How shared Islamic identities boost Russia-Gulf ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin presents a gift made of mammoth tusk to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov looks on in Riyadh. (Reuters) 

Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, especially since 2013, Russia has used “religious soft power” as a pragmatic tool toward the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to deepen bilateral relations.

This term was introduced by Sherrie Steiner in 2011 in an effort to expand the definition of the well-established term “soft power,” which was coined in 1990 by Joseph Nye. Soft power was defined by Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” Russia’s use of religious soft power toward the Middle East, and especially the Gulf states, given their special status in the Islamic world, is possible because it has a Muslim population of about 20 million.

The Russian republics with large Muslim populations — such as Chechnya, Ingushetia and Tatarstan — play an important role in this regard, sharing Islamic identities that potentially open doors to close relations between Russia and the GCC.

Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov is a supporter of Putin’s policies. Due to his active position in building close relations with states in the Middle East, and the Gulf in particular, observers view him as the main representative of Russian Muslims in the region. While the heads of other republics also play important roles in building bilateral relations with the Gulf states, Kadyrov’s personality undoubtedly helps Russia’s relations with the “brothers,” as he refers to the leaderships of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.

d Islamic identity is Chechnya’s key political card for building bilateral relations. In 2018, Kadyrov performed Umrah in Saudi Arabia, but it was also an opportunity to meet with the Kingdom’s leadership to discuss deepening economic, cultural and scientific relations. Additionally, the Chechen leadership strongly supports the course of moderate Islam in the Islamic world, as led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Last year, Kadyrov gave a speech supporting moderate Islam under the patronage of King Salman. 

Chechnya has close bilateral relations with the UAE, with interests based on economic cooperation and d Islamic identity. Investments from the UAE were reportedly used to build the Grozny Mall and the under-construction Akhmat Tower, which will be one of the tallest buildings in Europe once completed. It will be managed by Emirati hotel operator The Address Hotels and Resorts. 

While Kadyrov defends Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s goals of moderate Islam, the former leader of Ingushetia and current deputy defense minister of Russia, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, built close diplomatic relations with Qatar and its religious clerics. In February 2018, during an official visit to Qatar, Yevkurov met Ali Al-Qaradaghi, the secretary general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, which is headed by Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially banned in Russia. Yevkurov posted on his Instagram account: “I expressed gratitude to the sheikh for his efforts to consolidate Muslim society, for his contribution to strengthening stability in our region.” This indicates that the then-leader of Ingushetia clearly supported an Islamist-friendly state, which is where Qatar finds its place along with the likes of Turkey and Iran, as opposed to moderate Islam.

None of this is surprising, as it allows Russia to use religious soft power to further develop relations with all GCC states. Yevkurov is reportedly a reliable intermediary for the advancement of Qatar’s economic interests in Ingushetia and, from there, the rest of Russia. Doha has invested in Ingushetia since 2014, when Russia’s economic crisis began. In addition to energy facilities, it promised to invest in a wide range of sectors, including the automotive industry, tourism and technology parks. Qatari investors will reportedly help Ingushetian authorities construct an Islamic complex — the largest religious, cultural and educational center in the country — in Magas, the republic’s capital.

Given the historical background, geographical location and uniqueness of being home to more than 100 nationalities, Tatarstan has branded itself under the slogan “Where East Meets West.” This allies it with efforts being made by the UAE, which is home to people of many nationalities and religions, although most are Muslim. The UAE promotes its values based on tolerance. For example, it has established a specific tolerance ministry and has a Supreme National Committee for Tolerance. During 2019, the UAE’s “Year of Tolerance,” Pope Francis carried out his landmark official visit to Abu Dhabi.

Tatarstan has branded itself under the slogan ‘Where East Meets West.’ This allies it with efforts being made by the UAE.

Dr. Diana Galeeva

In November, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov, who is also the chairman of the Strategic Vision Group RussiaIslamic World, took part in the opening ceremony of the second World Tolerance Summit in Dubai. Tatarstan was recognized for its development of tolerance at this summit. At the same time, Minnikhanov met with the UAE leadership to discuss the establishment of an international center for Islamic finance in Tatarstan and the development of halal production.

This d identity on tolerance, especially promoting the idea that Muslims live with other nations in peace and coexistence, serves as religious soft power for both. At the same time, Minnikhanov often attends economic forums in the UAE, especially in Dubai, as he has a doctorate in economics and is especially interested in developing economic ties.

All these examples demonstrate how d Islamic identities can help Russia’s religious soft power to develop relations with the GCC. This benefits both the Russian federal government and the Muslim republics.

Dr. Diana Galeeva is an academic visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford. She completed her bachelor’s degree at Kazan Federal University and holds an MA from Exeter University and Ph.D. from Durham University. Her research interests include concepts of power, the GCC’s foreign policies and relations between Russia and the GCC states. She was a co-director of the workshop “Post-Brexit Britain, Europe and policy toward Iran and the GCC states: Potential challenges and the possibility of cooperation” at the Gulf Research Meeting (University of Cambridge, 2019). She can be contacted on [email protected] Twitter: @diana_galeeva