World Politics

Russian expansion in the Middle East is a 'clear reality on the ground,' WEF president says

Key Points
  • "I think there is a clear reality on the ground that we see more of a Russian footprint in this region," Borge Brende said during the WEF on the Middle East and Africa in Amman, Jordan.
  • Moscow has signed technical agreements and memoranda of understanding to sell its S-400 and other weapons to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
There is a bigger Russian footprint in the Middle East region, WEF President says

World Economic Forum (WEF) President Borge Brende spoke to CNBC on Sunday, discussing his take on the evolving geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.

It's no news that Russian presence in the region has grown. American withdrawal and disengagement from several of the region's hotspots has coincided with an apparent shift eastward, Brende said, inviting Moscow to exert its influence over that of the U.S.

"I think there is a clear reality on the ground that we see more of a Russian footprint in this region," Brende told CNBC's Hadley Gamble during the WEF on the Middle East and Africa in Amman, Jordan.

The Norwegian politician and diplomat, who served as foreign affairs minister before taking up the WEF presidency, pointed to some clear areas where Russia's foreign policy objectives have defined the trajectory of conflicts. This has been the case particularly in Syria, where Russian troops have supported Syrian leader Bashar Assad since 2015, enabling him to survive and essentially win that country's eight-year-long civil war.

"Of course in Syria, Russia now plays an important role, we also see that there is a lot of interaction between President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu (of Israel)," Brende said.

But other examples relating to trade and investment are clear indicators of increased Russian clout, he added. "We also see that the Gulf countries are discussing very much with Russia when it comes to the oil price, because Russia is the largest oil producer in the world, even larger than Saudi."

Russia's alliance with OPEC's largest oil producer Saudi Arabia and agreements for continued cooperation in energy, trade and investment have enabled closer ties between the two, and its sales of weapons systems like the S-400 missile defense system, which is now driving a wedge between NATO allies the U.S. and Turkey, is not lost on Washington.

Moscow has signed technical agreements and memoranda of understanding to sell the S-400 — which is a cheaper, and according to some analysts more effective version of the U.S. Patriot missile defense system — and other weapons to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.

And hundreds of Russian mercenaries allegedly linked to the Kremlin have been supporting the rebel leader of Libya's breakaway eastern half, General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are now advancing on the capital Tripoli. Russia also maintains close ties to Israel and Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (R) during their meeting at the Kremlin, on May 30, 2017 n Moscow, Russia. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince is on the visit to Russia.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

Still, the U.S. remains the security partner of choice for the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, boasting an 80-year-old alliance involving billions upon billions of dollars in weapons sales, security assistance and oil trade.

And while the U.S. under President Donald Trump and beginning under Barack Obama has been shrinking its presence in countries like Iraq and Syria, the administration still insists on fighting Iranian influence in the region, leveraging Riyadh and a policy of economic sanctions to do so.

"I think U.S. is still involved in the region; you've seen Secretary Pompeo in the region, Jared Kushner," Brende said, noting the officials' frequent visits to Middle East allied countries, which have been generally focused on combating Iran or on the elusive Middle East peace plan that Trump promised during his presidential campaign.

A Middle East pivot eastward?

"But if there is a vacuum we'll see other nations also trying to increase their influence in the region."

Russia is not the only force taking up America's market share of influence in the region. China, with its massive infrastructure projects and its Belt and Road Initiative aiming to link Beijing to trade and logistics hubs across Asia, Africa and Europe, is gaining fast-growing headway too.

By mid-2018, China had committed $23 billion in aid and loans to Arab countries, with funds marked for infrastructure, reconstruction and humanitarian projects. While still in the early stages, China is playing the "long game" in the Middle East, analysts say, pursuing economic and strategic interests with minimal political interference, making itself an attractive partner for many Arab governments.

"The global reality is that this century will be more Asian than last century was. We see growth happening in Asia — China is growing at 6%, but it's such a big economy that it is 30% of global growth," Brende said, also highlighting India, the fastest-growing large economy in the world according to the IMF.

"India and China are meeting in competition in Myanmar, Bangladesh, but also in Gulf states… Asia will be much more important for the Middle East and North Africa moving forward than it has been in the past."

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