Russia’s Middle East Resurgence Isn’t Just About the Money

Vladimir Putin

By Samuel Ramani and Theodore Karasik

Russian foreign policy had a Great October. Last month, Russia brokered a safe zone agreement with Turkey in northern Syria, watched its President Vladimir Putin be feted as a global statesman in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and hosted a historic gathering of African leaders in Sochi. The profound impact of these developments on the geopolitical balance in the Middle East and North Africa has gained considerable attention within the analytical community, but the true significance of Russia’s power projection efforts has been obscured by an overwhelming focus on transactional factors, such as economic deals and arms contracts.

The compilation of these transactional factors into rentier explanations, which populate the discourse on Russia’s policy towards the Middle East and North Africa, reflects a broader misuse of rentierism as an explanatory tool. Rentier theories can be extremely useful for economists, as they allow for effective prognostications about economic development and help construct sustainable growth models. An over-reliance on rentierism causes historical legacies and ideational links, which shape Russian foreign policy, to be erroneously cast aside, and presents a state-centric presentation of economic partnerships, which neglects sub-state economic relations and multilateral institutions.

In examinations of Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East, the concept of Russkiy Mir, which views the Near East (Blizhnii Vostok) as a zone of special interest, is routinely ignored by Western analysts. Russia’s paternalistic attitude towards the Near East profoundly impacts Russia’s soft power promotion and choice of partners in the region. Much like how the Kremlin emphasizes the importance of establishing relationships with ethnic Russians abroad, the Russian Muslim community has close bonds of cohesion with Islamic organizations in the Middle East, which strengthen state-level diplomatic relationships.   

The common definitions of Sunni Islamism reached between Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov and the UAE’s Tabah Foundation at the December 2016 Grozny Conference, which caused both delegations to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism from their respective Islamic communities, strengthened the Moscow-Abu Dhabi partnership. Synergies between the official definitions of tolerance of Sufis in Chechnya and the UAE’s secular system further illustrate the potential to create foundations for successful diplomacy. This diplomatic impact is demonstrated by the close personal relationship between Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Kadyrov. This partnership has facilitated efforts by both Russia and the UAE to spread their respective interpretations of moderate Islam.

The development of a “fraternal relationship” between Chechnya and Saudi Arabia, helped forge critical inter-communal relationships between the Russian and Saudi Islamic communities, even when Moscow and Riyadh were openly clashing over Syria. Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League outreach campaign, which target various Russian cities, further strengthens the cultural bonds that undergird Moscow and Riyadh, and this translates to the broader bilateral partnership.

Historical factors and ideational links should also not be ignored in an examination of Russia’s outreach to Africa. Due to the Soviet Union’s resistance to European colonialism and strident criticisms of its Cold war-era vestiges, like apartheid in South Africa, Moscow has intrinsic credibility as a partner against what many African leaders view to be the scourge of U.S. hegemony. References to Russia as an anti-imperial force by African leaders—like Angolan President Joao Lourenco’s reminiscences at the 2018 BRICS summit about Moscow’s support for his country’s national liberation movement against apartheid South Africa—underscore the enduring relevance of these historical legacies. The willingness of countries, like Nigeria and South Africa, to purchase Russian arms and cooperate with Moscow on weapons system development, in spite of the risk of retaliatory U.S. sanctions, is facilitated by these bonds of trust. Joint military exercises, like the Russia-China-South Africa naval drill near Pretoria’s Simon’s Town on October 21 suggest that there are grounds for multilateral security cooperation involving Russia and African states, which are entirely overlooked by rentier theories. 

In the economic sphere, the over-reliance of rentier theories on official trade statistics promotes a state-centric bias that misses crucial predictive indicators. Divergent conceptions of sovereignty between Western countries, and other regions, like Russia, the Middle East and Africa, ensure that the complete scope of financial activity is often overlooked. The true economic foundations of Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East and Africa can be examined through an analysis of gray zone and informal trade links that cannot be found in open source material. For instance, a few years ago it was apparent that an extensive amount of capital was being funneled from an Abu Dhabi-based subsidiary to Russia to pay for Egypt’s weapons. The movement of capital associated with these transactions is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. These money transfers are overlooked in Russia-UAE official trade statistics, and this gray zone issue is a major example of the deficiencies of rentierism-based examinations of financial inflows and outflows.

Russia’s involvement in BRICS is another economic dimension that is inadequately explained by rentier theories, as the relationships forged through BRICS belie erratic transactional gains. The expansion of BRICS to include South Africa in 2011 helped Russia consolidate a critical partnership in Africa. More strikingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the idea for a Russia-Africa Economic Forum at the 2018 BRICS summit in Johannesburg, and preparations for a triennial conference began in the months that followed. Russia’s proposal that BRICS countries invest up to $10 billion in the BRICS development bank in 2013 increased its soft power in Africa, as Moscow was framed as a constructive supporter of economic development in Africa. In the future, the BRICS development bank could assist Russia’s efforts to wean non-Western countries off an exclusive dependence on the U.S. dollar, which is an agenda that has particular appeal amongst nations that are vulnerable to U.S. sanctions.

As regional powers in the Middle East embrace a multipolar world order, in order to hedge against uncertainties about U.S. global leadership and deeper their partnerships with the BRICS countries, Russia stands to benefit. The UAE, due to its geopolitical ambitions in Africa and openness to global investment, is especially enthusiastic about engaging with the BRICS countries, but Saudi Arabia appears to be following suit at a slower pace. Successful interactions between U.S. allies in the Arab world and BRICS countries, like the UAE’s cooperation with China on the Belt and Road Initiative and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s trip to the Gulf, help reorient the foreign policies of these countries further towards the collective non-West, and complement Russia’s regional partnership-building initiatives.

When we look at the overall dynamics of Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East and Africa, trade statistics and arms sales have limited explanatory power, and do not tell the most important part of the story. This fact has caused scholars who focus on the non-transactional elements of Russian foreign policy to more effectively explain Moscow’s Great October than advocates of rentierism, who overlooked the cultural bonds and sub-state relationships that made Putin’s recent successes possible.

Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He can be followed on Twitter at @samramani2.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is Fellow, Russia & Middle East Affairs, Jamestown Foundation and a Senior Advisor at Gulf State Analytics, both in Washington DC. He can be followed on Twitter at @tkarasik.

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  1. The imperialists of the west keep making the same mistakes over and over. It’s interesting when someone like Putin capitalizes on their mistakes then they do complain about Russia being a ruthless opportunist. Putin has his 6 eyes on the west and will take advantage of ay opportunity he’s given by the west. With the chaotic, more like screwed up, foreign policy of the west Putin is going to have many more opportunities to grab free of charge in the ME, Africa and else where in the world.

  2. The development of a “fraternal relationship” between Chechnya and Saudi Arabia, helped forge critical inter-communal relationships between the Russian and Saudi Islamic communities, even when Moscow and Riyadh were openly clashing over Syria. Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League outreach campaign, which target various Russian cities, further strengthens the cultural bonds that undergird Moscow and Riyadh, and this translates to the broader bilateral partnership.

    Good to see fraternal relationship in scare quotes in this article that could have been written by the Russian foreign ministry. Saudi Arabia also supports the forced assimilation of Uyghurs. Very fraternal. This is not about Russia’s “anti-imperialist” credentials. It is simply a tilt more in the direction of Chinese and Russian economic ties by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, two of the most reactionary dictatorships in the entire Middle East.

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