During the nine months since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Kremlin has continued to maintain an active presence in the MENA region. During the special session of the UN General Assembly held on 2 March, 14 MENA countries voted in support of a resolution that denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanded the withdrawal of the Russian military. Meanwhile, one MENA country voted against the resolution, three abstained and one did not vote. Regional actors have primarily adopted a policy of hedging or "balancing adversaries," which was Moscow’s policy in most similar situations prior to the Ukraine war. Russia’s approach now appears to be paying dividends in the form of a relatively neutral response from the MENA region following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington recently argued, "most of the developing world in Asia and Africa, including the Middle East, has not viewed the Ukraine war as the kind of definitive, transformational moment in international relations that the West does." He added that these countries have instead prioritized their national interests. This is case with Saudi Arabia, which has adopted what Kristin Smith Diwan called a "new nationalist foreign policy."
Russia has maintained a military presence in the Middle East even during the Ukraine war, which has required it to redeploy some of its troops. It has also moved its air defence system out of Syria and withdrawn key barriers to Israeli military action in Syria. However, Russia continues to train Syrian forces. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has discussed the instability in southern Syria with his Jordanian counterpart, which demonstrates Russia’s considerable hard power resources in the Syrian war.
In some ways, the Ukraine war might even strengthen military collaboration between Russia and regional actors. For example, Lina Khatib of Chatham House has argued that Russia’s "partnership of convenience" with Iran has expanded into Ukraine. This is evidenced by Iran’s sale of drones to Russia and reported Iranian involvement on the ground in Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has warned that Iran could even supply Russia with ballistic missiles. Ellie Geranmayeh has also indicated in Foreign Policy that Saudi Arabia, which does not usually find itself on the same side as Iran, is now using its oil production in ways that "help keep Moscow solvent and inflict greater pain across Western capitals ahead of a cold winter," according to her words. These ways include the Saudi-led OPEC+ decision on 5 October 2022 to slash oil production by two million barrels per day, which Karen Young called "at once predictable and shocking" in Foreign Affairs. According to David Roberts of King’s College London, the OPEC+ decision went down "extremely poorly" in the US. However, from Moscow’s perspective, it indicates a helpful solidarity among OPEC+ partners.
For Moscow, the Ukraine war has created further areas of collaboration with the MENA region, such as food security. In 2021, the MENA region imported more than 36 million tons of wheat—almost 30% of worldwide wheat imports that year. Although Russia first pulled out of and then rejoined the "grain deal," these connections remain important and could be a decisive factor in Russia’s decision-making.
During the International Scientific and Practical Conference XVIII – Faizkhanov Readings, held recently in Moscow from 1 to 2 November 2022, opening remarks were delivered by Grand Mufti Shaykh Rawil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation and Chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia; and Professor Vitaly Naumkin, a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and senior political advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria since 2016. Both made reference during their remarks to President Putin’s speech at the Valdai Club. Professor Naumkin drew attention to the extraordinarily important place that Islam held during Putin’s speech. Naumkin also stated that BRICS (a bloc including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) was one of the most important frameworks in which Russia plays a leading role. He also indicated that it would not previously have been possible to imagine Saudi Arabia wanting to join BRICS, given Russia’s key role in the group, and that such a move required courage. Naumkin also made reference to Turkey, Egypt, and Nigeria and stated that the Islamic world had come to completely support Russia or, at the very least, had taken a neutral stance.
How long can Russia’s honeymoon continue? This depends on a number of factors, including what we might call the Washington factor: the status of relations between the US and regional actors, especially its traditional allies. As Geranmayeh wrote for Foreign Policy: "The US needs a new strategy to stop Saudi and Iranian support for Russia." In other words, it remains to be seen how Washington’s policies might shift towards stronger relations in the region—or not.
As Kristin Ulrichsen, Mark Finley, and Jim Krane have recently argued, Riyadh’s stance on the Ukraine war tested the traditional paradigm of "oil for security." However, a few days previous, Saudi Arabia had shared intelligence with the US warning of an imminent Iranian attack on targets in Saudi Arabia. This suggests that security remains a vital consideration for bilateral relations.
A second factor is the possibility of military confrontation between regional players such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, either directly or by proxy, which could also impact relations with Moscow. A third geopolitical factor is the outcome of the war in Ukraine and Russia’s standing afterwards. This will have multiple policy repercussions, depending on the nature of Russia’s grand strategy for the Ukraine war and its evolving role in the Middle East. In my opinion, Moscow’s continuing easternization is linked with its "no-limits" partnership with China, and to a lesser extent, India, which historically aligned itself with the UK.
If the Middle East is part of Russia’s grand strategy, what diplomatic moves will Russia make next? Will these be a continuation of Russia’s earlier "win-win" policies that sought to balance between all sides, or will the Kremlin adopt a more "zero-sum approach" alongside the lines of former USSR policy?
In other words, a fourth factor might be finding a specific place for the Middle East in Russia’s grand strategy and deploying diplomatic tools to maintain close collaboration. A fifth factor is Russia’s military presence in the region, which has thus far been expanding. Again, the question will be to what extent Moscow is be able to keep an active military presence in Syria and Libya while it is fighting in Ukraine. Russia’s increased domestic mobilization arguably indicates that it is running into the limitations of its soldiers and manpower. Will Russia be able to maintain the same level of military presence in the MENA region? Since Russia’s priority is currently the Ukraine war, it may need to gradually withdraw from Syria.
Finally, a sixth factor is whether Russia will prioritize its hard power resources in dealing with the MENA region, i.e., through military and economic engagements, or whether it will follow a "smart" policy, namely, of introducing collaborations of hard and soft power initiatives to the region. For example, focusing on Islam and shared Islamic identities has been a growing aspect of Moscow’s foreign policy. Engagement with Muslim communities in the region is likely to have played a significant role in the MENA region’s neutral response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, but to what extent will these dynamics shape Russian policy as a whole?
There are ongoing interactions between Russia’s Muslim population and the broader Muslim world, but Russia will need to produce specific outcomes. This could include focusing on Islamic banking and finance as an alternative to Western sanctions. The first step here would be to adopt federal laws pertaining to Islamic banking and finance. The MENA region remains crucial to Russia for energy and security reasons, but even now many questions and uncertainties remain. Much depends on the short-, medium-, and long-term outcomes of the Ukraine war with regard to Moscow’s presence and future role in the Middle East.