Meetings in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh highlight deepening Russian-GCC ties

“The discussions did not feature security issues and instead focused on how best to create a greater nexus of interests between the three countries. This is a potentially powerful tandem,” says Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics in Washington.
Saturday 19/10/2019
New stakes. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed  al-Nahyan (C) welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin (C-L) during an official ceremony in Abu Dhabi, October 15. (AFP)
New stakes. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (C) welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin (C-L) during an official ceremony in Abu Dhabi, October 15. (AFP)

DUBAI- Deepening Russia’s partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council was high on all parties’ agendas when Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi as well as Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh.

The meetings, analysts said, reflected a turning point in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign policy as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates increasingly look to the East and Russia for security support.

“Putin’s visits come amid what seems to be a US withdrawal from the Middle East,” said Albadr Al Shateri, professor of politics at the National Defence College in Abu Dhabi.

“[US President Donald] Trump ordering US troops to leave Syria signalled, for better or worse, the receding of US influence in the region. We have to remember that Trump was not able to do much over Iran’s aggressive behaviour, like the attack on the oil liner off the coast of Fujairah, the downing of the US spy drone or, more seriously, the attack on Saudi oil facilities.”

Putin, Shateri said, had shown true mettle by “sticking it out” with his ally Syria and could fill the vacuum left by the United States there.

“The visit is quite significant,” he explained. “The recent congressional scrutiny over military deals to Saudi Arabia and the UAE added concern to the US reliability. Most likely, the GCC countries will try to diversify [their] sources of armament.”

Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics in Washington, said Putin’s visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are just as important to Russia, which is seeking to develop bilateral relations in different sectors. “Moscow is serious about pursuing healthy partnerships with Arab countries and the lower Gulf states help to anchor Russian interests in the region,” he said.

Russia’s efforts to develop advanced relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and vice versa, Karasik added, was geopolitics at its best. “The geographical North-South relationship between Russia and the Near East is increasingly becoming a superhighway of mutual interests,” he added.

The United States’ partners in the region are increasingly questioning Washington’s commitment to the Middle East because of its withdrawal from Syria and lack of response to Iranian provocations, experts noted.

“Those partners are looking to hedge against American disengagement by diversifying their portfolio of external powers, courting not just Russia but also China,” said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute.

“Moscow, for its part, is acutely aware of this dynamic and likely eager to exploit it, whether for pecuniary reasons such as arms sales or more strategic aims such as positioning Russia as a key mediator in regional conflicts and widening gaps between the US and its traditional regional partners. Yet there is a limit to what Russia is able to offer US partners like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

However, he said that while Russia held influence with key parties from all political backgrounds in the region — having the ability to engage with Israel as well as Iran, for example — it remains relatively isolated on the world stage and lacks the resources to back up its diplomatic skill.

“This means that the US will continue to be the partner of choice for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others, even if we are a frustrating partner,” Singh added. “The US may be erratic of late but it is still the state best positioned to marshal resources, rally international coalitions and effectively oppose forces adversarial to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.”

However, on two issues of great importance for the Gulf — energy and security — Russia is a central, reliable partner, Shateri said.

“With the recent attack of Saudi oil facilities, the S-400 missile might look like a very hot item for the Gulf states to buy,” he said. “Russia can also mediate the conflict and reduce the tension in the Arabian Gulf.

“Syria might also be on the agenda, especially that the war is waning and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has the upper hand. The Russians might ask for Riyadh’s good offices to rehabilitate the regime and its return to the Arab fold.”

Karasik said billions of dollars’ worth of investment agreements between the Russian Direct Investment Fund and various Saudi and Emirati entities were on the table.

“Naturally, we will need to see what happens with actual transactions and the development of programmes and other plans,” he said. “It is notable that the discussions did not feature security issues and instead focused on how best to create a greater nexus of interests between the three countries. This is a potentially powerful tandem.”

Karasik said Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with China, are likely to build “a growing clustering of like-minded states that are creating an arena of influence that will find its interests growing in Africa.”

“In addition, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are going to continue to coordinate their foreign policy objectives throughout the MENA region,” he said.

While Shateri agreed the relationships were likely to grow, he said they will “not go beyond the breaking point with that of Washington.”

“(The) Saudis will avoid anything that will cause a major disturbance with the US, which remains a major provider of security and armaments for both the UAE and the kingdom,” he said. ​

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