There is a tendency in the West to ignore Russia’s long history in the Middle East. Many of Russia’s observers took the relatively brief withdrawal from the region in the 1990s to be the norm.
However, Russia has sought a warm-water port and access to the Mediterranean for three centuries and its policy of protecting Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire dates from then and Russia has been a factor in Middle East politics since. Its retreat in the 1990s was a major aberration because of the severe economic crisis that accompanied the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Russia’s return to the region is marked by the maintenance of close links to two countries — Syria and Algeria — to which it has traditionally sold weapons. New links with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, not to mention Egypt, have been added.
So have excellent relations with Israel, one-tenth of whose citizens are of Russian extraction, and right-wing parties there, for which the Russian-speaking Israelis vote.
Economic links with Middle Eastern and increasingly African countries are important and growing. They rest on a tripod that includes weapons, energy and nuclear power.
Weapons are a key factor. Algeria purchases 80% of its weapons from Russia. Algiers is Moscow’s second-largest export market for weapons after India. Russia is nervous about Algerian politics because it fears losing such a lucrative arms market and it dislikes politics that challenge the long-established military order.
Although Algeria has diversified its military purchases to include Germany, Italy and the United States, Russia remains its paramount supplier. Both countries share a dislike of the United States’ large presence in the region, of French and UK meddling, as they see it, in the affairs of Libya and Syria, let alone Yemen.
Syria is a key market for testing new Russian weapons, a fact often overlooked by Western observers. The broader Middle East and Africa offer private military companies, such as the Wagner Group, a useful relay for Russian influence. In the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel countries, mistakes by Western powers offered Russia a point of entry.
Sales of weapons and testing buttress Russia’s access to the port of Tartus, its sole port of access to the Mediterranean. Algeria has always refused access to Russia ships to the military port of Mers El Kebir.
Energy is the second and increasingly important reason Russia is consolidating friendships in the region. It is highly symbolic that Russia President Vladimir Putin travelled to Riyadh a month after attacks targeted oil-infrastructure sites of Abqaiq and Khurais.
Russia and Saudi Arabia have been working together for some time to stabilise oil prices. This involves limiting available supply. Renewing OPEC+ quotas, which end next March, maybe arranging for further cuts in production, is important for both Riyadh and Moscow.
Prices of crude still hover at less than $60 per barrel despite multiple crises in the Middle East. Demand hardly keeps up with supply, a situation that is unlikely to change as production of shale oil in the United States seems unlimited.
The conundrum Russia and Saudi Arabia face is a difficult one. If they relax the current quotas, the markets will be flooded with oil that it hardly needs when growth worldwide is weak. If they lower production, they are handing US producers greater market share worldwide.
It is interesting to note that Russia and the United Arab Emirates recently signed cooperation agreements worth $1.4 billion when Putin visited Abu Dhabi. Lukoil acquired a 5% stake in the Ghasha concession from Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, where it will be working alongside Eni, which has a 55% stake in the field and Winterhall (10%).
The Saudis seem to hope that Russia will be active in the much-delayed offer of shares by Aramco. Putin seems more interested in the Gulf and Saudis investing in Russia than vice versa, however.
Be that as it may, geopolitics plays a key role in this increasing web of energy and weapons interests. As US influence wanes in the region, as illustrated by recent events in Syria, Russia seized the opportunity, which is unprecedented, to step forward.
However, Moscow is being careful not to overextend itself. It is limiting the extent its armed forces operate in the region. Rather than taking over from the United States, it seems to be simply reaffirming its interest. In Syria, it holds all the cards and, as Saudi Arabia realises the United States will not willingly back a war with Iran, Putin plays his diplomatic-energy cards with skill.
In Egypt, he is offering Russia civilian nuclear know-how that might also interest the Saudis. Russia sees US and for that matter French and UK policies as having been destabilising the status quo, a view shared by many Arab leaders.
It is important to remember that, as a major exporter of oil and gas, Russia has a huge stake in global energy markets. Oil and gas are critical to Russia’s economy and its domestic stability and its ability to finance foreign policy ventures. To that extent, broader economic, energy and geopolitical interests are inextricably intertwined.