Russia in the Middle East: Return of the bear

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov listens during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt (14 Nov. 2013) Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Cairo for talks on Thursday - the highest level for years

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Something strange is happening in the Middle East.

The Russians, once vilified in some Arab countries as godless communists, their crumbling economy mocked, their dated weaponry shunned by the rich Gulf states, are now sweeping back into favour as US influence wanes.

Thursday's visit to Egypt by a high-level Russian delegation, with the prospect of a $2bn arms deal, is only the latest sign of a trend that has been gathering pace since the Arab Spring unrest kicked off in early 2011.

The fact that Moscow is supporting a regime - Syria's - ostracised by most of the Arab League is being quietly overlooked as Russian delegations and arms salesmen beat a path to Arab doors.

Twenty-two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian clout in the Middle East is the highest it has been in a generation.

MiG-29 jet fighters of the Strizhi (Swifts) and Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) aerobatic teams perform near an Orthodox church outside Moscow (28 August 2013) Russian MiG-29 jets (shown here with Su-27s) have been widely exported

In the clear blue skies above the Dubai Air Show the Russian MiG-29 fighter performed a stunt that held the watching crowd below quite breathless.

With a fiery thrust of the twin engines the ace pilot powered the large jet vertically up into the air then stopped it in mid-air, rotated it into a horizontal position, and then flew it slowly backwards.

It seemed to defy gravity and all the laws of physics. Despite the applause, the air show's Emirati hosts ended up awarding their $6bn jet fighter contract that year, 1999, to the Americans, opting to buy the F16 instead.

But Russia, like France, the UK, China and other countries, has never given up on the lucrative Middle East market and today, amidst the shifting uncertainties of the post-Arab Spring, its delegations are given a warm welcome.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russian arms exports accounted for 27% of the total for the Middle East and North Africa in the period 2008-2012.

Setbacks

Moscow's fortunes in the region are experiencing something of a revival after a string of historic setbacks.

All the weaponry it provided to the Arab states prior to the 1973 Arab-Israeli War failed to defeat Israel and its largely US-supplied arsenal.

When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 it triggered an eight-year anti-Soviet jihad, backed by Pakistan, the CIA and Saudi Arabia, that saw thousands of Gulf Arab volunteers flock to Afghanistan and Pakistan's Tribal Territories. Moscow was seen by many in the region as "the enemy".

In 1990 the Soviet satellite state of South Yemen, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, merged with the North, and Russian troops departed from Aden.

The next year, 1991, the short, sharp Desert Storm campaign was a triumph of US military technology over Saddam Hussein's antiquated Soviet-supplied army, boosting US arms sales to the region. That same year, the USSR disintegrated.

Then in 2003 the US-led invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam's regime lost Moscow a key Arab client with billions of dollars still owed. Syria and Algeria have remained as Russia's last big defence clients in the Arab world, with the Syrian regime largely isolated by its fellow Arab states.

Afghan men sit on top of an old Soviet tank overlooking Naghlu lake on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan (11 Sept. 2013) Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan for nine years following their 1979 invasion
Revival

But the upheavals of the Arab Spring have helped bring about a revival in Russian fortunes. After years of looking to the West for their defence contracts, the really big Arab spenders, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, are now keen to diversify.

This is as much for political as technical reasons.

Shaken but not toppled by the revolutions of 2011, Gulf Arab rulers have been angered by the speed with which the West abandoned its former partner, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

They also bristle at being "lectured" by Western governments and the media on human rights and democracy, hinting that the alternative to their often autocratic rule is chaos and the rise of Islamic extremism.

Much as they disapprove of Moscow's support for Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad, Arab rulers have noticed that unlike the West's indecisive approach, Russian policy has been unwavering from the beginning. They like that.

So here then, is a brief roundup of Russian defence interests in the region:

Syria

Without ongoing Russian support, the Syrian regime might well have crumbled by now against the onslaught of the various rebel groups.

Most of its arsenal is based on Russian supplies, along with help from Iran.

Thirteen per cent of Moscow's 2008-2012 defence sales to the region went to Syria, and Russia maintains a naval logistics base at Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus.

In August Saudi Arabia's Security chief, Prince Bandar, flew to Moscow and reportedly offered Russia $15bn of defence contracts in exchange for abandoning its Syrian ally. Russia has not abandoned the Syrian regime.

Iran

Once a major customer for US defence sales in the time of the Shah, Iran has had to look elsewhere since 1979, notably to North Korea.

Now subject to an international UN arms embargo, Iran has failed to persuade Moscow to deliver the advanced S-300 air defence missile systems it wants.

In recent years Iran has developed an extensive home-grown arms industry, based on imported designs.

Egypt

Under President Nasser, Moscow was Cairo's main defence partner but that ended in 1971, to be replaced by the US.

Under President Mubarak, who ruled Egypt from 1981-2011, defence ties with the US grew even closer, with American M1 Abrams tanks being built in Egypt under licence.

But since the Egyptian military deposed the elected president Mohammed Morsi in July, Washington has withheld some major arms deliveries, prompting Egypt to welcome a top-level Russian delegation this week.

The Chinese are also keen. It is widely believed that if a multi-billion dollar Egypt-Russia arms deal goes ahead then it will be bankrolled by the Saudis.

Iraq

Historically, a major client for Russian arms under Saddam Hussein's rule (1979-2003), post-Saddam Iraq then looked to the US.

But during 2012-13 Baghdad has signed major deals for Russian air defence systems and combat helicopters, beating off European competitors.

Saudi Arabia

By far the biggest, richest prize for any defence contractor in the Middle East but historically a difficult market for Moscow to displace the US and the West from.

Since 2008 a Saudi-Russian contract has been on hold for 150 T-90 tanks, BMP3 armoured fighting vehicles and 100 Mi-17 and Mi-35 attack helicopters.

On Sunday Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah took a phone call from President Putin amid a warming of relations.

UAE

Like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates are keen to diversify their defence contracts and, according to SIPRI, over 7% of Russian arms sales in 2008-2012 went to the UAE.

Over the last two decades there has been an enormous influx of Russian visitors and residents to the UAE and one very senior member of the ruling family has such a close working relationship with President Putin they go shooting together in the Russian woods.

North Africa

Libya and Algeria were long-time defence buyers from Moscow with nearly 60% of Russian arms exports going to Algeria during 2008-12, according to SIPRI.

But Algeria is now diversifying and in the post-Gaddafi chaos of Libya, British Army instructors will soon be training Libyan soldiers.

Meanwhile the contents of Gaddafi's plundered arsenals continues to proliferate across the region, with assault rifles, RPGs and possibly even surface-to-air missiles being smuggled as far as Mali and the Sinai.

You can follow Frank on Twitter @FrankRGardner

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