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Weary of “hegemon”: Arab states of Middle East and Russia

Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Photo by the Kremlin press office

As Russia is gaining more sympathy in the Middle East, the leaders of the three Arab states visit Moscow to attend the 12th International Aviation and Space Salon MAKS-2015 aerospace show.

This year, the salon became a peculiar test for the West’s efforts to stonewall Russia in the international arena. The United States and their Euro-Atlantic allies failed their transitional “test” for isolation of Russia. They could made sure of their failure not only because the Middle East delegation actively participated in the aerospace show. Even the U.S. and European aircraft corporation ignored the calls of their politicians and exhibited their aircraft models at the show in Zhukovsky, near Moscow. What created a true sensation in the West were the open trust relationships of the Arab states and Russia. 

It appears that U.S. derived consolation from the thought that King Salman of Saudi Arabia did not arrive in Moscow, though his visit was anticipated till the last moment.  Earlier, in the spring, referring to the domestic affairs and the ongoing armed conflict with Yemen, the monarch rejected President Barack Obama’s invitation to the Camp David Summit with the Persian Gulf states. The Arab leaders won’t dare to neglect their American partner, but the game in the Middle East continues on the rules that may lead to such demonstrative diplomatic demarches against the United States, though not now.  King Salman decided to make his first overseas visit after enthronement to Washington, and postponed the visit to Moscow until autumn.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, King of Jordan Abdullah II, and Crown Prince of Abu-Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan have repeatedly paid both working and official visits to Moscow. Crown Prince Al Nahyan, who is also Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has admitted that sometimes he contacts the Russian leadership even more frequently than the ruling families and governments in the Middle East.

The Egyptian president visits Russia for the third time already. Cairo and Moscow are about to sign agreements to launch a large-scale energy project. Rosatom looks to build the first two nuclear power units for Egypt in el Dabaa, on the Mediterranean coast.  Jordan has also expressed a preliminary agreement to create its first nuclear power capacities in cooperation with Russia.  Rich in oil UAE has no such plans, as unlike Egypt and Jordan, the Emirates have no idea what the energy crisis is. Nevertheless, Russia has found a common language with the UAE around a broad spectrum of economic issues.

Russia’s relations with Jordan and Egypt are open and in plain sight. These are traditionally friendly relations that are growing into a strategic partnership year-by-year. As to the UAE, despite its not large territory and geographical proximity to U.S., which has several big military facilities there, the Emirates are of utmost interest for Russia.  That country is under high influence of Saudi Arabia. The UAE authorities supported all the latest initiatives of Al Riyadh, whether it was establishment of a common market of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, formation of the united armed forces of the Aram states, or involvement in the air strikes against targets of Hussites in Yemen. At the same time, they managed to maintain smooth relations with Iran, without confronting with that Shia superpower, which Saudis have managed to do with great difficulty. 

However, Russia and UAE are still far for mutual understanding when it comes to Syria – one of the most painful issues for the Middle East. On this diplomatic front, the UAE takes its lead from Saudi Arabia, which is extremely selective in supporting Russia’s initiatives on Syria.  For instance, unlike the Egyptian leader, the UAE leadership so far cannot afford calls to support Moscow’s idea to set up a single front against the “Islamic State.” However, Russia’s approaches to the settlement of the acute problems in the Middle East gradually reach the corridors of power in the United Arab Emirates.

Russia and UAE have decided to focus on the development of the trade and economic and investments relations, simultaneously looking for new areas of interstate cooperation, for instance, in the military-technical field.

Over the last five years, the commodity turnover between the countries grew manifold, with the investment cooperation expanding actively.  “We trust highly in our investment funds,” President Vladimir Putin said when receiving Crown Prince al Nahyan in October 2014. In response to such praiseful words, the future head of the UAE recalled the “preferential relations” of his country and Russia.

The Negotiations for UAE’s participation in the construction of the High-Speed Central Ring Road (SCAD) of Russia are nearing completion. In May 2015, it became known that the Russian Direct Investment Fund agreed with the Middle East investors to create a joint investment fund. The fund is being established with Arab financial organizations from the UAE and Egypt to fund large-scale joint projects in the field of industry and agriculture.  The authorities and business of the Emirates are ready to provide nearly $7 billion for investment projects in Russia.

Similar initiatives of Moscow and Al Riyadh were not long in coming either.  After the headline-making visit of Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman (son of King Salman) and his representative delegation to St. Petersburg on June 18, it was announced that Saudi Arabia has big investments plans in the Russian market. Saudi Arabia is ready to invest is the SKAD project even by $3 billion more than the UAE promised to do. Actually, the Saudis have announced a $10billion investment package.

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These future investments are not the only thing behind the upward trends in Russia’s relations with the leading Arab states of the Middle East. It is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia and the UAE act jointly in almost all the business projects involving the sovereign funds of the Arabian monarchies.  In addition, in the field economic cooperation, they attract the Egyptian state and private sectors to some versatile projects. Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship gradually comes to financing of Egypt’s defense projects too.  It is of utmost interest for the Saudis to arm and equip Egypt up to the state of art. Providing Egypt with loans or grants to help it buy Russian weapons is quite a pragmatic option for Al Riyadh’s plans to establish united Arab rapid response forces in the region. Russia’s arms and equipment can be delivered to Arab clients promptly without any red tape. Meanwhile, contracts with U.S. are coordinated in the “White House-Pentagon-Congress” triangle for an inadmissibly long period. To make sure how sluggish the United States is, recall the Iraqis who bumped up against its sluggishness even in the summer of 2014 when the “Islamic States” militants planned time-urgent attack on Baghdad.

Recently Bloomberg has reported that UAE has about $1.1 trillion gold and foreign currency reserves. It is noteworthy that the sovereign bonds of the Emirates are nearly twice as much as the financial safety cushion of Saudi Arabia.  The largest monarchy of the Middle East with a population of 30 million people has already faced deficit of liquidity, began to search for additional funds to keep the large-scale internal social projects at the same level.

The Russia-UAE cooperation and the anticipated Russia-Saudi Arabia partnership may develop in the military-technical field too.  Rosoboronexport, the Russian largest arms exporting firm, continues negotiating with the UAE for possible joint development and production of military goods.  

At IDEX 2015 Exhibition in February in Abu Dhabi, Minister of Industry and Trade of Russia Denis Manturov said Russia jointly with the UAE will be developing a 57-mm artillery system A-220. Russia will not just deliver arms to the UAE, the two countries will create JVs, launch joint production, the Russian minister explained then.

Russia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf have chosen a pragmatic course of development of their relations. These countries decided to soften the foreign policy disagreements over some problems in the region by means of joint economic projects based on their national interests, of course.  The formula of the Arabs states “Bashar al Assad has no political future in new Syria” keeps impeding Moscow’s rapprochement with the Arab capital cities. Yet, pragmatism prevails over other issues and the countries gradually pave the way for rapprochement in other “hot spots” of the Middle East.

In this light, the visit of UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Moscow on May 28 was quite noticeable.  The National, the government-owned English-language daily newspaper in the UAE, addressed the diplomatic contact of Russia and the UAE saying the countries’ positions on important issues coincide in several regions (1). In the poorest countries of the Arabian Peninsula – Yemen – where the armed forces and security services of the UAE are directly involved in the civil war, Moscow and Abu-Dhabi call for ceasefire and a dialogue for national reconciliation. The two countries support the acknowledged government of Libya with the forces of General Khalifa Haftar deployed in Tobruk, in the east of the country. Moscow and Abu-Dhabi cooperate also in such issues as the fight against the “Islamic State” in Iraq, prevention of a governmental crisis in Lebanon, and support to Egypt and Jordan in the fight against internal religious extremism.

Arab countries have turned to Moscow, as they understand through insight the need to balance their relations with U.S. through boosting the military-political and economic ties with Russia. The policy of the intruder “hegemon” has fairly annoyed everyone. Yet, the Middle East countries understand that it is impossible to refuse from the partnership with U.S. in the security field at once. Anyway, when U.S. brings the fight against the “Islamic State” and the “threats” emerging from Russia at the same level, even its closets partners in the Middle East do not support it. Quite the contrary, they do not consider Russia as a source of threat, but a global actor they need to establish a constructive dialogue with and not to yield to the West’s provocations and attempts to isolate Moscow.

As many Middle –East experts write about the current stage of relations of the Aram world with Russia and U.S., a serious revaluation, a peculiar “inventory” of the relations with the power centers outside the region is going on. The analysts and politicians in the region more and more think over the following. Several U.S. military bases in the region, dozens of NASA satellites over the Greater Middle East, and other attributes of the “hegemon’s” power did not save the region from the Jihadists. Quite the contrary, all this has numbed the sense of self-preservation of the regional powers. In other words, not only the Middle East allies of U.S. have cast doubt on its almightiness, but also have got strong suspicions that the “hegemon” plays double game. The United States welcomed warmly the “Arab spring” – a bundle of geopolitical chaos affected the stability of all the regimes in the region. U.S. more and more intrigues with its relations with Iran. UK, France, and Germany did the same. Only Russia has preserved its course, not letting its Middle East partners think that it lacks principles, and has lightweight attitude to the strategic goal of the Arab world to achieve some stability at the height of the West-provoked chaos.

 (1) UAE and Russia have a bond that will only grow stronger // The National, June 4, 2015.

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