After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia actively borrowed Western—primarily European—legal and bureaucratic practices. Now that the European path appears to be closed off entirely, the Middle East is fast emerging as an alternative route.
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s subsequent rupture with the West, the Middle East has started to play a growing role in Russia’s politics and economy. Trade with Middle Eastern countries is booming; new transport corridors are being built through them to Russia; and hundreds of thousands of Russians who have fled war and mobilization have moved to the region. All of this means that a Middle Eastern influence is increasingly making itself felt in Russia.
Russia burst onto the Middle Eastern stage back in 2015, when it entered the Syrian civil war on the side of the embattled government. Until 2022, however, the Middle East was just one of many vectors in Russian foreign policy. Moscow’s war against Ukraine changed everything. The resulting isolation from the West forced Russia to urgently cast around for alternative partners in a range of areas, and just a year later the Middle Eastern countries were second only to China in terms of their importance to Moscow.
The biggest leap has been made in trade and economic relations with Turkey. Trade turnover nearly doubled in 2022 to over $60 billion: again, Russia trades more only with China. Turkey has also become an indispensable partner for Russia in a broad range of other areas, from air travel to high-tech imports.
Iran has proved to be an important military ally for Russia in the Ukraine conflict. In addition to the infamous kamikaze drones, Iran has supplied Russia with body armor, helmets, shells, rockets for rocket launchers, and ammunition.
The importance of the United Arab Emirates has also grown sharply. Not only did trade turnover in 2022 increase by 68 percent to $9 billion, the country has become an important link in the chains of parallel imports of electronics—above all, crucial microchips—as well as one of the main destinations for Russian nationals emigrating or simply traveling abroad.
Meanwhile, Moscow is now coordinating both its oil export strategy and approaches to Middle Eastern conflicts with Saudi Arabia. Finally, Russian troops have not left Syria: still home to Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union. Willingly or unwillingly, Moscow remains a direct participant in the resolution of the long-running Syrian conflict.
Then there are all the large-scale Russian projects in the Middle East that are already being implemented, or will be launched in the near future. These include the North-South transport corridor through Azerbaijan and Iran to the Indian Ocean, and a gas hub in Turkey.
One new element in Russia’s relations with the Middle East is the emergence of an enormous Russian diaspora in the region. In 2022, Turkey and the UAE were among the top ten most popular destinations for Russians who chose to relocate following the outbreak of the war. There are no precise statistics on the number of people who have emigrated, but Turkey alone issued more than 150,000 residence permits to Russian nationals last year. In 2023, they became much more difficult to obtain or renew, but the number of Russians in the country is still far higher than in the prewar years.
The UAE saw a significant increase not only in the number of Russian tourists and emigres in 2022–2023, but also in the number of companies registered by Russians. Another key destination was Israel, to which more than 60,000 Russians fled from the beginning of 2022 to mid-2023. In total, the war in Ukraine led to several hundred thousand Russians moving to live in the Middle East.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Russian media coverage of Middle Eastern conflicts has grown. The latest conflict between Israel and Hamas has shown that Moscow can no longer afford to sit on the fence, and the Kremlin is increasingly aligning itself with the Islamic countries of the Middle East. That’s no coincidence, given their growing importance for Russia.
Although the rhetoric of the Russian authorities is not yet openly anti-Israeli, the consequences of this alignment have already shocked the world, with mobs of aggressive demonstrators storming hotels and airports under anti-Israeli slogans in Russia’s North Caucasus.
The proliferation of connections at various levels, the large diaspora of Russians, and the increased role of the region for Russia all mean that Middle Eastern culture will inevitably penetrate Russia more than ever before, including in business and finance. A two-year Islamic banking experiment got under way in Russia on September 1. The economic component of the project is dubious, but the symbolic significance is undeniable. Russian officials are also now increasingly in contact with the Middle East, meaning the influence will also be felt across government institutions.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia actively borrowed Western—primarily European—legal and bureaucratic practices. Now that the European path appears to be closed off entirely, other alternatives are emerging in its place. Authoritarian modernization in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar may well be perceived in Russia as experience worthy of imitation, not to mention Iran’s experience in circumventing sanctions, which Russian experts and officials diligently studied throughout 2022.
Given the Putin regime’s drastic turn toward traditional values, Moscow may also believe it has something to learn from the Middle East on attitudes toward family, religion, and the role of women in society. The growing proportion of Muslims in the Russian population due to demographics and migration creates even more fertile soil for the borrowing of Middle Eastern practices.
Finally, for Russians who live there, the Middle East is becoming something of a social elevator. With business and the state having reoriented from the West to Turkey, the UAE, and Iran, young professionals are also heading there in search of an international career. Demand creates supply, meaning that there will be plenty of students eager to study this part of the world in coming years. The new era could produce a wave of talented Russian Arabists, Iranianists, and Turkologists. That will only happen, however, if higher education and academia—already weakened by the brain drain—are not completely crushed by the authoritarianism that dominates both the Middle East and Russia.