China has no strategy, but it has a policy. This is what Chinese experts have said in the course of explaining – or justifying – Chinese policy toward the countries of the Middle East. Russia is clinging to its policy because it is a state that understands strategy and what makes a strategy, from geography to natural resources. Russian experts speak in this manner, sometimes condescendingly, with their Arab counterparts. The Europeans are fragmented and they confess to their disunity. Their strategy is tactical in nature. For their part, the Americans take turns in refusing to blame the United States on the one hand, and in admitting their tactical mistakes, on the other. When it comes to a long-term US strategy, most American experts almost deny its existence, arguing instead that US policy is the policy of respective presidents and administrations. This is some of the most prominent impressions that came out of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate forum, organized by the Emirates Policy Centre (EPC), in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the UAE earlier this week. The goal of the event is to reach a common understanding amongst international and regional actors about tendencies of regional and international powers, as well as enhance efforts of policy-making among those actors. EPC is headed by Dr. Ebtisam Al Qutbi, the first woman to ever head a think-tank in the UAE. Going into the details of the topics addressed by the meeting, including the impact of hotspots on in the region on the Gulf, as the conference put it, the international actors seem to have brought interesting insights with them to the Middle East region, deserving pause for the sake of a better understanding of current regional and international developments.
In the opening session, Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Mohammed Gargash identified the main outlines of UAE policy, calling for a “clear vision,” a “comprehensive strategy,” and “coordinated efforts” regionally and internationally to tackle challenges including, but not limited to, ISIS. Gargash considered war on extremist groups a necessity because extremists “were not amenable to moderation,” and urged a clampdown on the flow of money and fighters to where these groups are, and also called for promoting education, culture, and openness.
Concerning Syria and Iraq, Gargash blamed sectarian and exclusionary policies. He expressed “cautious hope” in the new Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi, but described his comments on the statements made by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attacking the UAE and Saudi Arabia by saying, “Unfortunately, they undermine the willingness to turn the page on the past,” and raise “doubts.”
Egypt represents the “cornerstone of stability in the region,” as per UAE foreign policy as Gargash said. Gargash stressed that Egypt must regain its historical and key position in the region and the world.
Iran is a neighbor with whom warm relations should be sought, Gargash also said, but he stressed that there was a difference between Iran as a state and society, and Iran as an expansionist foreign policy. Iran’s policy has provoked sectarian wars, exacerbated instability, and promoted chaos in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. As for nuclear negotiations, the Gulf countries want them to lead to an airtight agreement. Otherwise, these countries will have to think about what better suits their interests.
Gargash stressed that the UAE had no ambitions for a greater regional role, preferring to be a model for “moderation” in the region that refused attempts to “change our world through extremist movements.”
The first intervention came from Dr. Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies and a professor at the Faculty of Global Policy at the University of Moscow. He said that the Middle East is not high up on the list of priorities and strategic interests of the Russian Federation, albeit it remains of interest to the Russians. Naumkin stressed that the oil and gas factor is extremely important to Moscow, indicating that there are a lot of conspiracy theories involving Russia and the Gulf. In particular, he referenced an article by American journalist Thomas Friedman in which he wrote that there was a US-Saudi conspiracy against Russia behind the dramatic fall in oil prices in the past few weeks.
There have been voices saying falling oil and gas prices were part of a new strategy to harm Russia, being one of the world’s top exporters of oil and gas. It has also been said that one of the goals of this strategy was to push Iran to show more flexibility in nuclear negotiations, which, if successful, would lead to lifting the sanctions on Tehran.
Russia is committed to the alliance with Iran in the Middle East and this was clear through all the Russian interventions made at the Abu Dhabi Debate. The Russian participants were almost in complete agreement in the main topics of their interventions, which did not diverge much from official Russian policy.
What is frustrating about a large number of interventions made by the Russians, whether by speakers behind podiums or in the course of their comments on the sidelines of the meeting, was the extent of arrogance and condescendence they displayed toward Arab attitudes and interventions. There was a kind of contempt and ridicule of the Arab character, and not just of the various opinions expressed by the participating Arabs. The goal of the forum, which invited more than ten Russian figures, was to open the door for interaction and the exchange of experiences. Unfortunately, the Russian presence was characterized by mocking Arab “sentimentality” and by belittling the Arab positions, which insist in their majority on independent decision-making within the Arab region, away from Iranian meddling in Arab countries.
The Russian comments – including the ones made by Dr. Elena Suponina, director of the Middle East and Asia Center, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies – stressed that Iran is not only a key player in solving the problems of the Arab countries, but must also be a leading player in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Suponina downplayed Arab roles and leaders, and suggested that the UAE follow Russia in lifting the sanctions on Iran, given that the UAE has the highest trade volume with Iran in the region. Suponina completely ignored Arab objections to