Russia's emerging rapport with Gulf state monarchies

Russia's emerging rapport with Gulf state monarchies
Analysis: Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now looking to Russia for security partnerships as well as economic cooperation, writes Stasa Salacanin.
8 min read
14 August, 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman [Getty]
The visit of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to Moscow at the beginning of June, was crowned by the signing of Declaration of Strategic Partnership between Russia and UAE. The declaration is the first such agreement between Moscow and a Gulf state.

The agreement does not come as a surprise as both sides announced the strategic partnership last April, as a result of extensive cooperation with Russia in fields of mutual investment, trade exchange and joint manufacturing of a number of technologies, including military equipment.

Although the Russian side highlighted that both countries share "identical or very close" views on all the vital issues raised, there are also the fundamental divergences with Russia over the developments of the Syrian crisis and the question of Iran.

Russia's rapprochement with Gulf states

After more than two decades of absence, Russia is aiming to reduce the US footprint in the Middle East and to play a larger role in regional security arrangements. Meanwhile, the US tries to preserve the existing status quo and limit Russia's growing influence.

Gulf countries on the other hand, aware of the fact that the world has become increasingly multipolar, quickly realised the new reality on the ground. Instead of being dragged into new cold war divisions, Gulf Arabs have forged close ties with key powers, including Russia.

Russia, the emerging power in the Middle East is simply seen as an alternative guarantor of their security

GCC leaders' regular visits to Moscow confirm the impression of Russia's ever-growing role in the Middle East, as an indispensable power broker. 

Historically, Gulf states have not developed long-term strategic relations with Russia and their policies have focused primarily on economic engagement. But in the last few years, the shift towards long-term and wide-ranging cooperation has been noticeable.

Dynamic diplomatic, political and economic interactions between Arab monarchies and Russia are the most evident manifestation of foreign policy pragmatism, the basic principles of which are normally minimising the ideological or religious component of foreign policymaking and strengthening a state's attractiveness.

Read more: Russia sides with Saudi Arabia as diplomatic rift with Canada escalates

Gulf rapprochement to Moscow does not necessarily mean Russia will replace the US as its main Arab ally. UAE and other Gulf countries have far greater degrees of security and economic cooperation with the United States and the West than with Russia. However, Russia, the emerging power in the Middle East is simply seen as an alternative guarantor of their security.

Mark Katz, Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, and expert on Russia's policy in the Middle East, leaves the open possibility that UAE, and perhaps Qatar, may even invite Russia to establish small bases in their countries, if only as a means of showing Tehran that Russia is their friend too, and of showing Washington that it had better do more for them, if it does not want to lose influence to Russia. 

Moscow would definitely welcome the invitation of any American ally in the region to establish closer military ties.  Indeed, this would enhance Putin's prestige immensely both at home and abroad. "But Putin does not really want Russian forces to get involved in the region's conflicts," he told The New Arab.

New strategic partnerships not excluded

Given that Saudi Arabia and Russia are working on a deal to actively manage oil markets for potentially the next 20 years, along with the implementation of other agreements, and Russia's fruitful business cooperation with Qatar, the possibility of new strategic partnership agreements with other Gulf states is also relevant.

According to Katz, one should not be surprised if Saudi Arabia and its close ally Bahrain also sign similar agreements. "If Qatar wanted to sign such an agreement with Russia, I am sure that Moscow would be willing to do so. Kuwait and Oman might follow, but I doubt that there will be a GCC agreement with Russia as the GCC no longer appears to be a meaningful organisation," he said. 

But, the term "strategic partnership" is an odd one. According to Katz, it implies something more than a normal bilateral trade relationship, but something less than an alliance. 

For the Arab Gulf states, one of the aims of signing a strategic partnership with Russia may be intended as a means of engaging Russia so much that it has no interest in siding with Iran against them or supporting Iranian activities that some Gulf Arabs see as threatening. 

Whether Moscow would be willing or even able to actively curtail threatening Iranian activities, though, is not clear.  He noted that Moscow would prefer to "have its cake and eat it too" by having good relations both with Iran and with the Gulf Arabs.

Help in solving Yemen's crisis?

Many believe that through the strategic partnership, UAE will seek Russia's assistance in ending the war in Yemen, given Russia's close ties with Tehran, which is often accused of supporting and arming Houthi insurgents. 

Any Russian help in convincing Iran to stop its support to Zaidi Houthi rebels, will surely raise the image of Russia in the Gulf. But Katz is not convinced that Moscow has the ability to persuade or coerce the warring Yemeni parties, much less Tehran, to agree to a settlement. 

Moscow, though, may be more interested in re-establishing its influence in South Yemen, and working with the UAE

"Moscow, though, may be more interested in re-establishing its influence in South Yemen, and working with the UAE which now plays a large role there would indeed be the best way to do this," he noted. With so many other countries (including America, China, Turkey and even the UAE) already having or establishing bases in the Red Sea area, Putin may be concerned that Russia's not yet having done so makes it look less important in this region. 

If so, re-establishing influence in South Yemen, according to Katz, may be seen in Moscow as more useful than ending the conflict in the rest of Yemen for gaining a base for Russia in the region. Indeed, there are growing rumours that Russia is vitally interested in receiving berthing space for its naval vessels in the Yemeni port of Aden.

Russia and the Gulf spat

Equally challenging for Moscow would be a finding a balancing approach towards the ongoing Gulf spat. It hard to say whether a strategic partnership with UAE would lend the blockading Saudi camp more weight against Qatar.

Russia, for example, voluntarily aided Qatar with food supplies early on in the blockade, while most of the international community remained neutral stating that it would not interfere in bilateral relations of the Gulf states.

Russia's neutral stance towards the Gulf crisis guarantees the investments from both sides of the Gulf

After all, Russia has important economic relationships with both sides. For Katz, on the other hand, Moscow may not only lack the ability to resolve this conflict but may also lack the will to do so. For as long as the dispute continues without actual conflict, both sides have the incentive to court Moscow.  

Finally, Russia's neutral stance towards the Gulf crisis guarantees the investments from both sides of the Gulf.

However, many of the announced Gulf investments into the Russian economy - crippled by western sanctions - have yet to materialise. In fact, it seems that Qatari investors have been more active than their neighbours, as Qatar Investment Authority's (QIA) assets in Russia are valued at more than $2.5 billion. QIA also invested more than $11 billion in Russian oil giant Rosneft for the upstream project.

The Emiratis, too, through Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) have committed to invest in infrastructural projects as well as Mubadala Investment Company, but it is still unclear when the announced projects will be implemented. The same goes for Saudi Arabia and its companies which signed investment deals worth more than $3 billion during King Salman's visit to Russia in October last year.

Besides attracting multibillion-dollar investments from the Gulf, one of the key elements of Russia's agenda in the region is to increase geopolitical influence through military contracts.

This is especially true in the case of the most advanced air defence system in the world, S-400, which has lately become a major bargaining chip as rival powers seek to cement new relations with Russia to balance US influence.

In the case of Gulf states, the S-400 has become a matter of prestige, as well as a tool for averting threats from rivalling states.  

Qatar's intention to purchase Russia's S-400 anti-missile system has raised the concerns of its Gulf neighbours, notably the Saudis and Emiratis.

Some say that strategic partnership with UAE, which coincides with the first anniversary of the Gulf crisis, may be also understood as the UAE's attempt to convince Russia not to develop too close relations with Qatar in selling them S-400s. 

Katz points out that the Saudi response to the proposed sale of S-400s to Qatar has been to threaten dire consequences for Qatar, not for Russia. 

He is convinced that Moscow, though, will not back off its offer to sell S-400s to Qatar at the behest of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

It is willing, though, to sell them to these countries too. They might try to persuade Moscow that they won't buy them if Qatar does, but Moscow will make clear that "the logic of the situation" is that if Russia sells S-400s to anyone, then the best choice for other countries is to also buy them.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.