Multipolarity and Connectivity
Russia and the Arab World: A New Paradigm of Cooperation?

The attractiveness of cooperation with Russia in the eyes of the elites of Arab countries and the GCC monarchies is associated with the process of sovereignisation of their foreign policy at the stage of transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world, Igor Matveev writes.

Despite the efforts of the collective West to tighten sanctions pressure on the Russian Federation and thereby ensure its maximum isolation in the international arena, the year 2023 was marked by a whole series of events which underscored that the opposite is happening.

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (June 14-17) was attended by UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahya and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, while the Second Russia-Africa Summit (July 27-28) welcomed Egyptian President Al-Sisi, Libyan Presidential Council Chairman Al-Manfi and Comoros President Assoumani. A logical continuation of the Russian-Arab dialogues took place at the highest level during Vladimir Putin’s working blitz visits to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh (December 6). His meeting with Omani Crown Prince Theyazin bin Haitham Al Said, Minister of Youth, Culture and Sports, at the “Russia Calling!” forum (December 7), took place in an emphatically friendly atmosphere. Russia watchers at the American publication “The Hill”, which is close to the White House and the Capitol, were forced to admit the inability of the United States and its allies to completely isolate the Russian leader, while the Qatari TV channel Al-Jazeera noted the successful strengthening of Moscow’s partnerships with the Arab monarchies in defiance of Western pressure, specifically mentioning that UAE leader Al Nahyan had called Vladimir Putin “dear friend.”

The practical results of Russian-Arab cooperation for 2023 were summed up during the sixth session of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum, which took place in Marrakech, Morocco, on December 20, under the chairmanship of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita. It was attended via video link by Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, as well as the heads of the foreign ministries of Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Qatar, Lebanon, Mauritania, the UAE, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, the Comoros, and Somalia. More importantly, it was possible for attendees to synchronise watches and outline specific areas of political coordination (including in the UN Security Council), as well as discuss regional conflicts and crises (Gaza, Yemen, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan) and modalities for confronting common challenges (the imperatives of sustainable development assistance, interaction in the use of transboundary rivers, maritime navigation and energy supply, counter-terrorism, the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the safe use of information and communication technologies). All the agreements were mentioned in the Final Declaration of the sixth session of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum at the ministerial level. 

The active dynamics and complex nature of Russian-Arab cooperation determine the need for domestic academics and experts to study not only the applied, but also the ideological and theoretical foundations (that is, an in-depth analysis) of the new “rules of the game” (paradigms) at this stage of the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world, which entails another wave of the struggle of the “Global South” against neo-colonialism and the sovereignisation of the foreign policy of many Arab League countries. The recommendations would make it possible to specify the optimal ways to implement the provisions of the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation dedicated to the Middle East, approved by the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of March 31, 2023 No. 229 (paragraphs 56-1, 56-2, 56-5 of the “Islamic World” section), making a reasoned conclusion in favour of the advisability of developing pragmatic approaches based on the principle of changing alliances, or revising the entire paradigm of “Russia – Arab world” relations, taking into account both previous Soviet/Russian experience and changing historical realities.

It is advisable to begin such an analysis with a brief overview of the historically established similarities in the ideological perception in Russia and the Arab world of discourses regarding unity and irredentism. These, in turn, make it possible to understand the reasons for the more than restrained – to the displeasure of the West – reaction of the Arabs to the Russian Special military operation in Ukraine and to Western sanctions against Moscow. Since the Middle Ages and in modern times, when major powers – the caliphates and the Ottoman Empire – replaced each other in the Arab world, and the gigantic Russian Empire arose in Eurasia, national narratives protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity were embodied respectively in the ideas of Islamism/Ottomanism and in Slavophilism/Pan-Slavism.

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In modern times, especially during the Cold War era, these narratives were transformed first into discourses of pan-Arabism/Arab nationalism and proletarian internationalism, which in turn were reflected in the secular ideologies of Arab revivalism (Baathism) in Syria and Iraq, Nasserism in Egypt and Marxism-Leninism in the USSR. At the same time, the fundamental concepts of the “Arab fatherland” (al-watan al-arabiy), the Arab nation (umma arabiya), national (qaumiya) and country (kutriy) largely echoed the Soviet concept of the “Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics”, and later the “Russian world”. The main slogans of Arab nationalists in the second half of the 20th century were “The Arab nation is united, its mission is immortal” and “Unity, freedom, socialism,” which justified the irredentist aspirations of a number of Arab powers, for example, the actions of Syria in neighbouring “brotherly” Lebanon, where Syrian troops were constantly deployed in 1976-2005 (this intervention was called the “Assad Doctrine” – named after the then-Syrian President Hafez Assad and based on the “one people in two states” formula).

It is characteristic that unifying narratives in the Arab environment turned out to be tenacious, surviving even after the collapse of the USSR and the bipolar system of international relations, when, in a vacuum of ideologies, secularism was replaced by Islamic irredentism, which in some cases acquired extreme radical forms (like ISIS and Al-Qaeda – organisations banned in the Russian Federation) under the slogans of the artificial archaisation of Islam – an imaginary return to the “golden age” of Islam during the early medieval Arab caliphates. It’s not for nothing that ISIS members called their 2014-2018 “quasi-state” in everyday life in Iraq and Syria the “caliphate”

It’s no wonder, that in light of the above, many representatives of the political, business and public circles of the Arab League countries, in conversations with the author of the article, reacted with understanding to the Russian operation in Ukraine, dismissing Western accusations of Moscow’s “imperial ambitions”. At the same time, the integration aspirations of Russia in the post-Soviet space (within the framework of the Union State with Belarus, the CSTO, the EAEU, and the CIS) are viewed by the Arabs in the context of their own experience creating unified states (a striking example is the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria in 1958-1961) and subregional organizations (such as the GCC). This circumstance, going beyond the framework of pure pragmatism and “tactical alliances”, fits into the mainstream of the long-term rules of the game, that is, precisely the paradigm.

Another cementing point is that Russia and the Arab world face common challenges. In the sphere of national security, we are talking about the threats of terrorism, Islamic radicalism, and multiple (both frozen and hot) regional conflicts in the post-Soviet space and in the Middle East and North Africa. A similar political challenge is the hegemony of the United States and the neocolonialism of the West, which are manifested, on the one hand, in the West’s attempts to isolate Russia in the international arena, and, on the other, in attempts at political dictatorship and interference by Western powers in the internal affairs of Arab states. Regarding the economy, Arab elites (in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Sudan) are familiar with Western sanctions and embargoes first-hand, and as a result, they negatively assess the use of similar punitive measures against Russia.

Even elites in US-allied states such as Egypt (where the US embassy issued a demonstration alert in October 2023) or the Gulf monarchies are forced to take into account the sharp increase in anti-American sentiment within the “Arab street” movements against the background of the current round of escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, declaring the need to protect their own identities (Arabic: hawiyyat) from the cultural expansion of the West. Arab political scientists recall in this regard the desire of the collective West to drain Russia through a “proxy war” in Ukraine, by undermining its international and regional influence.

The third point that increases the attractiveness of cooperation with Russia in the eyes of the elites of Arab countries and the GCC monarchies is associated with the process of sovereignisation of their foreign policy at the stage of transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world. It is this phenomenon that is responsible for the steadily growing interest of Arabs in Eurasia and the SCO (works devoted to Eurasian topics are regularly published, for example, Amal Zarniz’s book “New Eurasia and its influence on strategic thinking in Russia,” published in 2022 at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies).

In this regard, priority attention in the GCC states is given to solving issues related to attracting the technological potential of the Russian Federation to the implementation of ambitious national programs for sustainable development and building innovative “economies of the 21st century.” Thus, according to available information, Russia could participate in the implementation of tasks in at least three of the six main directions of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” strategy in the UAE (defence, commercial space exploration, and the creation of a secure cyberspace). Moreover, it is not without reason that the Arabs count on more profitable cooperation algorithms compared to the usual Western schemes (joint R&D within the framework of offset contacts or the launch of joint projects to create export products with subsequent sales to third countries, for example, East Africa). Russia also has reserves in terms of strengthening the food security of Arab countries in order to prevent the emergence of new “hotbeds of hunger” in the context of logistics supply chains for food supplies from the Black Sea region which have been disrupted by the Ukrainian crisis.

To summarise, we should recognise the objective – despite the opposition of the West – fact of the formation of a new paradigm of Russia – Arab world relations. The following can be identified as its main features:

  • the perception by Russia and Arab countries of the modern transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world as a main and inevitable historical process;
  • the presence of common challenges associated with globalisation, unequal relations between the West and the states of the Global South, and the unfair division of labour in the global economy;
  • the second wave of decolonisation (rejection of neo-colonialism and Western hegemony led by the United States); the desire of Russia and the Arabs to strengthen state independence, ensure an independent role in international affairs, genuine political, achieve economic and technological sovereignty; protect national identity, information and cultural security; 
  • the presence of broad horizons for intensifying political dialogue and diplomatic coordination, expanding equal and mutually beneficial trade, economic, investment and technological cooperation (in Soviet times, foreign projects were usually costly, bringing political dividends to Moscow; the Arabs have not forgotten this, often perceiving Russia as a semblance of the USSR).

Such conditions, as already noted, increase the importance of expert interaction between think tanks in Russia and the Arab League countries in the formation of a long-term substantive agenda for bilateral and multilateral relations. This would make it possible to strengthen Russia’s role in a multipolar world and in the Middle East, overcoming the negative consequences of Western sanctions and turning our country into one of the poles of influence. At the same time, priority tasks would be solved to provide diversified external sources of investment and finance for the progressive development of the Russian economy and the implementation of scientific and technological progress.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.