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Moscow And The Middle East - How The Arab Spring Left Russia In The Cold

Delayed by the popular uprisings in the Arab world, the first-ever summit between Russia and the Arab League is on this week in Moscow. Though Syria is on the agenda, many the questions linger.

Putin and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last June
Putin and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last June
Maria Efimova and Yelena Chernenko

MOSCOW - The Russian-Arab Partnership Forum was born in December 2009. At the time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the General Secretary of the Arab League, Amr Musa, signed a memorandum proclaiming that Russia and the Arab world’s partnership would rise to a new level.

Just over a year later, the Arab Spring was rocking the Middle East, and the first meeting scheduled for 2011 had to be postponed. Amongst its many effects, the popular uprising would wind up complicating the relationship between Russian and the Arab world, where regime change was called for, and sometimes achieved, in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

In some cases Russia was hesitant about regime change, and downright hostile in the case of Libya and Syria. So the Partnership Forum didn’t manage to meet in 2012 either.

But now, for the first time, the meeting is taking place in the Russian capital. The invitees to this week’s summit in Moscow represent the Arab League and many of its member countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and Libya.

Assembling such a large number of representatives was possible thanks largely to the apparent impasse in Syria. “There’s not as many contradictions as before,” explained Elena Suponina, head of the Russian Institute for the Study of Asia and the Near East. “It is clear to everyone that one side is not going to win decisively, so there has to be a political resolution.”

There were two major goals in this meeting between the Arab representatives and Russia: limiting weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and bringing a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But whatever Russia and the Arab countries might want, Israel and Iran will get in the way of any international conference on the first topic. And the second issue, long-hanging over the region, seems like a virtual non-starter these days.

Regardless, a resolution to the Israel-Palestine issue is on the table during the meeting in Moscow. Russia thinks that the Arab League should join the "quartet," which now includes Russia, the U.S., the United Nations and EU. The United Nations and EU are in favor of the idea, but the United States is skeptical (largely because of Israel’s position, which maintains that the Arab League does not need to be involved).

According to Russian diplomats, the new Forum should also focus on expanding trade between Russia and the Arab world, including the creation of a Russian-Arab trade council. Since Russia has lost most of its former position in the Arab world due to the political changes, building stronger trade relationships is perhaps the key to building a better relationship.

“The plans that Russia had in relation to the Middle East were all destroyed in the past couple years,” explained Suponina. “It’s also going to be difficult to establish investment and construction projects, as well as weapons contracts, because the region is still changing.”

For example, in spite of the efforts of many Russian delegations, a multi-billion dollar weapons contract with Libya remains elusive. Tripoli has not forgotten Moscow’s support for the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. That is also why Moscow has been unable to help Russian citizens in Libya sentenced to prison for “supporting Gaddafi.”

That issue will not be among the topics discussed at the Forum’s meeting in Moscow. Libya’s foreign minister was invited, but chose to skip the meeting. As Libyan diplomatic source explained to Kommersant, “The minister is not planning on ever visiting Russia.”

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