Restoring Russia’s Influence in the Arab World: What is Moscow’s Endgame?

Written by | Thursday, March 16th, 2017

The old power structure in the Middle East is being replaced by a new political make-up in which Russia is playing an increasingly dominant role. After it has established itself as a key player in the region through its involvement in the Syrian conflict, Moscow is now reshuffling cards elsewhere in the region, most notably in Libya.

As the United States’ and the European Union’s influence is declining and North Africa’s major players – Algeria and Egypt – have no objectives to having the Kremlin involved, Russia is steadily changing the regional dynamics. Moscow has entered the battle in Libya, where it had docking rights in the eastern port of Benghazi at the time of Qaddafi. Now, it seems to be supporting the side of Khalifa Haftar, who will be the likely beneficiary of the battle that has increasingly focused on the country’s vast oil fields and access to the abundant Oil Crescent. And although the Kremlin remains committed to the UN arms embargo on Libya, its support for Mr. Haftar’s forces come at the time when his enemies are weakening. This move also sends a rebuke to Western powers that have largely failed to prevent Libya from falling into chaos.

Russia is not only active in the region’s battlefields but also in the region’s oilfields.  Moscow has become a major player in the energy sector when Qatar Investment Authority decided to invest $5 billion in the Russian oil company Rosneft PJSC as part of $10.6 billion deal that included Glencore Plc. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani who decided to hedge his bets at the time when Russia was bombarding Aleppo. The strong Russian backing for Syrian President Bashar Assad has left the countries that had funded and armed the Islamist rebels — Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — in the lurch.

Russia has also long suspected Doha of supporting militant Islamists in Syria, an observation shared by many Western analysts. Another sign that the times are changing is Qatar’s unfulfilled pledges to improve its human rights record in preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. With the changes in the White House and the Russian involvement in the region, Qatar now has little incentive to make reform in its labor laws especially in construction industry where many migrants are employed. Given the dismal Western record in recent decades to mediate regional conflicts, the rise of Russia might not be such a bad thing in the end, as it encourages North African and Middle Eastern countries to engage in conflict management of their own wars.

‘With a More Enterprising Russia, Cards are Reshuffled in the Arab World’ – Opinion by Francis Ghilès – Barcelona Center for International Affairs (CIDOB).

(The opinion can be downloaded here)


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