The Middle East is a region that has traditionally fallen under the influence of external forces. The desire of the United States to take a less active role in the Middle Eastern affairs, which was marked by the withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011 under the Obama administration, coincided with the increasing involvement of Russia and China in the processes taking place in the region.
The emerging crisis of statehood in the Middle East, the threat of terrorism and the general state of global politics have prompted Moscow, which has a long history of cooperation with Middle Eastern countries, to play a role in the region’s affairs. Beijing’s involvement is not so much connected to possible threats to the country as it is to internal development processes, economic complementarity with the countries in the region and the strategy of becoming a major power behaving in a responsible manner .
Russia and China see the influence of the United States in the Middle East during the 1990s and the 2000s, when Washington dominated the region as being wholly destructive. However, neither Moscow nor Beijing is calling for the United States to withdraw from the region. They are interested in cooperating with Washington and working out joint approaches to ensuring the security and development of the Middle East.
This type of relationship suits Moscow perfectly, as Russia does not have the necessary economic clout. Notwithstanding, Russia could make the switch in the next few years from exporting weapons to exporting integrated security using – and promoting – new developments.
Crises in the Middle East: The Evolution of the Approaches of Russia and China
The transformational processes that have been taking place in the Arab world have led Russia and China to the realisation that they need to adopt new approaches to their respective foreign policies in the Middle East.
Russia and China traditionally oppose the interference of external players in the domestic affairs of the countries in the region in contravention of international law. For a long time, Moscow did not view the Middle East as a priority region, focusing from the 1990s onwards on its relations with the West.
Before Xi Jinping came to power, China’s foreign policy was based on the principle of “tao guang yang hui” (“keep a low profile and bide your time”), which explains why Beijing never had any desire to interfere directly in the resolution of complex and long-standing conflicts in the Middle East . At the same time, Russia and China never used human rights as a rhetorical instrument in their foreign policies, something that their Middle Eastern partners found appealing.
The non-interference of Moscow and Beijing in the region’s affairs led to a severe infringement of Russian and Chinese interests, to the extent that the countries lost investments that had already been made . In particular, Russia and China abstained from the vote on UN Security Council Resolution No. 1973 sanctioning foreign intervention in Libya . This direct military intervention by Western states is what led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Considering the results of these approaches, as well as the destructive influence of the actions of Western governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia and China took a different decision on the Syria issue.
While Russia and the United States had an active military presence in Syria, China adopted a more flexible position, one that left room for manoeuvre. However, Beijing expressed its general attitude towards regional conflicts at the very beginning of the Syrian crisis, opting to veto alongside Russia in October 2011 the UN Security Council Resolution to impose sanctions against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Moscow and Beijing would subsequently reject several proposals put forward by third countries to resolve the conflict . The steps taken by China in this situation reflect the evolution of Beijing’s approach to the problems in the Middle East . China has significant strategic advantages in the region, acting as a preferred partner for the states in the region thanks to its ability to provide loans and develop economic interaction. The need to defend and promote its interests demanded that its political potential, imbued with economic and diplomatic power, be realised. Moreover, the Middle East is an essential component of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative .
Russia’s and China’s Ties with Middle Eastern Countries
The Russian Federation presented its updated Foreign Policy Concept in 2016. The document mentions the Middle East several times, primarily in the context of ensuring security and combatting international terrorism .
This approach is in many ways a response to the threats to Russia emanating from the Middle Eastern region, especially considering the proliferation of the Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Nusra Front, or al-Qaeda) and so-called Islamic State terrorist organisations in Syria and Iraq. These groups also threaten China’s security, recruiting fighters both domestically and from Russia (as well as from existing terrorist organisations such as the Caucasus Emirate and the Turkistan Islamic Party).
The question of the possible return of foreign terrorist fighters to their homelands has been raised. To counter these threats, both China and Russia continued their close cooperation with Syrian intelligence services and the armed forces in the fight against Islamic State and other terrorist organisations. For example, according to official media reports, Chinese military advisors have taught government troops in Syria how to handle Chinese weapons , while the military and political leaders of the two countries continued to hold regular meetings and con sultations . Meanwhile Russia, at the request of the official Syrian government, launched a military operation in the country on September 30, 2015, a move that in many ways altered the balance of powers in the country and the Middle East as a whole .
Through its multi-vectored policy and consolidated military presence Russia has been able to expand its economic opportunities in the Middle East. Leading Russian corporations are planning to develop energy, military-technical, agricultural and other types of cooperation with the countries in the region.
Russian experts have helped to build the first nuclear power plant in the Middle East near the Iranian city of Bushehr, and the two sides have signed contracts on the construction of additional blocks . Contracts were signed on the construction of nuclear plants in Turkey  and Egypt , with work already under-way. In addition, relevant agreements were signed with Jordan , and negotiations are under-way with Saudi Arabia and other countries .
Russian weapons – from assault rifles to air defence systems (including the S-300 and S-400 systems) – are in demand in the region and are supplied both to major regional players and to Russia’s less influential partners. Moscow has been involved in the exploitation of large hydrocarbon deposits and the construction of the related infrastructure in Egypt , Turkey , Syria , Iraq , and Iran  since late 2015. What is more, Russia works with the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to stabilise oil prices .
China has become the largest investor in the Middle East, surpassing the United States . At present, Middle Eastern countries continue to sign cooperation agreements
with China to carry out projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative . Other countries in the region are also stepping up the pace of the alignment of their development strategies with the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese experts note the balanced and diversified structure of China’s diplomatic relations with the countries in the Middle East . China’s role in the region’s economy has increased dramatically, which is in large part due to the compatibility of their economic structures: Middle Eastern countries supply hydrocarbons to China, while Beijing sends various goods and products to the region.
In the run-up to Xi Jinping’s official visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran in January 2016 , China published its first ever policy paper on cooperation with Arab countries . The President’s trip to the Middle East and the intensification of foreign relations with the region’s countries received extensive coverage in official Chinese media outlets .
This could indicate that Beijing has accumulated enough experience in the Middle East and has worked out which direction it wants to take with regard to its policy in the region. What is more, news broke in early 2016 that China had set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa .
China had long planned to have a military presence in Africa so that it could protect Chinese business in the region. The base’s location in Djibouti means that the country will be able to track the situation along essential logistics routes: goods and hydrocarbons travel to China from the Persian Gulf States to the Suez Canal via the Gulf of Aden. According to some estimates, China has a desire to develop its presence not only in Africa but in the Middle East as well .
Russia and China take part in various multilateral formats of cooperation with the countries of the Middle East. Russia is, more specifically, developing ties with the region within the framework of the Arab-Russian Cooperation Forum and in the form of strategic cooperation with the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) .
China cooperates with the region’s countries through its traditional cooperation formats, such as the China–Arab Cooperation Forum. The BRICS and the SCO could serve as a promising platform for the development of contacts between Moscow and Beijing on the one hand and the countries of the Middle East on the other, which may help when it comes to implementing joint economic initiatives and ensuring security.
Russia–China cooperation in the Middle East should not merely be aimed at countering the U.S. actions. Through the interaction of all three influential external players with the region’s countries, many issues can be solved. In this context, it would be worth studying further the issue of creating a security architecture in the region.
Moscow, Beijing and Washington could suggest setting up a security system in the Persian Gulf in the GCC+2 format (adding Iraq and Iran). In addition, Russia traditionally maintains working contacts with Saudi Arabia  and Iran . Moreover, China is a key trading partner for these countries .
Efforts to reduce tensions between Riyadh and Tehran and strengthen trust between them will also lead to a weakening of competition in other parts of the region. This will make it possible for Saudi Arabia and Iran to develop more constructive relations.
With time, it may be worth considering the possibility of creating a regional multilateral security organisation in the Middle East on a collective basis, with the involvement of Russia, China, the United States and the European Union as observers.
The settlement of the Syrian crisis and the post-conflict reconstruction of the country will require large-scale investments. If a plan for political transition in Syria in the interests of all parties to the conflict and the Assad regime uses force to suppress its opponents, then it is unlikely that international institutions will provide aid or investments in the post-conflict period.
Russian experts believe that, given the fact that China, Iran and Russia are building up cooperative ties, the sides could define their areas of responsibility both on the restoration of Syria, and on the Middle East as a whole.
China has already expressed its intention to take part in the restoration of Syria . Vladimir Putin has talked about the importance of this in the past . Russian companies are also expanding their presence in the country.
The integration of the International North–South Transport Corridor running through Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran and into India with the Belt and Road Initiative could become an element of strategic Russia–China cooperation.
Russia and China may both be interested in gaining continental access to the Middle East using the territories and infrastructure of Iran and Iraq in order to strengthen their influence in the Arab Mashreq sub-region, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The countries in the region may also be interested in this, as diversifying international relations will allow them to stabilise political and socio-economic life.
Russia has a wealth of experience in the region and directs considerable resources towards the development of diplomatic contacts and ensuring security in the Middle East. China, in turn, aims to develop economic ties with regional countries, becoming a key trading partner for them. What is more, the massive and strategically important China–Pakistan Economic Corridor leads right into the Middle East. All this notwithstanding, the United States remains the major external player in the region, where it has a robust military presence.
Coordinated actions between Russia and China could have a positive effect on regional stability, with Moscow, Beijing and the countries of the Middle East carrying out joint projects while at the same time guaranteeing security.
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