Moscow expands influence in a region that Washington appears to be deserting

Just as Russia has fostered with Iran and Turkey the Astana “peace process” for Syria, so it plays the Gulf mediator while urging Riyadh to back Syria’s return to the Arab League.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Warm welcome. Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in a car at Qasr Al Watan in Abu Dhabi, October 15. (WAM)
Warm welcome. Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in a car at Qasr Al Watan in Abu Dhabi, October 15. (WAM)

Even by usual standards, the Russian media offered lavish praise for President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “Russia has won in the Arab world the status of a country that one ought to listen to and with which it’s safe to do business,” noted state-owned Russia-1 Television.

Putin was welcomed to Riyadh with a 21-gun salute before Saudi cavalry escorted him to the royal palace. A day later, the Russian president posed with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan alongside Hazza al-Mansoori, who in September took a Soyuz space flight in becoming the first Arab on the International Space Station.

Putin’s trip cannot be seen in isolation. While in Riyadh, he coordinated Moscow’s response to Turkey’s military offensive into northern Syria after US President Donald Trump withdrew US troops.

“I cannot imagine that [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan acted without Russian permission,” said Zaur Gasimov, senior research fellow at Bonn University’s Russian Studies Department. “The Turkish incursion has spread an anti-American mood among the Kurds of the entire region. Most important, Russia brought separatist-minded Kurdish groups closer to Assad’s regime and was satisfied with further deterioration in Turkish-US relations.”

Putin’s relationship with conflicting parties is just as evident in the Gulf. “Russia has managed to navigate Ankara, Tehran and Saudi Arabia in its own interests,” said Gasimov. “US sanctions reinforce Tehran’s pro-Russian orientation.”

Just as Russia has fostered with Iran and Turkey the Astana “peace process” for Syria, so it plays the Gulf mediator while urging Riyadh to back Syria’s return to the Arab League. Interviewed before his trip by Arab television stations, including Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, Putin said he wanted to facilitate dialogue between the Arab Gulf states and Iran.

“Putin’s trip was a tactical step within a strategy,” said Michel Makinsky, Iran specialist with Ageromys International in Paris. “Putin is trying to take as many advantages as possible from both clearly exposed Saudi vulnerability and America’s loss of credibility.”

Riyadh can hedge. The Saudis noted Trump’s weak response to September’s missile and drone attacks on oil installations at Abqaiq and Khurais and they hear him insist the United States does not need Gulf oil.

On October 11, the Pentagon announced the deployment to Saudi Arabia of 3,000 additional troops and two squadrons of fighter jets — a day after Trump called “going into the Middle East… the worst decision ever made” and it remains unclear if the forces are to replace the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier group, scheduled for redeployment.

After the oil-facilities attacks, Putin mischievously suggested Riyadh should fulfil its 2017 agreement in principle to buy Russian S-400 missile defence systems. Analysts suspect Riyadh wants to jolt Washington.

“The S-400s are perhaps more of a ‘message’ than something likely to be implemented — and maybe something the kingdom will use [to its advantage] during exchanges with Washington,” said Makinsky.

More tangible Russian progress may come with economic agreements reached during Putin’s visit covering energy, technology and health. These reflect Russia’s need to diversify in the face of Western sanctions that have helped leave its economy short of a 3% growth target since emerging from recession in 2016.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Moscow’s sovereign wealth fund, valued the agreements at more than $2 billion with Saudi Arabia and $1.3 billion with the United Arab Emirates.

RDIF CEO Kirill Dmitriev, who was accompanying Putin, suggested Russian investors were interested in Aramco’s planned share flotation, while Russia’s Sibur Holding is considering a $1 billion petrochemical deal. Dmitriev praised the production limits agreed by OPEC+, coordinating OPEC with ten non-members, claiming they had benefited Russia by $100 billion.

Wider bilateral relations have been disappointing. Russian analysts suggest the Saudis have delivered just 25% of the $10 billion investment promised when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz met with Putin in 2015. Earlier this year, a potential deal fell through for Aramco to join an Arctic gas project with Russia’s Novatek, while a US bid is seen as front-runner on a shortlist of five, including Russia’s Rosatom, to build Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear power plant.

Will economic ties reinforce a closer political relationship, perhaps even the new Gulf security arrangement the Russians speak of?

“I doubt Riyadh will leave its current view of regional security under a [Gulf Cooperation Council] GCC, Saudi-controlled umbrella,” said Makinsky. “At the same time, other Gulf states, especially the UAE, may welcome arrangements with Iran’s participation. We can’t exclude Saudi Arabia slowly exploring behind-the-scenes exchanges with Tehran on diminishing risks and tensions, but current trends don’t suggest a formal agreement.”

Even so, Saudi Arabia is embracing a Russia that has relations with all states — including Turkey, Syria, Iran and Israel — while the United States vacillates, retreats or divides the world into friends and enemies.

“We don’t believe that having close ties with Russia has any negative impact on our relationship with the United States,” Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said.