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How Can the US-Russian Competition Be Deployed Over the Arab Region?


Thu, 01-09-2022 05:01 PM, Aden

Dr. Eman Zahran (South24) 

The US-Russian competition is apparently clear in several theaters regarding the system of principles, the work methods and the conflict of interests. Moreover, Biden's Democratic administration completely differs from Obama’s in applying foreign policies as it sought in the beginning of its term to rearrange the relationships with Russia. In this sense, it bears more resemblance with the approach adopted by “George Bush” and “Bill Clinton” in attempting to besiege Russia and prevent it from making a strong return in the structure of the international regime as an influential actor. On the other hand, Moscow seeks for international repositioning and to expand its presence in the traditional leverage centers in most sub-regions in a way that serves its agenda to restore the “Great Russia”.

Based on this hypothesis, the Middle East region is always impacted directly by the whole international interactions and the leverage conflicts among the superpowers. This is shown in the wake of the Russian escalation in Ukraine and the subsequent US-Russian rivalry for reposition in the Arab region in regard to the size of tensions between the two sides as follow:

1- The US sanctions against the Russian regime: The economic sanctions against many Russian entities and financial institutions were not activated as a response to Moscow’s escalation in Ukraine. However, this was prior to the invasion of Georgia and the subsequent Crimea events along with the sanctions declared in April 2022 as part of the US statements about the Russian involvement in cyber attacks and other hostile activities against Washington including the intervention in the US presidential elections. 

2- Russia’s curtailment of the American presence on its lands: This is one of the escalation mechanisms by Moscow. This was represented in the declaration announced by Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, that his country will expel American diplomats in response to the US actions. Moreover, Moscow will put 8 US officials on the Russian sanction list. Additionally, it will suspend the American non-profit organizations and the US funds in Russia which interfere in the Russian internal affairs according to “Lavrov” statements. He indicated that “his country is able to take painful procedures against the US activities in Russia but it will keep it under consideration. [1]

3- Tensions on the background of the Ukrainian file: This is as part of the mutual sanctions between the US and Russia concurrently with the escalation in the Ukrainian file as well as the existing tensions between Moscow and NATO on the background of the alliance’s expansion in the northern east of the western bloc in a way that contradicts the Russian-Western agreements when NATO was established. [2]

4- Escalation in the Black Sea: is one of the most important points of tension which has its negative direct impact on the Arab region. This is in light of the Russian military expansion in the Black Sea and the adoption of “port militarization pattern” as well as suspending the transit of ships in Russian territorial waters which is very important for the movement of Ukrainian exports of grain, wheat and food supply chains regionally and globally.

5- Based on these points, which are the origin of the scale of tension in the US-Russian relationships, the Middle East rearranges its priorities in the mind of the decision making in Washington and Moscow regarding the following points:

1- What the Ukrainian crisis has produced of consecutive threats against securing European energy in a way that requires seeking for available alternatives after Russia adopted an approach of “energy militarization” through escalation with the Western bloc via Ukrainian territories.

2- The growing turmoil in supply and food chains due to the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. Additionally, the world entered the "6th wave of COVID-19". This threatens the outbreak of a hunger crisis concurrently with the rise of food products prices. This adds more tension on food security and the subsequent humanitarian criticism not only in the Middle East but in the whole global system. 

3- The impact of Russia’s escalation with the Western bloc and the US on the Arab region’s tension hotbeds. This could obstruct the paths of the UN solutions for the peaceful settlement in the region’s troubled countries, top of which are Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. 

4- The impact of the existing Moscow-Washington competition on the paths of Iran nuclear deal negotiations which are one of the Arab region’s security files. This could push Moscow towards a more confusing approach to reduce the pressure on Tehran. Likewise, Iran may feel that the growing tension between the US and Russia along with the rise of oil prices gives it the opportunity for breathtaking and increases its influence in the negotiations. 

Variable motives

There are a number of motives which forced Washington and Moscow to redefine the mutual relationships with the Arab region. The most prominent among those motives are the dimensions of the international competition between the US, Russia and China as well as the new transformations imposed by the Russian-Ukrainian war in addition to the energy crisis whether inside the US or at the global level. This also includes the food crisis and the decline of the supply chains while the inflation rates increased due to the escalation in Ukraine according to IMF reports [3] which coincide with the 6th wave of COVID-19 and other non traditional threats such as epidemics as well as the escalation of the various repercussions of climate change on water and food security.

In this regard, Both Russia and the US face a number of emerging motives which aim at reconsidering the form of political, economic and security relationships with the Arab region, this includes the following points:

First-The US motives:

A number of qualitative transformations have emerged recently regarding the approach adopted by the Biden administration to deal with the US allies in the Middle East. This came in the wake of the tension in the relationships between Washington and some of its regional allies in addition to the messages delivered by the Democratic administration about disavowing its security and political commitments to the region's files. Furthermore, there are procedures which were being read as part of the US' refrain from supporting the interests of its allies in the region. The most prominent among these measures is Washington's decision to remove the Iran-backed Houthis from the foreign terrorism list. [4]

With the numerous controversial issues between Joe Biden's administration and the heavyweight centers in the Arab region, a number of factors emerged and contributed to the US's reconsideration of its existing cold relationships towards its allies in the region. The most prominent motives include the following:

- The repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis: This is one of the most important motives for Washington towards reshaping its relationships with the Arab region. This particularly aims to deal with the impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war, especially at the level of the oil crisis, the global price hike and the extent of agreement with the Gulf countries, especially the KSA, about the size of oil production.

- The looming Congress's midterm elections: The elections are scheduled to be held in November amid the decline of the Democratic Party's popularity in the American streets while there are speculations about the rise in the Republicans' fortunes. However, such a scenario has been often expected within the US decision making circles. This is related to the historical experience that those who rule the White House often lose the majority in the Congress’s midterm elections.

- Re-adjusting relationships with the region's allies: This point is based upon the realization of the US miscalculations which aim to withdraw from the region. However, the changes in the environment of international interactions produced the need for repositioning again in the region and healing the rifts with the traditional allies in the region to achieve a number of US goals, foremost of which are related to securing Arab oil and gas supplies as an alternative to Russian energy.

- Besieging the Chinese leverage in the region: One of the most important motives is the encirclement of the Chinese expansion in the Arab region through the centralization of the Chinese companies' activities in the Middle East, especially the technological ones and their impact on the US presence and interests amid the increase of the Chinese investments in infrastructure and industrial sectors in the region’s states as well Washington's concerns about the establishment of Chinese military bases or fulcrums for Chinese military presence in the region.

- Wooing the Arab region against Moscow: The Arab bloc keened to adopt a semi-neutral position during the Ukrainian crisis. Some countries in the region adopt approaches which are closer to the Russian camp. Thus, Biden seeks to reposition in the region again in order to woo the region's forces to adopt stances against the Russian military intervention and the alignment with the Western states in the anti-Russian camp.

Secondly-The Russian motives:

Russia adopts a new strategy based upon restoring the “Great Russia". This is through a number of external moves if the escalation in Ukraine is not the only goal of Moscow in an indication about the return of repositioning in the old areas of influence. However, there are currently decisive moves towards the expansion in the vital areas of the "Tsarist Russia", top of which are the Middle East and the Arab region. This is in regard to a number of motives as follow:

- Regaining vital influence: This is achieved by stressing its presence in the Arab region and strengthening its vital interests by benefiting from the desire of some states to build non-Western alliance’s which Moscow is able to fill.

- Breaking the Western isolation: This confirms the failure of Western endeavors to isolate Russia diplomatically and expresses its ability to talk with several active states outside the Western system. Additionally, Moscow attempts to prove that the Ukrainian war and the Western efforts to besiege it have not defeated the Russian presence in the Middle East as well as the ongoing building of cooperating partnerships in different political, economic and security fields with the region's states.

- Securing the Eurasian depth: as the Middle East region constitutes additional and structural depth of the Eurasian range for Russia. The latter works to secure its position in the region, and through it to all sub regions in the world. Consequently, Moscow works to support its allies regimes and forces in the region in addition to building permanent alliances with it to back its geopolitical position in the Arab region. Additionally, it adopts a renewed policy to maintain a semi-symbolic military presence in the region and around it such as the military presence in the Syrian port of Tartous, not only to secure its deployment in the region but also to sustain Moscow's access to sea ports on warm waters. [5]

Balancing the energy policies: Russian involvement comes as one of the tendencies towards adjusting the energy policies in the region. This file became among the Western priorities during the successive repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis in this file. Thus, Russian reposition in the Arab region came to coordinate the energy policies with the main oil and gas producers in the region. This is in addition to the Russian projects in the region, whether the nuclear one through the Russian presence in The Egyptian "Dabaa" project and Iranian Bushehr. This also includes oil fields through exploration companies in the eastern Mediterranean such as the Russian "Novatek'' in partnership with the French company "Total" and the Italian "Eni" as well as the contract signed by the Russian-owned Rosneft With the aim of leasing storage capacity in the oil facilities in Tripoli. [6]

Arab employment 

Regarding the return of the US-Russian polarization to the Arab region and with the change of the pattern of international interactions, whether traditional or non-traditional in addition to rearranging the actors in the impact and the influence maps of the whole international system. Consequently, we, as an Arab region, witness clear change in the traditional power centers in the wake of the Cold War. This pushes the region towards unifying the Arab agenda and benefiting from the existing rivalry status to achieve the following requirements:

- Besieging the Iranian expansion in the region: One of the most important Arab priorities is related to bartering both US and Russian leadership about the outcomes of the ongoing negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal. In other words, the final outcome of the new nuclear deal between Iran and the West should not be handed over the region again to Iran by being strict in the deal articles. For example, the deal should not only stipulate on freezing Iran's nuclear program but also to freeze the missile program and reduce the Iranian influence in the region.

- Supporting the Arab stance towards the Yemeni file: This point is based upon the Biden administration's stance towards the Houthi designation. This can be achieved through Washington's support of the Saudi and the Emirati stance in Yemen or at least reclassify the Houthis as a terrorist group.

- Solving the Palestinian issue: This can be done by the American and Russian pressure against Israel to solve the Palestinian issue and the attempt to achieve any of the solution trajectories, especially with the escalation of Arab normalization with Tel Aviv. This is in addition to the pressure for halting the Israeli extended settlement and the existing Judaization Policies as well as the ongoing Besieging of the West Bank and Gaza.

- Settling the files of the region's troubled countries in regard to the direct involvement of both American and Russian regimes in all conflicts of the Arab troubled states, foremost of which are Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. For example, this can be achieved by pressuring the active local parties in the Syrian file and achieving the requirements of the Constitution Committee to move to the next stage of the peaceful political settlement. Likewise, the Yemeni file should be considered by achieving the requirements of the Riyadh consultations and its results in addition to the re-designation of the Houthis in the terrorism list. The same thing applies to the Iraqi file and the Sadrists' (Iraqi Islamic national movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr) stance towards the political operation. In this regard, there is the Libyan file and the attempt to pass the transitional period and heal the rift between the Abdulhamid Al-Diba and Fathi Bashagha teams as well as to move flexibly towards achieving the requirements of electoral merit. [7]

- Dismissing the external dictations: This is in regard to what the Ukrainian crisis revealed about the scale of affection and impact of the major powers in the international system. Consequently, the Arab bloc refuses the external dictations in their management to the region. It also dismisses the Western threats using values, human rights and freedoms. 

Supporting the interests of the traditional forces: This is related to looking at the national agendas of the centers of gravity in the region, foremost of which are Egypt, UAE and KSA in addition to pressuring the parties which undermine the achievement of Arab commitments for the success of the political settlement paths and the stages of the democratic transformation in the countries related to the ongoing conflict, top of which are Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Accordingly, the variable impact of the Ukrainian crisis revealed the extent of fragility of the superpowers and their weak influence against the size of the specific gravity of the sub-regions, foremost of which is the Arab region. Furthermore, the Arab bloc owns many cards through which it can perfectly negotiate for repositioning itself in the structure of the international system whenever its regional agenda is unified. Top of these cards is related to the energy file like oil and gas, intra-regional investments, the centrality of maritime lanes for international trade, as well as managing the files of asylum seekers, illegal immigration, and “terrorist” organizations. Moreover, this includes practical experience in undermining what has become known as the qualitative transition of the lone wolves phenomenon. These cards could push the Arab region towards bargaining both the US and Russia for what supports its vital interests in the Middle East as well as its position in the global regime.

Dr. Eman Zahran

Egyptian researcher, specialized in international relations and regional security

[1] Ahmed Abdulqader Yehia. The Disciplined Escalation: Three Possible Scenarios for the US-Russia Relationships. Interregional for Strategic Analyses, 22/4/2022.

[2] The Impact of Nato's Expansion on the Security Arrangements of the European Bloc. siyassa, 22/5/2022.

[3] How War in Ukraine Is Reverberating Across World’s Regions, IMF, March 15, 2022 blogs.imf.org.

[4] The Government of the United States Executive Order 13224 state.gov.

[5] Anna Borshchevskaya, Russia in the Middle East: Is There an Endgame? The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 20/01/2019.

[6] Colonel Staff Estephan Chidiac, Russian Comeback to the Middle East, National Defense Magazine, Issue 119, January 2022.

[7] Eman Zahran. Will the Paths of Political Settlement Succeed Regarding the Region's Troubled States? South24 for News and Studies, 12/4/2022.

Middle EastArab regionUkrainian crisisRussiaUSATerrorismOil and gasPolitical relationships