During a four-day tour in early March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. While in each country, his agenda focused on improving bilateral relations as well as presenting Moscow’s security vision for the Persian Gulf.
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov’s meetings with Gulf partners are to become an important part of ongoing bilateral political dialogue, through which Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to maintain “regular trust-based contacts” with the leaders of Arab monarchies.
Russia is keen on seizing the opportunity to increase business and security cooperation with Arab states in the field of agriculture, infrastructure, and energy projects, particularly through OPEC+. Additionally, special emphasis was also placed on deepening humanitarian ties by tackling the coronavirus pandemic, with the possibility of beginning licensed production of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in the UAE.
Russia has assiduously worked on strengthening its relationships with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar since 2017. As the Astana talks on Syria are stalling, Samuel Ramani, a geopolitical analyst focusing on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, thinks that Russia wants to accrue more Arab support for its ambitions in Syria, which include returning Syria to the Arab League and devising a new constitution. According to Ramani, Russia also wants to expand its role in the Israel-Palestine conflict and secure new Gulf investments, as well as uphold its OPEC+ oil price stability pact. These ambitions, Ramani told Inside Arabia, were as important motives for Lavrov’s visit as was Biden’s apparent U-turn towards the Gulf.
However, Anton Mardasov, a non-resident scholar at Middle East Institute’s Syria Program and non-resident expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, observes that Moscow has long had opportunities to expand economic ties with, for example, Saudi Arabia. As he explained to Inside Arabia, the Saudis had already invited Russian businesses to open and invest in the country, but many initiatives remained on paper precisely because of Russia’s lazy approach of not offering fair tenders. In Mardasov’s view, Moscow has never admitted this and instead has blamed the United States for the unrealized projects.
The timing of Lavrov’s visit to the Gulf states clearly suggests that Moscow is trying to exploit the current uncertainties surrounding Washington’s new approach towards its traditional allies in the Gulf.
Nevertheless, the timing of Lavrov’s visit to the Gulf states clearly suggests that Moscow is trying to exploit the current uncertainties surrounding Washington’s new approach towards its traditional allies in the Gulf. Russia wants to present itself as an alternative global power, strong enough to become an indispensable player in the region.
Yet, Lavrov’s trip to the Middle East seemed to have been prepared in a hurry. According to Mardasov, based on communication with journalists from Lavrov’s pool, the Russian Foreign Ministry did not mention plans for such a trip in January, nor was it announced a month in advance in February, as is usually the case. Mardasov thinks that Moscow did not disclose any details on the visit beforehand to get ahead of the United States with the goal of “weakening competition.” In fact, the entire Middle East strategy of the Kremlin, Mardasov believes, is to strengthen Russia’s positions as local players have an urgent need for diversification of allies and anti-crisis measures.
We have seen this desire for alternative foreign support play out in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Qatar. And this is especially true for Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been under heavy fire ever since President Biden moved into the White House.
After President Biden’s administration suspended the sales of arms that can be used in the war in Yemen to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in February, the US also decided to publish an intelligence report asserting that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince approved the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
By hosting Lavrov, Arab Gulf states sent a message to the White House that they can cope with US pressures while showing that they have close partnerships with other global powers.
By hosting Lavrov, Arab Gulf states – notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE – sent a message to the White House that they can cope with US pressures while showing that they have close partnerships with other global powers. In reality, Moscow, under normal circumstances, has very little chance of proposing a constructive agenda for the Middle East because of limited resources and highly populist aims that are often not implemented in practice, according to Mardasov.
Arab media and diplomatic sources are convinced that the Biden administration is repeating the same mistake as the administration of Barack Obama when starting the process of American disengagement from the Middle East and pivoting towards the Indo-Pacific region.
Although, in Ramani’s opinion, the extent of this retrenchment should not be exaggerated. “The US is not going to abandon its core security commitments to Israel or to the preservation of the stability of the Persian Gulf or remove its bases from the region but, instead it might be less involved in regional diplomacy and be more wary about using military force,” he told Inside Arabia.
It is also possible that Biden’s new approach towards the Middle East may be a deliberate attempt to let problematic allies and partners stew in uncertainty in order to increase his administration’s leverage, as James Dorsey – an expert on Middle East issues – explained in an article for International Policy Digest.
Similarly, Ramani is also convinced that Joe Biden won’t ultimately abandon Saudi Arabia, and that his administration’s stance is “about securing leverage over Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s conduct, especially on negotiations with Iran and on reining in some of their destabilizing military interventions.” He points out that Saudi Arabia has become perceived as toxic within the Democratic Party due to the Khashoggi murder and the Yemen war, so Biden is reacting to domestic politics as well. While strains in the US-Saudi Arabia relationship opens a window of opportunity for Russia, he is convinced that Moscow will not replace the US as a security guarantor and does not want to assume those burdens.
Russia seeks to further push its initiative of establishing a joint security system in the Persian Gulf, inspired by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Nevertheless, by forging ever closer ties with Gulf countries, Russia seeks to further push its initiative of establishing a joint security system in the Persian Gulf, inspired by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This collective body would respond to challenges and threats with the participation of regional states, including Iran and all Arab countries.
However, Mardasov is rather skeptical about the prospects for large-scale alliances and cooperation, which has been talked about for almost ten years. He explained that Russia is trying to tactically capitalize on its ties to the UAE in Libya, where Moscow and Abu Dhabi are now in a comparable position in the face of US-stimulated action by the Libyan interim government.
“Moscow is trying to play in its favor on the interest of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in containing Iran and Turkey in Syria, for which Russia is trying to take on a loan. It is noteworthy that Lavrov tried to counterbalance this by activating the Turkey-Russia-Qatar format, given the mistakes of the past year,” he added.
Moreover, the Russian initiative resembles the tactics of Iran’s Hormuz Peace Initiative too much to be taken seriously by Arab countries, according to Ramani. Still, it provides an opening for Russia to further engage with Gulf countries and highlights Moscow’s status as a power in the Gulf region.