Military Threats and Economic Opportunities: The Final Day of the Middle East Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club
Valdai Club Conference Hall, Tsvetnoy boulevard 16/1, Moscow, Russia

On Wednesday, February 14, 2024, the 13th Middle East Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club ended. Three sessions that day were held in a closed-door format.

During the fourth session of the conference, the experts discussed how state and non-state actors are changing the balance of power in the region. In recent years, more and more states in the Middle East have sought to gain strategic autonomy. Of course, Iran has been the most successful, having embraced an independent foreign policy more than four decades ago. A distinctive feature of the present time is the growing independence of countries that traditionally maintain close relations with the West. Perhaps the most striking example is Turkey, which is consistently building its position as a regional power.

In the security sphere, the country has relied on the creation of a high-tech military-industrial complex: once one of the largest importers of American weapons, it has now become a leading arms exporter, competing in many markets with traditional Western suppliers. If we talk about foreign policy, Ankara is engaged in the formation of flexible alliances on a wide range of issues under discussion. Realising the limitations of its capabilities and resources, it is moving towards reconciliation with countries it had had conflicts with in previous years, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. At the same time, ideologically, Turkey has asserted the primacy of its Islamic identity, which, in particular, has determined its policy regarding Israel and Palestine.

Another feature of the era is the blurring of boundaries between state and non-state actors. Thus, during the session, the phenomenon of the Ansarallah movement, which has provided more effective support for Gaza than most states in the region, was discussed in detail. At the same time, contrary to the claims of Western politicians and the media, a sharp drop in the volume of maritime traffic through the Suez Canal occurred not after Ansarallah’s actions against ships associated with Israel, but after the start of the US-UK operation against Yemen. This operation, according to one of the participants, could have far-reaching consequences, as it reignited intra-Yemeni contradictions, which had practically been resolved, and was launched without taking into account the opinions of the Arab countries most interested in the functioning of the sea route through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

During the fifth session, the participants tried to answer the question “is it possible for the Middle East to forsake nuclear weapons?” All discussions on this topic were based on the fact that there are nuclear weapons in the Middle East - and are at the disposal of Israel. According to most experts, the presence of a state with absolute military superiority is unacceptable and presents a key threat to the entire region. However, one of the participants noted that the Gulf countries have ignored this threat for too long, focusing instead on the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Iran began its nuclear programme even before the Islamic revolution and in close cooperation with Israel, which is often kept silent. Tehran has always assumed that it has every right to develop nuclear technology, but in the event of threats to national security, it can be switched to military purposes. However, this does not mean that Iran has decided to create nuclear weapons, one of the experts emphasised.

In general, the discussion about nuclear weapons in the Middle East is characterised by the application of double standards. The Western narrative considers the emergence of nuclear weapons in any country in the region as a security threat, other than Israel. Meanwhile, Israel is the only country with a full nuclear triad. The growing perception of Israel as a threat within the region could lead to the risk of Middle Eastern countries withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in the coming decades, one of the session participants noted.

The final session of the conference was devoted to the opportunities and obstacles which influence economic cooperation in the region. New opportunities for the development of trade and economic ties arose as a result of Russia’s “disconnection” from Western markets. Despite the difficulties created by the unilateral restrictive measures of Western countries, the states of the region remain Russia's key partners. A special role here is played by the United Arab Emirates, which is actively taking advantage of the opportunities that have opened up. There are trading and ship owning companies in the country that serve Russian oil exports; the UAE dinar is used in settlements between Russia and India. At the same time, the UAE acts in strict accordance with its national interests, one of the experts noted. The country's leadership is convinced that the policy of isolating anyone is futile and believes in economic connectivity. This is what dictated the decision on the UAE’s participation in the BRICS group, which is perceived as an economic association, and not a political bloc opposing itself to the West.

In general, Russia's growing economic presence in the Middle East is perceived positively. Experts noted that Russia does not monopolise its trade relationships with the Gulf countries, but connects the EAEU countries to them, which expands the geography of trade. At the same time, an obvious weakness of Russia’s economic interaction with the region is the lack of ties in the field of the knowledge economy. Scientific and technical cooperation, joint work in the field of high technology, and interaction in the field of education are necessary for Russia to have a full-fledged economic presence in the Middle East, experts stated.