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Why Would Arab Leaders Pursue Strategic Partnerships With Russia?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attend a welcome ceremony in the United Arab Emirates, on October 15, 2019. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/Reuters

November 5, 2019

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attend a welcome ceremony in the United Arab Emirates, on October 15, 2019. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Amir Asmar is a Department of Defense analyst and CFR’s national intelligence fellow. Throughout his intelligence career, his primary area of focus has been the Middle East. He held a wide range of analytic, senior analytic, and leadership positions for the Department of the Army, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Intelligence Council. The statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this blog post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense (DoD) or the U.S. government. Review of the material does not imply DoD or U.S. government endorsement of factual accuracy or opinion.

With its 2015 intervention in Syria’s civil war, Russia re-entered the fray in the Middle East for the first time since the end of the Cold War—and in a spectacular fashion. Now, with its recent departure from Syria, the United States is seemingly ceding that theater to Russian influence. While much has been written about Russia’s motives in the region, little focus has been given to the motivations of Arab leaders who are pursuing closer ties with Russia and may consider, at some future point, a strategic realignment away from the United States. Although long-standing irritants have not, by themselves, been relationship breakers, recent U.S. actions have troubled Arab leaders and created openings that Moscow can exploit. In an era of renewed great power competition, Arab leaders likely understand that they may stand to benefit more from cultivating ties with both the United States and Russia than was previously possible.

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Among the long-standing issues facing U.S.-Arab relations is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arab leaders understand that Israel comes first for the United States, despite significant changes in the region since the 1967 June War when the U.S.-Israeli partnership was cemented. Though most Arab leaders care little about the Palestinians’ plight, they remain anxious about the emotive power of the issue and its ability to anger and mobilize their populations, particularly after the United States’ recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan. Similarly, the U.S. guarantee of Israel’s qualitative military edge over any combination of regional adversaries effectively restricts the sale of certain advanced weapons to Arab states. U.S. weapons sales also come with cumbersome end-user agreements that restrict their use—restrictions that Arab leaders suspect are not enforced for Israel. While U.S. officials and legislators continue to demonstrate strong commitments to Israel, Russia remains unencumbered and continues to export arms to Arab states.

U.S. policy toward Iran should also confound Arab leaders. Fearful of Iran’s regional ambitions, use of terrorism, and nuclear program, Arab leaders looked to the United States to help contain Iranian adventurism. However, Washington conducted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that—whatever their justifications—resulted in the removal of two staunchly anti-Iran regimes, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, leaving Iran freer to pursue its regional schemes. The Iraq War, in particular, was a source of frustration for Arab leaders; it angered their publics because it confirmed the impression that Washington thought little of violating the sovereignty of an Arab state in pursuit of unconvincing objectives. Iran now has vast influence in Iraq, in addition to growing sway in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and others. With minimal consultation with its Arab partners, Washington also concluded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear program and only a few years later rescinded the plan, with equally limited consultation. Given Russia’s proven ability to work with Iran in Syria, Arab leaders may now see Moscow as the intermediary with Iran that Washington is not.

Washington’s tepid response to the September 2019 attack on Abqaiq, a critical Saudi oil installation, should  accentuate Arab leaders’ doubt. The United States joined Saudi Arabia in blaming Iran for the attack—U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo characterized it as “an act of war”—but did little beyond deploying troops and equipment to “help Saudi Arabia defend itself.” This response stands in marked contrast to the United States’ bold and immediate response in 1990 to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Moreover, Iranian proxies across the region have targeted U.S. allies and interests since the end of the territorial conflict against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, both of which had served as brakes on Iran-sponsored attacks. The absence of a strong U.S. response to Abqaiq suggests that the United States is not only reluctant to stand by its Arab friends, but also by its commitment to the free-flow of oil—a critical interest for the energy producers of the Gulf and to U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere.

Arab leaders have also seen Washington abandon leaders it purported to support. After three decades of partnering with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on regional security, the Barack Obama administration  called for Mubarak to step down the instant he was in political trouble. Russia’s support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad stands in stark contrast. Russia committed to combating Islamist extremism in Syria, not to promoting political mores. Arab leaders are also likely to see Washington’s de facto green light for Ankara to occupy parts of northern Syria as a betrayal of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces who had executed the U.S. campaign to defeat the Islamic State. The United States’ betrayal aside, the Turkish occupation of Arab territory, however limited, will also revive ghosts of the region’s Ottoman past and will not sit well with Arabs.

Adding to the complexities that Arab leaders face in their relations with the United States, their publics tend to be ambivalent, if not hostile, toward Washington. It is important to note that most Arab leaders are autocrats and derive security from varying levels of domestic legitimacy. Therefore, they evaluate foreign partnerships based partially on domestic perceptions of the foreign partner in question. A 2017 Zogby poll for the Arab-American Institute showed that respondents in only two of seven surveyed Arab countries considered the U.S. role in Iraq and Syria to be positive or viewed the Donald J. Trump administration’s policies favorably. Iraqis were among those detractors of the United States’ activities in Iraq, despite the United States’ role in defeating the Islamic State. Moreover, according to a 2017 Pew Research poll, 35 percent of Egyptian and Saudi respondents (arguably the two closest U.S. partners) viewed Russia positively, while only 27 percent viewed the United States positively.

More on:

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Anecdotally, Arabs demonstrate even harsher attitudes and see the United States—often conspiratorially—as the cause of many regional problems. Some perceive the United States as a bully that uses Arab states to pursue its own regional objectives, leaving disarray in its wake. Others—unaffiliated with their governments—have argued that Washington provoked Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait to create a pretext to intervene and manipulate Iraq’s oil; created al-Qaeda and had a hand in the 9/11 attacks to justify a war against Islam; initiated the Iraq War to protect Israel from Saddam Hussein; placed the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo in 2012 as a political alternative to al-Qaeda and other extremists; and planned, with Muslim Brotherhood acquiescence, to set up a Palestinian state in Sinai.

Although Arab leaders are far from ditching their relationships with Washington and embracing Moscow as their primary strategic partner, U.S.-Arab tensions are growing. Arab leaders understand that they have limited influence over U.S. policy, but they may be starting to perceive the United States as unpredictable or even unreliable. A variety of dynamics, including renewed Arab popular uprisings, an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a U.S.-Iran rapprochement, or a significant Islamist terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland, could shake U.S.-Arab relations and deliver new openings to Moscow. 

The United States should take note because a realignment toward Russia could cost the United States its ability to access the region quickly for military operations, to further influence the supply and price of oil, and to partner more effectively with regional players in promoting critical interests, such as combating terrorism, containing Iran, and fostering stability. A number of the United States’ Arab partners are developing cooperative arrangements with Russia on specific issues, and multilateral groupings like the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum are attracting a growing number of Arab ministers.

If Washington is to maintain the benefits of relationships with Arab states, it should seek to be a predictable partner. U.S. policy should deviate from previous positions only when circumstances have dramatically changed to make it justifiable. Arab leaders should clearly understand under which circumstances they can rely on U.S. support and the lengths to which Washington will go to pursue specific objectives. This is particularly important for partners in a region as prone to shocks as the Middle East. If possible, consultation with partners should precede policy changes to explain the shift, its purpose, and the extent to which Washington’s position will change. This is not a call to abandon priorities or values, but merely to be consistent in balancing them.

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