s engagement with several Middle Eastern states via the OPEC+ framework has served its key interests well. Via OPEC+, Russia has been able to not only withstand a US-led assault on its economy but also inflict a lot of economic damage on the Western economy. Washington’s inability to break OPEC+ has led to a high inflation rate throughout Europe and North America.


While a lot of Russian ability to accomplish this depended upon the cooperation of other OPEC countries, the latter, including Saudi Arabia, also see Russia as an alternative to Washington. Plus, the partnership with Russia is also paying off. Despite a global growth rate of less than 3 per cent in 2023, Saudi’s Aramco earned US$121 billion in 2023, thanks to the careful management of oil supply and prices.


Turkey is another major player in the Middle East that continues to have strong ties with Russia, primarily because of the ways that these ties serve mutual interests. The trade turnover between them increased by more than 80 per cent in 2022 to reach US$62 billion. Russia is already Turkey’s biggest source of imports. But this relationship is not costly. On the contrary, Turkey saved US$2 billion on oil imports from Russia by purchasing discounted oil. Ankara was able to do this because it refused to join the US-led regime of sanctions on Russia.


As a result, Russia became Turkey’s biggest supplier of energy in 2023. In 2023, Turkey imported 49.93% of its oil from Russia. A year earlier, the share of Russian oil in the Turkish market was 40.74%. Due to this, the US has been trying for the past few months to impose fresh sanctions on Russia to make Turkey-Russia difficult. But whether it will have any real impact is not hard to guess due to the increasing availability of alternative channels, i.e., using Central Asian States, to conduct trade and transfer payments.


Still, US efforts to put restrictions on entities from Russia and the Middle East to prevent them from doing trade with Russia itself shows the success Russia has achieved in the Middle East. The US fears that if Russia, like China, continues to expand its relationship with this energy-rich region, it could accelerate US exit from the region, leaving Washington’s efforts to revamp its ties, including via offering strategic defence partnerships to countries like Saudi Arabia, meaningless vis-à-vis Russia.


If even, speaking of a hypothetical scenario, the political opinion in the Middle East were to see a dramatic change to become pro-US, it does not mean an ‘end’ of Russia’s presence in, and relationship with, the Middle East. A core reason for this is the Middle Eastern states’ own desire to reposition themselves in the emerging global order as autonomous players capable of influencing global politics – something that these states can accomplish by, first and foremost, diversifying their foreign policy and reducing, if not fully eliminating, their historical dependence on the US.


In this sense, Russia’s engagement with the Middle East is not simply a short-term phenomenon that would just die out the moment Washington offers a deal to the Gulf states that they cannot refuse. It is here to stay, with its prospects of growing brighter than ever.


Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.” Courtesy 

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