Russia’s growing presence in the Middle East is generally discussed in military and economic terms. Moscow’s 2015 intervention in Syria to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad increased its influence with Iran and enabled it to draw a wedge between Turkey and the United States. In the last few years, Moscow has also drawn closer to Washington’s traditional allies in the Persian Gulf, in the form of arms sales and investments.
A little-noticed trend, however, is Moscow’s focus on promoting politically pacifist Islam, which has coincided with an aggressive push by certain Arab countries to combat Islamism.
The Russian emissary for this effort is Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic. For Kadyrov, opposition to Islamic extremism is an extension of the war in Chechnya, in which he fought on behalf of Moscow against the separatist Chechen movement. An early example of the Russian-Arab religious alliance was an international conference of Islamic scholars held in the Chechen capital, Grozny, by Kadyrov in September 2016. The conference was co-organized by religious leaders with close ties to the governments in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—two countries widely perceived to be particularly hostile to political Islam—and played host to clerics from Syria. Attendants were dismissive of the fundamentalist strand of Islam known as Salafism, officially practiced in Saudi Arabia. For that reason, the event was perceived as an effort to isolate Saudi Arabia. But Moscow has since established warmer ties with the Saudi leadership.