Transformation in the Arab World and Russia’s Interests. Conference Summary

The Arab Spring has shifted the balance in the Middle East, highlighting new problems and challenges for Russia and other regional and extra-regional powers.

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Valdai Discussion Club Middle East Section
17-18 February 2012 – Sochi, Russia

As the top world experts in Middle East affairs who gathered at the Valdai Club conference in Sochi noted, the nature of this shift is characterized by the affirmative civil aspiration of the Arab nations toward democracy and economic development. Yet the success of this process is by no means assured. The policies of Islamist parties, along with the impact of external factors, remain the top priority on the way to achieving a stable and prosperous Middle East. The resolution of conflict issues, such as the situation in Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, also pose a challenge to the overall climate in the region. Russia may have to adjust its position in accordance with Arab consensus if they want to play a constructive role in the most critical issues of the Middle East.

The changes brought about by the growing demand for democracy and the sense of citizenship by the population of Tunisia, Egypt and other countries of the region were broadly welcomed by the participants in the conference. As one of the speakers pointed out, the Arabs have voted for stopping being subjects. They want to become citizens. However, it was not clear whether these popular notions would contribute to the development of national states or whether they would result in the reemergence of Arabism and Pan-Arabism as a paradigm for the development of the countries of the region.

The coming to power of the Islamist parties as a result of elections in Tunisia and Egypt raised questions about the potential role they may play. Russia's chief expert on the Middle East Vitaly Naumkin believes that “democracy will be brought to the Arab world by the Islamists rather than by Western intervention”. He admitted, however, that we would have to wait and see whether Islamist regimes in Arab countries turn out to be democratic or not.

Another cause for the Arab Spring to become a reality was the demand for economic reforms and for the creation of job opportunities for the Arab young people, who were one of the principal driving forces behind the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. It was stressed that little progress has been achieved in this area so far, and criticism was raised over the credibility of the policies of the Islamist parties in power, as “they have no real economic or social agenda apart from some slogans”. Economic reform and the improvement of investment opportunities have been cited as the main factors necessary for future development.

While looking at the Arab Spring from different angles, the experts noted the fluidity of the situation and the fact that it is still not over. It was also stressed that the phenomenon of the Arab Spring should be analyzed on a case by case basis.

The experience of Libya was discussed at a separate session and parallels were drawn with the situation in Syria, something which took over a lot of the discussion at the conference.

“The Arab Spring shall not be used as a pretext for foreign intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Only the peoples themselves can decide their destiny,” read the welcome address of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to the participants in the conference.

His deputy in charge of the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov said that “last year was a very dramatic and bloody year for Libya”. He stressed Moscow's readiness to build normal relations with the elected governments of the Arab countries. He also added that “drawing a line under the events of 2011, the international community should thoroughly analyze all the miscalculations and mistakes made during the Libyan crisis in order to avoid repeating them in the future.”

Several participants from the Arab countries, however, have called on Moscow to make a clear stance and take urgent action to put an end to the bloodshed in Syria. Samir Al-Taqi, a prominent Syrian academic who formerly advised Assad but who has now parted ways with the regime, said he believed Russia was a “force able to have a dialogue with various strata of the Syrian population”. His comments were echoed by many other Arab analysts.

Bogdanov's proposal to launch a dialogue between the Syrian authorities and opposition groups on condition that “opposition representatives distance themselves from the radicals and terrorists, who have been increasingly active in Syria, failed to find favor with the Arabs. Special Advisor to the President of the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly Prof. Mustapha Tlili noted that most of the analysts and experts deliberating on the conflict in Syria completely rejected the idea that a peaceful settlement is still possible.

An exciting debate about the winners and losers of the Arab Spring proved that the question is still open, with all regional powers capable of using the developments in the Middle East to their advantage. However, some of the participants noted the growing decision-making power, not so much of Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Israel, but of the Arab monarchies, notably members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. “They are able to impose their will on the Arab League, and the League is recognized as the main legal actor in the region,” Russian diplomat Alexander Aksenyonok explained.

It was striking to note that the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been dramatically sidelined by the new developments in the region, as well as by the inability of the two sides and the Quartet to push things forward. Though it was conceded that the Middle East settlement was “a ticking time-bomb”, the participants felt there were more pressing issues on the agenda and there was no great will to reach a resolution between Israel and Palestine at this stage.

The conference gathered 80 representatives of various regional and extra-regional countries like Britain, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sweden, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, U.A.E and the U.S.A. Among the participants were Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov, former Prime Minister of Turkey Mesut Yilmaz and Special Advisor to the President of the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly Prof. Mustapha Tlili. The conference opened with addresses by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, the President of the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly and HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal.

“Transformation in the Arab World and Russia’s interests”, the third international conference of the Middle East Section of the Valdai International Discussion Club, was held on February 17-18 and was organized by the Russian News & Information agency RIA Novosti, the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

The Valdai Discussion Club was established in 2004 by the Russian News & Information Agency RIA Novosti and the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, in association with Russia Profile and Russia in Global Affairs magazines and The Moscow News newspaper.

The club’s mission is to promote dialogue between Russian and foreign academics, politicians and journalists, and to provide an independent, unbiased, scholarly analysis of political, economic and social processes in Russia and the world.

The Middle East Section of the Club provides a forum for the leading experts on the Middle East to discuss the most urgent problems of the region. The section has hosted three conferences: in Jordan (2009), Malta (2010) and Russia (2012)