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Russia is welcome in the Middle East—up to a point

Arabs encourage Russia's economic advances but are wary of political ones

When Rosneft's chief executive Igor Sechin announced in December 2016 that the Russian firm was taking a 30% share in Egypt's giant offshore Zohr gasfield, Eni had cause to celebrate. For it had further spread the risk associated with developing it, having earlier sold a 10% stake to BP.

But Eni's satisfaction was very likely nothing compared to that expressed by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when he hosted Sechin at his palace in Cairo. To have a Russian firm involved prominently in a prestige project like Zohr fits with Sisi's strategy of diluting his country's economic dependence on the US and other Western nations.

It's a strategy that most Arab governments are adopting. Iraq has welcomed Lukoil's presence among its array of mostly Western operators and the Russian company's knock on the doors of Kuwait, Oman and the UAE is likely to receive positive responses. Lukoil was one of the companies chosen in the early years of this century for Saudi Arabia's unfruitful Natural Gas Initiative and would be a strong contender if further upstream openings were to emergedespite Riyadh's sharp differences with Moscow over Russian support for the Assad regime in Syria and its alliance with Iran there.

Saudi Arabia has made no secret of its wish to strengthen economic ties with Russia, and there are signs of progress. Valentina Matviyenko, head of the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, after talks with King Salman in Riyadh in April, announced that joint projects with the kingdom worth $3bn would be launched by the end of 2017. The two sides also discussed the possible supply of a Russian air-defence system to Saudi Arabiathus possibly ending that country's exclusive reliance on the West for its defence needs.

The strongly pro-West UAE, for its part, caused eyebrows to be raised when news broke of a deal for the supply of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighters and the joint development of a next-generation warplane. At the same time, Egypt is hoping to buy Russian communications and control equipment for helicopter carriers obtained from France, while taking delivery of Mig-29 fighters later this year.

Nuclear push

Arab governments are also interested in Russian nuclear technology and expertise. Discussions are under way with several Middle East and North African states, including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia-building on success stories in Iran and Turkey.

While nearly all Arab regimes welcome the development of commercial and economic relations with Russia, not all are pleased with Moscow's attempts to consolidate its political and military influence in the Middle East. Russia's intervention in the Syria conflict to buttress the Assad regime and apparent support for General Khalifa Haftar's forces in Libya represent a different level of involvement.

"There have been many visits to and from Moscow over recent years," Sudanese columnist Mada al-Fatih wrote recently, "as Arab leaders attempt to attract Russia to the region through economic cooperation and defence partnerships." The Syria crisis has changed the nature of the dialogue. More recently Arabs have been trying to convince Moscow that it would be "more beneficial to support the majority Sunni Arab world rather than to prop up a faltering regime in Damascus tied to Tehran".

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the online daily Rai al-Youm, says some Arabs see Russia's encroachment as "an echo of what happened in the past with the US and European colonial powers. The fact is they don't like the US and they don't trust Russia."

Another commonly expressed view is that Russia's presence is welcome precisely as a balance to Western domination, as it was in the middle decades of the past century. When President Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet advisers from Egypt in 1972, the argument goes, the region became an open playing field for the West. Today, Jordanian academic Labib Kamhawi says, the problem is that "many anti-West Arabs react to the Russian intervention as if the ideological and friendly Soviet Union still exists. They don't want to believe that Russia is an imperialist power like the US." Time and the outcome of the war in Syria will show them otherwise, he adds.

The chances are that Arab governments' attitudes to Moscow will remain ambivalent. The likes of Igor Sechin and executives of firms offering military hardware and other goods will find a warm welcome wherever they go. But many Arab regimes will stop short of condoning Moscow's expanding physical footprint-in Syria, Libya or anywhere else in the Middle East.

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