A decade ago, it was difficult to imagine a heated discussion on the growing role of Russia in the Middle East and in the world as a whole. However, today Russia successfully combines many roles: from that of a peacemaker to that of a power center, which many are interested in, and all the players are ready to talk to.
Over the past 18 years, the Doha Forum has attracted to the capital of Qatar leading regional players, as well as representatives of international organizations, expert and business communities. This year, the Russian expert community was represented for the first time, by the Valdai Discussion Club.
The numerous guests of the Club’s session, titled “Russia’s Evolving Global Role”, focused not only on the expected questions about Syria, but also on the prospects and future moves of Moscow in the region. As Vitaly Naumkin, Academic Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said, Russia returned to the region after the “coffee break” of the 1990s, and the difficulties it faced made its policy more efficient. Moreover, this return is justified not only by the fight against terrorism, but also by the fact that it is the Middle East that becomes the driver of changes of the global order.
Russia’s involvement is targeted, leaving room for maneuver. Russia is good at conducting dialogue with all the players in the region. But will it be able to keep it in the future? The pending Kurdish question and the chaotic moves of Donald Trump can complicate this interaction. In order to preserve and increase the assets accumulated in the region, it is necessary to develop the economic and cultural basis of cooperation.
According to Fahd bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the State of Qatar to the Russian Federation, trade and investment is the main tool enabling the parties to disregard the external turbulences. Qatar has already invested about $15 billion in the Russian economy, but this is not enough. Although relations between the two countries intensified in 2016 after Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s state visit, and the Russian media, such as RT Arabic, already compete with Al Jazeera, cultural and business contacts between the countries are still weak and vertical. Because of this, there are various kinds of misunderstandings and distortions.
Outlining the field for further development, the panelists highlighted the energy sector, which has a vast potential. Moreover, joint participation in infrastructure projects, including construction of transport corridors, will play an important role. Human contacts are becoming increasingly important.
Predictably, a lot of attention was paid to the US-Russian relations. Andrei Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), said that if Barack Obama as president hesitated to use military power in the region, Donald Trump has already done it twice. It only complicates the situation in Syria, where humanitarian issues come to the fore. The main problem today is not even the defeat of ISIS, but the return to normal civilized life of the people living there, above all the children who “were killing people and playing football with their heads.” Post-conflict reconstruction requires efforts of all the players involved, and this issue should not be politicized. The Istanbul Dialogue can be considered a successful example, thanks to which we managed to deescalate tensions in the Idlib region, he said.
The topic of Moscow’s further actions in the region caused a lively discussion. As the Russian participants explained, Russia has no desire to replace the United States or to be involved in various regional contradictions. Russia will not intervene in the conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and the parties themselves are unlikely to need such mediation.
Finally, the interaction between Russia and the United States continues to attract attention in the region, remaining a source of misunderstanding. According to Paul Saunders, Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest, in some areas, the US “overestimates” the power of Russia, for example, its “ability to influence political systems,” and in others, its role is underestimated. No country in the region wants to make a choice between the two powers, but all seek to benefit from interaction with them. That is why it would be more logical to solve the problems of such an “unpredictable” region together or at least using dialogue with each other.