The Arab Gulf's new perception of Russia

The Arabian Gulf has ceased to perceive Russia as an adversary, which was the case during the Cold War.
Saturday 13/04/2019
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L) meets Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) in Riyadh, March 5. (AFP) 
Common ground. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L) meets Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) in Riyadh, March 5. (AFP) 

On the eve of his visit to the Gulf, paving the way for Vladimir Putin’s historic Gulf tour -- unprecedented for any Russian president -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his "outrage" over Syrian President Bashar Assad's visit to Tehran, Russian sources said.

Frankly, nothing is guaranteed in this region of quick sands and shaky alliances. The wily Lavrov was in the Arabian Gulf despite being aware that he has not mastered the game of interests and of conflicts in the region. It was more like a chess game in which Putin was interested in winning by relying on his judo skills and on his security background in conflict resolution.

Regardless of the strengths and the limitations of Moscow’s performance, the “new Russian tsar” has made good use of the Syrian gate to give Russia a fundamental role in the region. The Gulf region has become central in Russia’s strategy to push Washington to accept influence sharing there. The game seems to be open and depends on the involvement of other regional and international factors and players.

More generally, Lavrov played an important role at the international level and must be considered one of the most qualified and experienced Russian foreign ministers on issues related to the Middle East, be it in Syria, Libya or the Iranian nuclear file.

From Doha to Riyadh, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, in discussions with various Gulf leaders, Lavrov focused on bilateral relations and on the Syrian issue in particular but other regional issues as well.

Naturally, he addressed the crisis within the Gulf house that erupted in June 2017. He reiterated his country's support for Kuwaiti mediation efforts to solve the crisis, without going further on the topic.

After all, the main objective of his trip was to prepare for Putin's tour later this year. The dates for that visit have not been announced and, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, it is not known which Gulf countries Putin would visit.

Sources in Washington said US diplomacy has been closely monitoring the development of relations between Moscow and Riyadh since the famous handshake between Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz during the G20 summit last year in Argentina and given the close cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia in the oil market.

It seems that Washington sent signals -- more like warnings, really -- to all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries about being open with Moscow and how that would affect their ties with the US. Washington must have implicitly warned that leaving the American orbit is out of the question and would have serious consequences.

However, followers of Lavrov's visit could see that Riyadh did not take those warnings too seriously. On the contrary, Riyadh appreciated Moscow's “neutral” position in the Yemeni file.

A Gulf source likened what is happening to a game in which the world’s major powers compete for tenders about the Gulf region and its riches, strategic location and enormous investment potential in both directions.

The relations that the Gulf countries are developing with Russia, China, Europe and Asia need not be at the expense of their central relations with the United States. On the contrary, these relations reinforce the Gulf countries’ negotiation leverage and are the product of the changes in the energy market, where exports are mainly directed to Asia.

There are other factors at play, such as global political changes and the necessity not to fall prey to the blackmailing power of any single international force.

Russia and the Arab Gulf countries have begun to discover one another. They are progressing beyond discovering intentions and showing enthusiasm to the stage of focusing on common interests and to the possibility of joint actions. The Gulf countries are aware of Russia's regional and international influence, as demonstrated by its interference in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. It has established footholds in Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Algeria.

There is no doubt that the confusion in US President Donald Trump’s administration, along with the political and strategic eclipse of Europe and not giving China the chance to play an important political role internationally, allowed Moscow to consolidate its position in the region and outgrow its traditional role of an arms and energy dealer.

Moscow is presenting itself as a rival to the United States, an ally that can be relied on in tough times and which would not abandon its allies, unlike Washington.

Moscow recognises the important role of Saudi Arabia in the Islamic and Arab spheres and in the energy market. It considers that GCC countries have been playing a key role in Arab decision-making. So Lavrov's tour focused on measuring the position of the Gulf countries specifically regarding Damascus’s return to the Arab League and Syria’s reconstruction.

However, Assad's controversial visit to Tehran deliberately or unintentionally thwarted Russian ambition. In his visit, Lavrov was unable to make decisive progress on the Syrian issue. The standing concerns between Russia and the Gulf countries revolve around the nature of the political solution in Syria, the future of Assad and Iran’s role and influence in the region.

Although Russian sources accuse Washington of hampering Arab normalisation with Damascus, the sources acknowledge that Iran, which is obsessed with retaining a large share of control over the Syrian file, is deliberately sabotaging Russian control over the crisis in Syria.

However, Moscow, which agrees with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the “necessity of removing foreign forces from Syria,” is reinforcing Iran’s influence over Syria through the Astana peace process. This is why Lavrov was told by more than one Gulf  interlocutor that it was necessary to find a broader compromise to solve the crisis in Syria.

They were implicitly referring to the fact that it was impossible to make any decisive progress in the Syrian political file or in the file related to the reconstruction of Syria without a minimum level of Russian-American agreement on those questions.

Much remains unclear or undecided during Lavrov's undeclared discussions on Turkish and Iranian roles in the region, on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and on overall security considerations in the region. However, establishing the foundations for a dialogue and for economic and political cooperation between the two sides was a positive thing in the game of inviting Moscow to make an offer.

The Arabian Gulf has ceased to perceive Russia as an adversary, which was the case during the Cold War. Moscow is gradually becoming a reliable international partner and competitor.