Russia and the post-COVID World. Sixth online session of the Primakov Readings


  • Vitaly Naumkin, Academic Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences
  • Aleksandr Aksenenok, RIAC vice-president, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation
  • Irina Zvyagelskaya, Head of the Center for the Middle East Studies of IMEMO

Moderator — Mikhail Shvydkoy, Special Representative of the Russian President for International Cultural Cooperation.
The key topics for discussion:

  • The role of the Middle East in world politics: what may change?
  • The temptation of peace — opportunities and obstacles to conflict resolution. Prospects for the Russian presence;
  • Old problems in the light of new approaches.
Stressing the important role of the Middle East and North Africa in the past, present and, obviously, in future, V. Naumkin expressed the opinion that today the region is experiencing a systemic crisis — a subjectivity crisis. Nevertheless, the Middle East remains a single region, a subject of world politics, although it has also been affected by transformation processes.

In the post-Covid reality, many unknowns have emerged that have also touched the Middle East. Under these conditions, state leaders are trying to play it safe. A special place here is occupied by the fear factor, which determines the actions of players even more than other issues, particularly social and economic. Therefore, in the field of security, the countries of the region are trying to maintain their reliance primarily on the United States, which is the provider. At the same time, they do not rule out support from other powers — American rivals — Russia and China.

The role of religion is a special issue on the Middle East agenda. Domestic political conflicts remain and will continue to develop. At the same time, the role of religion, changing and, in some countries, being replaced by political ideas, remains an important and relevant factor. This trend persists despite the fact that, on the one hand, extremist movements, which are manipulated, do not quickly disappear, and on the other hand, there is a fragmentation of parties (Muslim Brotherhood, etc.). A similar situation is also observed in other countries, such as India and China.
Analyzing the situation in the Middle East, I. Zvyagelskaya noted that the pandemic has seriously hit the budgets of the local states, but has not yet stopped their activity. Leading powers of the region consider their activity as vital, have their interests there, connected with leadership, confirmation of status and aspiration to strengthen their position and presence in the region. The activity of other players has not decreased either. Players still have the opportunity to build up their strategies, but it is not yet clear how they will do it further.

All this makes it possible to conclude that the region is unpredictable. There is an obvious reformatting of inter-regional relations. And although, in the expert’s opinion, it is too early to speak about alliances, but the region is clearly in the process of normalization, in particular between Israel and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf, primarily Saudi Arabia, because there is a certain community of interests. The processes in the region are ongoing despite the unresolved Palestinian issue. Israel has so far postponed the annexation of territories, but if it takes such a decision, it will slow down the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
А. Aksenenok noted that the Middle East has historically been one of the most volatile regions in the world. The question is, what happened after 2011? What has changed? My theme is "Conflicts and the temptation of peace". There are now more "tempters". What has changed since the collapse of old foundations, foundations of statehood, society, ideology and traditions? New foundations are beginning to take shape. And this process has taken too long. The crisis has become permanent. It is a crisis of subjectivity, but in this crisis there is a very strong element of power crisis. It’s a systemically important crisis. The conflict environment is preserved almost everywhere in its various manifestations, hot and hidden. As the Arabs say: "From the ocean to the gulf". Conflicts are both a cause and a consequence of this crisis in the Middle East.

The Coronavirus is giving a new negative dynamic to developments. The consequences are difficult to predict. The pandemic has interrupted the second wave of protest activity in Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq under the slogan "All means all", that is, the change of all ruling elites. The second wave has been interrupted, but according to many Western and Arab experts, this wave will soon return again, as the root problems that caused the conflicts remain unresolved. Syria is an example. There are signs of the beginning of a new round of mass street protests with demands not only social, but also anti-regime ones.
V. Kuznetsov spoke about the prospects for radical movements in the Middle East. Speaking about the Libyan conflict, he noted the increasing internationalization and regionalization of this process and its increasing importance for regional politics. Partly, its beginning was due to the changing situation in Syria and Yemen, to the desire of regional actors to move the line of confrontation to another new territory, including Libya. At the same time, the conflict can be viewed through two regional prisms — the Middle East prism and the Mediterranean prism. In view of the conflict in Libya, the Mediterranean (as a special region of world politics) is becoming more and more significant, and we see it becoming more Middle Eastern which was not the case before. And traditional European southern actors, such as Italy and France, are increasingly drawn into a certain logic of Middle Eastern politics, which is a serious trend that will continue.
N. Surkov touched upon the problems of the Persian Gulf. At present we see quite an interesting picture in this region. As our foreign colleagues say, there is now a "balance of weakness" instead of "balance of power". What it is all about? First of all, Iran has suffered a lot from sanctions, but it has gradually adapted. In parallel, the Arabian monarchies are weakening, they are losing their importance as suppliers of raw materials, as price regulators, the pandemic has introduced negative economic trends, for example, the income from transit from Asia to Europe is being lost, thus the economy is weakening.

Therefore, there is a possibility that the Gulf monarchies may not be ready for rivalry with Iran. What else affects the monarchies? They have become not as much allies as rivals of the US, especially now with lower oil prices. Besides, Saudi Arabia isn’t capable of ensuring its security. Neither military nor technical advantage saves them from threats, which is proven by examples. Thus, the confrontation may persist between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but it will be very costly.

And here opportunities for dialogue arise. According to N. Surkov, this is important because Russia is now one of the initiators of a new security architecture, and in fact it is a matter of finding a new form of coexistence in the Gulf. And here we will have to look for compromises, because it is not military power that is important now, but the ability to find allies and new proxies: allies are needed to ensure security, proxies are needed to be able to exert pressure in the region.
"Primakov Readings Online" is a new joint project of IMEMO named after E.M. Primakov and Interfax. Within the framework of the project, a series of online meetings of experts, political and public figures are held at the agency’s platform, discussing topical problems of international relations and world economy in the period of crisis.

The project is carried out with the support of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation, Gorchakov Fund and World Trade Center of Moscow.
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