By putting their own national interests first, Moscow and its partners work towards a more balanced multipolar reality
The year 2023 did not bring any radical changes to Russia’s relations with the Middle East, but the trend towards strengthening relations continued, despite unprecedented pressure from Western countries led by Washington. The countries of the region increasingly demonstrated their commitment to neutrality, and in some cases even took steps towards integration into non-Western associations, declaring their special path of sovereign development in the context of geopolitical turbulence. Thus, in August 2023, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were granted membership in BRICS.
Overall, the year 2023 was a positive one for Russia’s relations with the Middle East. Russia’s economic, political, military, and cultural influence in the region continued to grow. This trend is likely to continue in the years to come, as Russia seeks to expand its presence in the Middle East. The following are the main points that characterized Moscow’s relations with Middle Eastern countries in 2023.
OPEC+ agreements continue in difficult conditions
On December 10, 2016, an agreement was signed between the OPEC countries and 11 non-OPEC countries to limit oil production. The agreement helped to stabilize oil prices and ensure a balance between supply and demand. Despite various challenges, the parties have continued to adhere to the agreements, adjusting quotas depending on the situation in the global oil market. The year 2023 was no exception.
Nevertheless, pressure from Washington continued throughout the year. The Biden administration repeatedly appealed to leading Arab oil producers – members of OPEC+ – such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to increase production, but to no avail. The last meeting of OPEC+ on November 30 demonstrated the desire of the participating countries to continue coordinating their actions. The countries, including Saudi Arabia, agreed to reduce oil production. Riyadh will continue to cut supply by 1 million barrels per day (bpd) in early 2024. Russia will increase its voluntary additional reduction in exports by 200,000 bpd, to 500,000 bpd.
Although in the West such a step by Arab partners is perceived as anti-Western and pro-Russian, the true meaning of these actions lies in the desire of Middle Eastern countries to defend their national interests. Balanced oil prices and control over supply and demand allow producers to provide stable budget revenue, which is necessary to ensure economic stability and further development. Of course, Moscow has also been benefiting financially from this coordination, especially considering Western sanctions and the price cap on energy resources. For example, the Russian Finance Ministry reported that in October 2023 the volume of oil and gas revenues of the federal budget exceeded the level of the previous year by more than 27%. Meanwhile, oil and gas revenues from January to October 2023 amounted to 7.21 trillion rubles (about $80 billion), which represented a 26.3% decrease compared to the same period for 2022.
The OPEC+ participants’ agreements were extended to 2024 as they are beneficial to all parties. Relations in the energy sector between Moscow and Middle Eastern players continue to develop successfully, indicating a high level of trust between the parties and the desire to continue cooperation despite pressure from the West.
Russia stands by its allies under any circumstances
In March 2023, Syrian President Bashar Assad paid his first official, publicly announced visit to Russia since the start of the Syrian civil war. The visit was notable because all previous trips by the Syrian president to Russia were closed-door and only announced publicly after the fact. This time, however, things were different. The president’s delegation included the ministers of economy, defense, and finance, which speaks to the goals of the visit.
The talks between Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin took place in the Kremlin and were focused on developing bilateral relations. Indeed, Syria remains one of the most important directions of Russia’s Middle East policy. Damascus continues to receive support from Moscow even amid the Russian military operation in Ukraine and confrontation with the West. Russia clearly communicated the message that it never abandons its partners, while the format of the visit demonstrated Moscow’s successful role in resolving the Syrian crisis. Russia returned Damascus to the ‘Arab family’, was able to significantly stabilize the domestic political situation, and now Assad can safely travel abroad without fear of anything terrible happening at home.
In 2023, the main elements of Russia’s long-term policy on the Syrian track remained in place. The Russian naval base in Tartus and the Khmeimim air base continue to operate in Syria. The Russian Aerospace Forces periodically carry out various operations against terrorist groups in territories not controlled by Damascus. Moscow has returned to the Middle East and continues to strengthen its presence, and Syria is one of the main allies in the region that can always count on Moscow’s support.
A long-awaited meeting: Russia and Türkiye need each other
The long-awaited meeting between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took place in September in Sochi. The meeting was needed for both Ankara and Moscow and there were many complex issues in bilateral relations that needed to be addressed. The trusting relationship enjoyed by the leaders of the two countries allows them to personally resolve certain issues that cannot be resolved at a lower level.
The meeting of the presidents in Sochi undoubtedly gave a new positive impetus to relations between the countries, which feature many contradictions but also many points of contact. Moscow and Ankara continue to deepen economic cooperation and coordinate their actions on various global and regional issues. Together, they are addressing issues in the Middle East and the South Caucasus; together they are resisting various contemporary threats, as well as the West’s destructive hegemony.
Although Erdogan was unable to convince Putin of the need to restore the grain deal, in other respects relations are steadily strengthening and deepening. Work is underway to create a gas hub, an agreement was reached to build a new nuclear power plant in Sinop, and trade turnover is expected to reach $100 billion. In 2023, relations between Russia and Türkiye faced a few challenges, but the parties’ willingness to compromise and understand each other’s interests allow them to overcome the obstacles that periodically appear along the way.
Iran: Trust is the key to success
In December, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, visited Moscow and held a five-hour closed-door meeting with President Vladimir Putin. The parties discussed bilateral cooperation, the international situation, including the Palestine-Israel war, and major continental projects, including the North-South corridor.
Over the past year, Moscow and Tehran became even closer. According to Putin, bilateral trade between the countries grew by 20%, to $5 billion. Back in January, the central banks of Russia and Iran reached an agreement to simplify financial and banking operations. Moscow became the largest foreign investor in Iran, investing $2.76 billion in the country’s economy in fiscal 2022-2023, according to Iranian Minister of Economy and Finance Ehsan Khanduzi. In late November, the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Defense confirmed that plans for the delivery of Su-35 fighters, Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak-130 training aircraft to the Iranian army had already been completed.
This year was also important for the construction of the North-South railway. The North-South International Transport Corridor has become the most important alternative route for access to the Indian Ocean (not only to India, but also to the states of the Persian Gulf), given the difficulties with logistics in the westward direction and attempts to exclude Russia from the main transport corridors.
Moscow and Tehran are also united by their rejection of the unipolar world and their desire to build a new world order. “What humanity is suffering from today is the adoption of unilateral measures and a global unjust system. We can see a clear manifestation of this today in the events taking place in the Gaza Strip,” Raisi said during a meeting with Putin. This past year was one of strengthening trust between the countries. Both sides have repeatedly been deceived by the West, which has brought the countries’ positions even closer together and convinced them of the need to resist US hegemony. In 2023, Iran became a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and in January 2024, Tehran will become part of BRICS along with a number of other Middle Eastern countries.
Russian forums are popular with Middle Eastern leaders
In 2023, leaders from Middle Eastern countries were represented at many Russian forums. The UAE was the guest of honor at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), and its delegation was led by President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. After a meeting with Al Nahyan, Putin said that relations between the two countries are developing successfully and are beneficial to both sides. In addition, the UAE president stressed that the country expects to welcome more than 1 million tourists from Russia. He also expressed his readiness to assist in resolving the Ukraine conflict.
In June, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune paid a three-day state visit to Russia, and on the last day of his visit he spent time at SPIEF. During a plenary session of the forum, Tebboune shared his vision for Russia’s role in the world and on the African continent. Although Algeria is one of Russia’s leading trade partners in Africa, accounting for 17% of Russia’s total trade with African countries, annual trade between the two countries is still modest at $3 billion. As a result of the visit, the two countries signed a declaration on deepening their strategic partnership covering 16 areas, including politics, trade and economics, customs, finance and banking, energy, natural resources, military-technical cooperation (MTC), the fight against terrorism, and crime.
In July, the second Russia-Africa summit and economic forum was held in St. Petersburg. In attendance was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who met with Putin on the sidelines of the summit. In 2023, the two countries celebrated the 80th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Cairo remains one of Moscow’s most important partners in Africa, with one-third of Russia’s trade with Africa coming from Egypt. Russia’s Rosatom is building the first nuclear power plant in Egypt at El Dabaa, but relations are developing not only economically, but also in the military-political sphere.
In October 2023, another Middle Eastern leader participated in one of Russia’s leading energy forums. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani spoke at the plenary session of the Russian Energy Week along with Putin. Prior to the forum, the leaders of the two countries also held talks, during which they discussed in detail the development of multifaceted Russian-Iraqi cooperation, as well as topical issues on the international agenda, primarily the situation in the Middle East. The basis of cooperation for Moscow and Baghdad remains the energy sector. Lukoil, Gazprom Neft, Rosneft, and Bashneft are all successfully operating in Iraq. Total investment by Russian companies in the development of Iraq’s oil and gas industry exceeds $13 billion.
In December, among the distinguished guests of the ‘Russia Calls!’ forum was the Crown Prince and minister of youth, culture and sports of Oman, Theyazin bin Haitham bin Tariq Al Said. The Crown Prince also met with Putin. During the meeting, the Russian president invited Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said to visit Russia. The Crown Prince expressed confidence that such a visit will take place in 2024 and expressed the hope that it will “open up new opportunities for the development of bilateral relations.” Of interest at this meeting were the Crown Prince’s words about the “unfair world order.” “The current development of the situation in the world dictates the need to create new mechanisms for trade and economic cooperation between countries without imposing any ideologies, without pressure from third countries,” he said. He called for the creation of new international economic centers, which, considering the factors of population and natural resources, could be located in countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Thus, the prince’s words expressed Muscat’s readiness to participate in the creation of a new world order in which the hegemony of the West will be put to an end.
The war in Gaza – the region is in flames again
On October 7, media around the world reported on Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, which was initiated by the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade, a radical paramilitary group affiliated with Hamas. The horrific attack on Israeli territory left many civilians dead and more than 250 others taken hostage. In response, the Israeli government announced the launch of a ground anti-terrorist operation in Gaza, which was aimed at completely eliminating Hamas and other groups in the Palestinian exclave.
This new escalation in the Middle East is still ongoing, and judging by the statements of Israeli officials and the scale of the clashes, the conflict will be long. Already the number of dead in Gaza has exceeded 21,000, while on the Israeli side the death toll is around 1,200. The military action has shaken the already troubled region, disrupting the emerging normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as leading to a diplomatic “cooling” of relations between the Jewish state and Türkiye, as well as a number of other states in the region.
Russia, which has traditionally been a mediator and a member of the quartet on Middle East settlement together with the EU, US, and UN, has not stood aside. Since the first days of the escalation, Moscow has been calling on the parties to stop the violence and resume diplomatic negotiations on the basis of UN General Assembly resolutions. Moscow believes that a solution to the conflict is possible only through the establishment of an independent Arab state of Palestine and full recognition of the Jewish state of Israel by the Palestinians and other Arab states.
While Western countries and representatives of the Kiev authorities blamed Russia for instigating the hostilities, Moscow was actively consulting with the parties to the conflict and the main regional players. Russian diplomacy was also active within the UN, trying to initiate in the Security Council a resolution on the situation and calling for an immediate ceasefire, but all such attempts were blocked by Western countries.
The conflict is still not over – there will be many more casualties on both sides – but at the global level the situation is aggravated by the fact that the escalation in Gaza has become another fault line in the confrontation between the West and the world majority. Moscow’s actions are viewed positively by the Arab Street and states that consider Russia to be the most unbiased and decisive player in the case. There are not many opportunities for settlement in the current situation, but Russian diplomacy will continue to try to bring the parties to the negotiating table one way or another.
Putin’s Middle East tour
In early December, Putin visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of which are slated to join BRICS in January 2024, on working visits. This was the first such trip in four years, with extensive bilateral agendas discussed at the negotiations. The global media wrote very vividly about how Putin was welcomed in Abu Dhabi with a solemnity more appropriate for a state visit than a working one.
Trade and economic ties between Russia and the UAE are expanding, with the UAE being the largest regional investor in Russia, while humanitarian cooperation is also deepening. The countries are even more closely interacting in the energy sector and in military-political affairs.
After Abu Dhabi, Putin visited Riyadh and held talks with the Crown Prince and prime minister of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. They discussed a lot: the situation in the region, global issues, bilateral cooperation, the North-South International Transport Corridor, Ukraine, and the OPEC+ agreements.
The meeting in Marrakech
The final MENA-related event of the outgoing year was the plenary session of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum in one of the oldest cities of the Kingdom of Morocco – Marrakech. This is how Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was greeted by his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita: “Today’s meeting is taking place in the context of strengthening relations between the Russian Federation and the Arab world. We are interested in raising the level of dialogue with Russia to a strategic one. Our partnership is based on mutual respect and the desire to respect the interests of the parties to each other.”
The tradition of holding the forum was laid down back in 2013, and this year’s meeting was the sixth. Although it touched on many issues of regional and global importance, the central theme is the unjust world order. The thesis that the current crises in Ukraine and the Middle East have marked a watershed between the countries of the collective West and the rest of the world was a key part of Lavrov’s speech. The minister stressed that “the world is at a fateful crossroads” and at the moment, “the question is being decided whether it will be possible to form a truly just and democratic world order.”
Following the meeting, the “Marrakech Declaration” was prepared, which reflects the convergence of positions and approaches of the Russian and Arab sides on key issues of the regional and international agenda, the intention to develop relations, and also outlines a specific action plan within the framework of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum for the period from 2024 to 2026. In addition, it was agreed that the seventh forum will be held in Moscow.
The meeting in Marrakech was a significant event in the development of relations between Russia and the Arab world. It showed that the two sides are committed to working together to build a more just and equitable world order. The meeting also highlighted the growing convergence of interests between Russia and the Arab world, as both sides seek to reduce their dependence on the West.
The meeting was particularly important in the context of the ongoing Ukraine crisis. The Arab world has been largely critical of the Western-led sanctions against Russia, and the meeting in Marrakech provided an opportunity for Russia to reaffirm its commitment to cooperation with the Arab world. The meeting also served to highlight the growing importance of Russia in the Middle East. Russia has been a major player in the region for centuries, and the meeting in Marrakech showed that Russia’s influence in the region is likely to continue to grow in the years to come.
Indeed, there were no radical leaps in relations between Moscow and the countries of the region in 2023, but at the same time, the bilateral agenda was rich. The Middle Eastern countries not only maintained a positive neutrality towards Russia, but also sought to become mediators in resolving the Ukraine conflict. Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Arab League all sought to somehow reduce the escalation in relations with Kiev. However, in the end, they became even more convinced of the unwillingness of the Western sponsors of Ukraine to come to a diplomatic settlement.
The outgoing year further strengthened trust between Russia and the countries of the Middle East and contributed to the development of trade, economic, humanitarian and military-political ties between them. The Middle East continues its path toward sovereignty and diversification of external ties. The region’s countries, like Russia, are trying to find ways to protect their national interests, while respecting the aspirations of other players. Thus, Moscow and Middle Eastern countries are united by the desire to create a new and just world order, where an end will be put to the destructive hegemony of Washington and its allies.
January 01, 2024 at 09:04PM