How Russia Is Courting the Gulf

Vladimir Putin with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Kremlin.ru

They’re on opposite sides in Syria—but that’s not stopping Putin.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, relations between Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council have deteriorated sharply due to disagreements between both actors over the future of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Russia has strongly supported Assad, claiming that his Baathist regime is a bulwark against Islamic extremism. By contrast, the Saudi-led GCC has actively supported Assad’s ouster, as his demise would reduce Iran’s regional influence. This discord, combined with a Russian-Saudi oil-price war, has caused many Middle East experts to argue that Russia-GCC relations are at a historic nadir.

A closer examination of geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East reveals that growing perceptions of a crisis in Russia-GCC relations are misplaced. In fact, a credible case can be made that Russia’s geopolitical influence and soft power in the Persian Gulf has increased since the start of President Vladimir Putin’s third term in 2012. Through stronger investment linkages and diplomatic overtures, Russia has attempted to carve out a more prominent geopolitical role in the Persian Gulf. Russia is unlikely to threaten Saudi Arabia’s hegemony over the GCC bloc. But stronger relations between Moscow and Saudi Arabia’s closest allies have caused some GCC countries to be more receptive to Russia’s calls for a political solution in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s fear of being isolated from the Arab world’s consensus could cause Riyadh to eventually soften its belligerent anti-Assad approach and diplomatically reengage with Russia. This scenario differs dramatically from the Russian-Saudi collision course predicted by many regional analysts.

Notwithstanding their disagreements over Syria, Russia has strengthened economic ties with Qatar, the UAE, Oman and Kuwait to balance against Saudi Arabia’s hegemony in the Persian Gulf. These economic linkages have been successful in resolving long-standing disputes that have impeded cooperation between Russia and the Gulf states for decades.

Russia’s economic overtures towards Qatar encapsulate how trade linkages can ameliorate deep-rooted hostilities. The assassination of prominent Chechen politician Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Doha in 2004, and Russian ambassador to Qatar Vitaly Churkin’s alleged threat to destroy Qatar in 2012, severely strained Putin’s relationship with the Qatari monarchy.

Yet Russia has attempted to find common ground with Qatar through energy sector cooperation. Russian energy giant Gazprom has expanded its cooperation with Qatargas on liquefied natural gas production.

When asked about the Russian energy minister’s calls for $500 million in annual trade between Moscow and Doha in June, Qatar’s Energy Minister Mohammed bin Saleh al-Sada called for a significant expansion of bilateral economic cooperation at both the governmental and private-sector levels. Qatar’s long-standing strategy of omnibalancing to maximize its regional influence means that expanding economic ties with Russia is a rational move for Doha. Therefore, Russia has an opportunity to carve out an economic foothold in the Gulf country that has historically been the most hostile towards Moscow.

A similar pattern can be observed in Russia’s relationships with other Gulf countries. According to Evgeny Satanovsky, president of the Moscow-based Institute of the Middle East, Oman’s trade linkages are largely detached from broader geopolitical developments in the Middle East. This detachment has allowed Russian-Omani trade relations to grow from $13 million in 2010 to $100 million in 2014.

Investment linkages have strengthened Russia’s relationship with the UAE as well. Emirati businessmen have invested in facilities for the 2014 winter Olympic games in Sochi, assisted in the construction of a major port near St. Petersburg and cooperated with Rosneft in pipeline construction projects. These financial deals, combined with Russia’s historically robust partnership with Kuwait and increasingly close ties with Bahrain, have expanded Russia’s economic presence in Saudi Arabia’s backyard.

Despite a significant uptick in economic cooperation between Russia and the Gulf states, Moscow has struggled to develop reliable security partnerships in the GCC. These alliance-building struggles have caused many Saudi policymakers to view Russia as a marginal player in the Gulf. In a recent interview with GMU Professor Mark Katz, a leading expert on Russia’s Middle East strategy, Katz told me that before the Syrian crisis, Saudi Arabia viewed Russia’s policy in the Gulf as entirely mercenary. Therefore, many Saudi policymakers believed that they would be able to get Russia to comply with Riyadh’s preferences simply by outbidding Iran as a trade partner and purchasing Russian arms.

To demonstrate to Saudi Arabia and the international community that Russian diplomatic activities in the Gulf are not solely motivated by Moscow’s economic interests, Kremlin policymakers have actively engaged GCC countries on achieving a political resolution to the Syrian conflict that aligns with Russian objectives.

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