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Mikhail Skovoronskikh

MA, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

The traditionally sour relationship between Moscow and Doha showed some signs of improvement in 2016. This, however, does not imply that Russia and Qatar have embarked on a way for a closer, strategic relationship. Rather, the Syrian crisis and oil market situation have forced the two countries to soften their rhetoric and cooperate on a select number of issues. It remains to be seen how sustainable the “rapprochement” really is.

Russia-Qatar bilateral relations have always been far from perfect. Ever since the Chechen wars, Russian politicians and policy pundits have perceived the gulf monarchy as an adversary. Economic ties between the two nations have remained stagnant with an almost exclusive focus on the energy sector. Yet, 2016 brought changes to this gloomy picture: following Qatar’s emir’s visit to Russia in early January, Moscow and Doha’s rhetoric began to change. In September 2016, the two nations signed a military cooperation agreement followed by a far more important development: the purchase of a 19.5% stake in the state-owned oil major Rosneft by the Qatar Investment Authority and Glencore. These events may appear to herald a new age in Russia–Qatar relations, but in fact, the picture is not as simple. What follows is an attempt to shed a little light on the Russia–Qatar “rapprochement.”

During the Cold War era, there were no diplomatic ties between Russia and Qatar, a close ally of Saudi Arabia. As Gorbachev’s perestroika gained momentum, diplomatic relations between Moscow and Doha were finally established in 1988. Yet, until recently, Russia–Qatar relations remained tepid at best. During the first and second Chechen wars (1994–1996 and 1999–2000), Qatar was openly accused by Russian security officials of stoking tensions in the breakaway region. Another blow to the relationship was dealt in 2004 when Russian security operatives assassinated a prominent leader of Chechen separatists in Doha only to be followed by the 2011 diplomatic scandal when the Russian ambassador was harassed and injured by guards at the Doha airport. When the entrenched Arab dictatorships were shaken by a series of protests and revolutions that came to be known as the Arab Spring, Russia and Qatar were driven apart even further.

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Economic relations between the two nations have remained sluggish throughout the last two decades. In 2010–2014, average bilateral trade turnover amounted to no more than USD 54 million and plummeted to half that figure in 2015. According to the Russian embassy in Qatar, “economic relations between the two countries have been developing mainly through cooperation in the energy sector and within the framework of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum.” At some point in 2011, Qatar considered capital participation in Novatek’s Yamal LNG project but later withdrew from negotiations. In 2013, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) purchased a USD 500 million stake in VTB, one of Russia’s largest state-owned banks; QIA’s CEO became a member of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) International Advisory Body.

Against this rather bleak backdrop, two factors have recently emerged that are beginning to affect the relationship’s overall dynamic. The first factor is Russia’s active involvement in the Syrian civil conflict. The events of the last couple of years have demonstrated that Russia is capable of upsetting the intricate balance of power in the region. While having conflicting interests with Russia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will nonetheless need to engage Moscow on a number of issues since it is now a key player in the Syria peace process. The second factor is of economic nature. With oil prices plummeting, policy coordination between the world’s leading oil and gas producing nations becomes a critical issue. Iran is another point of concern: possessed of tremendous gas reserves, this nation may change the LNG market in the coming decades following the lifting of U.S. sanctions. Under such circumstances, the “gas OPEC” idea becomes relevant again, and the timing may be now ripe for Moscow and Doha to start talking.

With global political and economic environment rapidly changing, Russia–Qatar relations started to follow suit. The first indication of a “rapprochement” came in early 2016 when Qatar’s new emir visited Moscow. During the visit, the emir acknowledged Russia’s role in Middle Eastern politics and pushed for advanced economic cooperation. In return, Putin underscored Qatar’s importance as a key player in the region and opined that “the two countries have plenty of opportunities for cooperation in the natural gas (for example, through the Gas Exporting Countries Forum) and energy sectors.” Moreover, quite a few Russian companies, including Gazprom, Lukoil and Russian Railways, expressed interest in the Qatar market.

Following the summit, Russia–Qatar relations have made some progress, albeit very modest. In June 2016, Russian and Qatari business leaders signed a memorandum of understanding on establishing a joint investment fund to promote bilateral projects in both countries—the Gulf–Russian Business Center. In early September, Russian and Qatari defence ministers concluded a military cooperation agreement, which appeared to offer little more than cooperative rhetoric—after all, the document contained no arms trade-related provisions. The crowning achievement of Russia–Qatar diplomacy in 2016 was announced in December, 2016, when QIA together with Glencore purchased a 19.5% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s largest state-owned oil company.

However, pronouncing Russia and Qatar the homecoming couple of 2016 would be farfetched. It appears that the Syrian crisis is one of the key drivers behind the two countries’ recent “rapprochement,” but their interests in the Middle East remain polar. For Doha engaging Russia is a political necessity resulting from the latter’s growing clout in the Middle East and especially in Damascus. For Moscow, with its newfound penchant for geopolitics, a better relationship with the gulf monarchies is a key to success in Syria. When the Syrian crisis is over—and some day it will be—the warming up of the bilateral relationship will lose momentum. In the economic domain, Russia and Qatar will remain key competitors. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of opportunities to negotiate and manoeuvre as the global gas market changes, but by virtue of geology, the two are predisposed to compete for energy markets. This suggests that Russia–Qatar relations are largely informed by tactical and not strategic considerations meaning that they may worsen as quickly as they have improved. 

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