Middle East Powers: Reclaiming Agency in World Affairs
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Tsvetnoy Boulevard 16/1, Moscow, Russia

On Wednesday, March 1, the 12th Middle East Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club ended. During the final day of the conference, the participants discussed the most important trends in the energy sector and the foreign policy priorities of the key countries in the Middle East.

Konstantin Simonov, moderator of the session “Key Energy Trends: OPEC+, Russia’s Role, Reformatting the Global Market”, said that Russia, faced with the price threshold for oil, has responded well to the imposed restrictions, and cooperation within OPEC+ is very important for it. He invited the speakers to discuss the future of the oil deal, as well as answer the question why the countries of the Middle East do not seek to replace Russian suppliers in Western European markets, but enter into schemes to help Russia sell its oil.

Haila Al-Mekaimi, Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University, noted that the Gulf states’ relationship with Russia is not limited to the energy market. These countries are determined to maintain a balance in their policies, including in relation to the Ukrainian crisis, and to maintain the stability of the energy market. Meanwhile, the Western states in 2022 did everything to disrupt this stability. Energy consumption has increased and prices have risen, which affects energy and food security. The question of how Europe should balance its energy security with the requirements of a green agenda remains open. In the meantime, the demand for fossil fuels (including coal, which is a new factor) not only remains, but is growing.

According to Marcel Salikhov, president of the Institute of Energy and Finance, Russia and the West are waging an “energy war” in which both sides are showing more resilience than expected. Oil production in Russia is not only declining, but growing, and European markets have managed to adapt to the reduction in gas supplies from Russia. The reason is that the market mechanisms work; the market and the oil industry have adapted to the new conditions. It turned out that those countries that the West traditionally perceives as “not pro-market enough” rely on market instruments, while the West itself resorts to non-market measures – sanctions, embargoes, the nationalisation of assets, etc. None of this goes unnoticed in hydrocarbon-producing countries.

This was confirmed by Mohammed Ihsan, visiting senior fellow at King’s College, London. According to him, the countries of the Middle East do not necessarily support Russia in its conflict with the West: they first of all protect themselves, and this is interpreted by the West as support and causes more pressure. The conflict in Ukraine and its international consequences have allowed the OPEC countries to reclaim their sovereignty, Ihsan believes.

Abdullah Al-Faraj, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies (Saudi Arabia), shared his vision of the OPEC+ deal. According to him, today the share of oil in the world energy balance is 29%, and by 2050 it will drop to 24%. This means that the OPEC+ group will be able to play an important role in the energy market in the next couple of decades. As for the policies of Saudi Arabia, they are unwavering: the country strives to ensure its own interests above all else.

When asked about how Russia is dealing with the Western embargo on its oil, Pavel Sorokin, First Deputy Minister of Energy of the Russian Federation, stressed that most of the world does not accept the imposed restrictions. There is a clear market for Russian oil products, but it has been redistrubuted. Demand for traditional energy resources not only remains at sub-standard levels, but is also growing. Therefore, the mission of ensuring a sufficient energy supply on the horizon of 15-20 years falls on the shoulders of OPEC+. Producer countries also face a new challenge: ensuring technological sovereignty. It is only possible to achieve independence in key technologies through cooperation, the Deputy Minister emphasised. The same applies to the service infrastructure (including financial services and consulting).

The last session of the conference was devoted to the growing agency of the countries of the Middle East and their foreign policy priorities. Perhaps the most striking example of a successful multi-vector policy in the region is Turkey. Hasan Unal, a professor at Maltepe University, noted that the main characteristic of his country’s foreign policy over the past few years has been an attempt to reformat its foreign policy interests. Today, Turkey feels politically closer to Russia than to the United States, but at the same time recognizes that the United States remains one of the most powerful nations in the world. Ankara is trying to balance its relations with the West, but has not rolled out sanctions against Russia, and at the same time is in contact with Kiev, seeking to play the role of a mediator in the Ukrainian conflict.

The rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is not an accident, Unal stressed: this is what is dictated by the multi-polarity of the world order. Today, there are more opportunities that can benefit both Russia and Turkey, despite the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO.

A similar approach is typical for other countries in the region. Akram Kharief, editor-in-chief of the MENADEFENSE information portal (Algeria), emphasized that the strategy of maintaining relations with all world centres of power, despite the pressure of the West, prevails in North Africa. He urged Russia to play a more active role in the region, expanding its presence in the Algerian oil and gas market and in the cultural sphere, as well as enhancing the tourist sector.

John Gong (China), professor of economics at the University of International Business and Economics, commented on the position of the West and non-West in relation to the conflict in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. The US argument that it is a conflict between autocracy and democracy is absolutely untrue, he said. According to him, most of the countries of the Global South (including the countries of the Middle East) did not support the sanctions. China believes that many people could die from the sanctions imposed by the West against Russia (for example, in Africa), since Russia is one of the largest suppliers of grain and mineral fertilizers.

The Middle East has been a bridge for the United States to reach China, according to Lebanese presidential adviser Amal Abu Zeid. Today, the region is declaring its self-worth. The Ukrainian crisis made it possible to reconsider the balance in the international arena and create prerequisites for the establishment of new rules for resolving international conflicts. Russia has made efforts to overcome US hegemony and move towards a multipolar world. Russia’s reorientation to the East is a sign of the end of liberal hegemony; today we can observe the emergence of a new Greater Eurasia, he stressed.

Anwar Abdulhadi, director of the political department of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, spoke in a similar vein. According to him, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the balance in the world was disturbed, and the United States began to lead the world by force, coercion and hegemony. The conflict in Ukraine is in fact a war between Russia and the collective West. Most countries in the world would prefer a new world order that does not feature the hegemony of the United States, which is the historical enemy of the Middle East, he stressed.