Young Arabs Admire Russia, at Least in Theory

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Lots of Americans fear that Russia has returned as a major player in the Middle East. Lots of Arabs seem to hope so.

The impression rests on Russia’s successful intervention, along with its allies Iran and Hezbollah, in the Syrian war. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made more trips to Moscow of late than to Washington, as Israel tries to secure its interests in Syria.

Among U.S. Arab allies, too, Russia's influence has been growing, and not just with governments.

The last two editions of the Arab Youth Survey, an annual study of attitudes among 18- to 24-year-olds in the Middle East and North Africa, show young Arabs increasingly looking to Russia as an ally and viewing the U.S. as unreliable or worse.

Young Arabs unsurprisingly identified Iran as the main national "enemy" at 64 percent, but the U.S. came in second at 59 percent.

Meanwhile, the U.S. reputation as an ally is in decline. The proportion of young Arabs identifying it that way has gone from 63 percent in 2016 to 35 percent last year before ticking up a little to 41 percent now. Russia, by contrast, continues to get high marks, down slightly from 69 percent last year to 65 percent now.

In the strongly U.S.-aligned Gulf Arab countries, 43 percent of the young people surveyed see Washington as a “stronger ally” than Moscow, but only by a single percentage point, with Russia getting 42 percent.

This is particularly intriguing since the devastation in Syria tends to be Exhibit A in the bill of particulars against Iran and Hezbollah. But Russia appears to get a free pass on being the global godfather of the entire project.

The Soviet Union was largely elbowed out of the region after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and Egypt’s drift into Washington’s orbit. And after the end of the Cold War, Russia struggled to cling to any presence in the Middle East at all. But now it’s widely viewed as the primary outside power.

Its appeal can probably be best understood as a theoretical alternative to the U.S.

Its only role in the Gulf region is as Iran's key international ally and as an alternative arms supplier for those who don’t get weapons from the U.S. Russia may well be serving as a proxy for an appealing, but hypothetical, multipolar reality in which Arab societies have many options for international support while most, practically speaking, really have just one: the U.S.

It's unlikely that this apparent surge of sympathy for Russia is based on Moscow's actual policies, particularly its intervention in Syria and patronage of Iran.

But the Syrian war may be helping the Russian image. When Moscow intervened in 2015, along with Iran and Hezbollah, to save the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, that was arguably the first successful international intervention in the Arab world since the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.

It gave Moscow the patina of being a powerful partner, a force for stability and sovereignty, and a winner. By contrast, the U.S. under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump has looked timid and ineffectual despite Trump's occasional air strikes in Syria and Yemen, and a financial war against Tehran. These seem like no-risk ventures.

Moreover, U.S. Arab allies often use Russia as leverage to get what they want from Washington. When Saudi Arabia tried to buy the anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, it had to move toward buying the Russian S-400 alternative before making real progress with Washington. The same goes for efforts by the United Arab Emirates to buy a modern U.S. jet  fighter. The U.A.E. wants American F-35s, but to get them will probably have to negotiate for a Russian alternative.

It's also helpful to Russia that it has been relatively absent from the Middle East for decades, leaving the U.S. to be blamed for everything that’s gone wrong since the 1970s or before.

Personalities are also in play. Trump is widely regarded globally as an absurd figure and champion of racists. Russian President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, manages to convey strength, determination, ruthlessness and gravitas. It also doesn't hurt that Trump seems to be in awe of him.

Thus Putin seems to personify a determined and reliable Russia versus an indecisive and hapless U.S.

The honeymoon, though, is unlikely to last. Sooner rather than later, Russia is going to be held to account for its own conduct. And given the limitations of Russia’s ability to project power around the world, with an economy no larger than Italy’s, it is probably already overstretched in Syria alone.

If Washington ever awakens from its self-defeating retreat from active engagement in the Middle East, the idea that Russia is once again a major regional power could, and probably would, dissipate in a few weeks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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