Convened over two days on May 23 and 24, 2015 in Doha, Qatar, the conference “Russia and the Arab World : Current Transformations of an Enduring Relationship” provided an opportunity for forthright discussions between Arab and Russian scholars to discuss the nature of the relationship between Russia—in its various historical guises—and the Arab states. With interventions in Arabic, English and Russian, historians, economists, political scientists, diplomats and politicians discussed the historical roots of the relationship between modern-day Russia and the Arabs, as well as, in particular, Arab attitudes and expectations with respect to the relationship with Russia. Highlighting the complexity and extent of those relations, ACRPS General Director Azmi Bishara opened the meeting by explaining that practical considerations meant that a study of the cultural dimensions of the Russo-Arab relationship could not be considered within the conference. As Bishara noted, “a study of the impact of the fiction of Dosteovsky on Arabic literature would require a conference of its own”. The fact that the conference was not dedicated to culture and literature did not prevent a strong thread of cultural and civilization commentary from developing in the first session and continuing throughout.

More than 30 Russian, Arab and European scholars attended the ACRPS' conference "The Arab World and Russia: Current Transformations of an Enduring Relationship''

Participants and attendees were treated to a detailed history of the centuries-long relationship between Russia and the Arabs by Alikber Alikberov, a scholar at the Oriental Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Alikberov's presentation treated the audience to a broad overview of the history tying the two sides together. As he pointed out, the academic study of the Arabic language in Russia goes back to the beginning of modernity in that country, under Catherine the Great. The cultural ties described by Alikberov and which tie the Arabian Peninsula to Russia stretch back to the early Middle Ages, with some of the personal companions of Islam's Prophet Mohammed having their final resting place in Daghestan, in the Russian Caucasus. Fasih Baderkhan, a Syria-born academic who is now a colleague of Alikberov at the Oriental Institute, elaborated further on this religious component when he pointed out that while 13% of the Russian population is Muslim, Orthodox Christianity, which takes Moscow as a sort of unofficial ecclesiastical capital, has long been a strong part of the Arab cultural fabric.

Such robust cultural relations, however, did not prevent participants from addressing some of the more difficult questions plaguing the Arab view of Russia. Speaking in the first session, Kadhim Hashim Niama described Russia in the aftermath of the Cold War as a wayward country looking for a “Great Power” role in the Arab region. Foreshadowing a sentiment which would surface again during the proceedings, Niama dated the downfall of Russian prestige globally and in the Arab region in particular, to the collapse of the Soviet Union, describing the Yeltsin presidency as a period of “being lost in the wilderness”. Illustrating this with an example which would have been familiar to many in the room, Niama recounted an episode during the long siege on Iraq (1991-2003) when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remarked that “How strange that France and Germany want to lift the sanctions, while [post-Soviet] Russia lays dormant”. Yet the resurgence of Moscow under Putin, revitalized following unilateral American action in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, proved no less problematic for its relations with the Arab world, with previous apathy and incapacity making way for an intransigent support for repressive regimes opposed to the Arab Spring, such as the military junta in Egypt and the Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus, a long-standing Russian ally. As more than one participant made clear, the only thing worse than the instability caused by the fall of the Soviet Empire and its winding back from the Arab region was the dogged way in which Moscow sought to further its interests and those of its repressive Arab allies at the expense of the Arab peoples.

Mohammad Almasri discusses Arab public views of Russia, based on survey findings from the 2014 Arab Opinion Index

This ambiguity about the role expected of Russia was matched by a general Arab lack of awareness of Russia, its society and political aims. In contrast to the United States and the West more generally, Russia seems to have made only limited inroads into the Arab public imagination, based on public opinion findings reported by the Arab Opinion Index. Presented by Mohammad Almasri, Executive Director of the ACRPS and chief of the Arab Opinion Index, results from the 2014 poll, which included over 26,000 respondents spread over 14 countries, showed that Arab public opinion is broadly disenchanted with Russia (40% of respondents held views of Russia which were “negative” or “negative to some extent”, compared to 29% whose views of Russia were “positive” or “positive to some extent”). Yet nearly one-third had no fixed view of Russia, which is remarkable given the sway which the Soviet Union once held over the Arab world. This was a point underscored by the ACRPS' Marwan Kabalan, moderating the first panel on the first day of the conference, who pointed out that, while a conference hall in Doha had a fair number of Arabic-speaking Russians and Russian-speaking Arabs, scholars both in Russia and in the Arab region relied primarily on Western European languages for knowledge of the other side: in other words, there was no real “dialogue” between Russia and the Arab states. What the Arab public did know about Russia, said Almasri, was generally concerned with news reports of Russian support for the regime in Damascus, as well as a strong and expanding relationship with Israel, neither of which would endear it to Arab television viewers.

If the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the attendant loss of Russian prestige and the conflict over Russian and Arab interests had set the stage for a less than amiable environment, then trade relations between Russia and the MENA region, while robust, also held out no great promise. Speaking on the second day of the meeting, Russian economist Galia Fazelianova detailed how the volume of trade between Russia and the Arab states climbed from US$ 2 billion in 2003 to $14 billion in 2012. By 2013, Russian trade with the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council alone was valued at $3.17 billion. Nonetheless, this was dwarfed by Russian trade with Turkey, which alone accounted for $50 billion last year, despite long-standing geopolitical tensions between the only Muslim-majority NATO member and Russia. The anemic level of Russia's trade with Iran, which in 2014 was valued at only $1 billion, pointed to another truth: that Russia's foreign policy priorities were not dictated by economic imperatives. This was explained with some level of skepticism for the future growth of Russo-Arab relations by high-profile Emirati economist Nasser Bin Ghaith, speaking at a session dedicated to Russia-GCC relations on the second day of the conference, explaining that “like the GCC states, Russia's is also a rentier economy reliant on natural resource extraction. With disagreements over Syria, and growing relations between Moscow and Israel clouding the view, deliberations in Doha show that familiarity and similarity of outlook are no guarantee of alliance between Russia and the Arab states.