Russia and the Middle East: Diplomacy and Security

Russia and the GCC: A Rising Partnership?

March 29, 2017

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, many analysts of Russia-Middle East relations have emphasized the contrast between Moscow’s generally cooperative relationship with Iran and tense relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. While this cleavage continues to persist, there are signs that a thaw between Moscow and the GCC bloc is a more realistic possibility than many regional experts have previously assumed.

Veteran Russian diplomat Veriamin Popov highlighted the potential for a thaw on March 8, by delivering a speech in Abu Dhabi that highlighted the common interests Russia shares with the GCC in Syria and beyond. According to Popov, Putin wants to “achieve friendly relations with all states on equal grounds,” and Russia can maintain harmonious relations with both Iran and the GCC, by adopting a nuanced diplomatic approach.

This balancing act has caused Russian policymakers to emphasize the economic interests and security concerns that Moscow shares with the GCC. One area where Russia and the GCC have achieved common ground is in the regulation of international oil prices. On December 1, 2016, Russia collaborated with OPEC on a joint oil production cut for the first time since 2001.

The contradiction between Russia’s current policy and its previous opposition to direct cooperation with OPEC also reveals the limits to Moscow’s alignments with its principal oil-producing partners, Iran and Iraq. The Iraqi and Iranian governments were both reluctant signatories to the OPEC-Russia oil production deal. This reticence can be explained by the fact that Baghdad and Tehran are rebounding from long-standing disruptions in their oil export capabilities.

Yet Russia’s willingness to counter its main regional allies’ interests in the international oil markets suggests that Moscow is unsure about the potential for a durable alliance with Iran beyond the Syrian conflict. Should growing divergences between Russian and Iranian conceptions of an optimal outcome in Syria engender bilateral tensions, Russian policymakers could use their residual diplomatic ties with the GCC as a platform to strengthen the Kremlin’s relationship with the Riyadh-led bloc.

Despite an increase in synergy of intentions on oil production, Russia’s cuts have lagged behind those of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which currently produce less oil than would be expected from the targets laid out by the OPEC deal. In spite of this dissonance, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak’s recent claim that Russia is cutting oil production “faster than expected” highlights Moscow’s commitment to cooperation with the GCC bloc on reducing oil production.

In addition to a common desire to increase oil prices, Russia has become increasingly willing to consult GCC leaders on the resolution of the Syrian civil war. In their diplomatic dialogues with GCC officials, Russian policymakers have promoted the message that Moscow intervened on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s behalf because of an explicit invitation from the Syrian government. This argument downplays the geopolitical objectives inherent in the Kremlin’s involvement in Syria, and provides a platform for potential cooperation with the Gulf monarchies on the stabilization of Syria.

Even though achieving a shared understanding or at the very least, a reduction of tensions with Saudi Arabia is the principal goal of Moscow’s GCC strategy, the successes of Russia’s strategy have been largely confined to the GCC bloc’s smaller member states. The United Arab Emirates has proved to be a particularly receptive partner to Russia’s GCC outreach strategy in Syria.

Senior Russian diplomats have held bilateral dialogues with their UAE counterparts on combating Islamic extremism. UAE diplomats have acknowledged Russia’s indispensability in the conflict even though Abu Dhabi’s objectives contrast markedly with those of the Kremlin. As Russia maintains soft power in Kuwait due to the Al-Sabah family’s cordial relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and has drastically increased its trade links with Oman, Moscow has the potential to gain an ideological foothold within the GCC that could counter the GCC’s most intransigently anti-Assad actors: Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Even though Russian diplomats have made considerable progress towards strengthening Moscow’s economic and military cooperation with the GCC bloc, lingering distrust has prevented deep-rooted collaboration. This mistrust is rooted in historical legacies of enmity between Moscow and Riyadh’s traditional allies. During the Cold War, Saudi policymakers viewed the Soviet Union’s diplomatic overtures towards Yemen, countries on the Horn of Africa, Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria as a form of encirclement that was squarely aimed at undercutting Saudi Arabia’s regional influence.

The perception of Saudi Arabia as a sponsor of Islamic extremist movements has also tarnished its relationship with Russia. The Russian state media has frequently chastised Western powers for their robust alliance with the highly authoritarian Saudi monarchy, and accused the United States of complicity in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war crimes.

In order to overcome this distrust, Russia must present itself as a neutral arbiter in the Middle East that seeks to advance regional stability. This message can be conveyed through proactive Kremlin support for the resolution of the Yemen conflict. Russia has officially used its influence within the United Nations to push for an arms embargo in Yemen.

Even though Russia has officially emphasized its neutrality in Yemen, many Saudi officials believe that Moscow’s strategic partnership with Iran and close links to Saleh are pushing Russia to embrace a pro-Houthi agenda in the conflict. To dispel this assumption, Russia could attempt to host Astana-style peace talks between conflicting factions in Yemen to highlight its capabilities as an arbiter to an international audience and demonstrate its commitment to being a constructive actor in a seemingly intractable conflict.

Another area for potential cooperation between Russia and the GCC is the establishment of safe zones in Syria. In late January, Trump administration officials proposed the creation of safe zones in Syria to protect moderate opposition figures from the Assad regime’s repression.

Saudi Arabia supported Trump’s safe zone proposal, but Russian policymakers have greeted it with skepticism, as safe zones will likely be implemented without Assad’s approval. A Russian agreement not to endanger the safety of designated safe zones for Syrian rebels in exchange for Assad having a say on where they are created could ameliorate this area of disagreement in the months to come.

Russia’s relationship with the GCC bloc remains fractious due to long-standing historical distrust, tensions over oil production and Syria. Nevertheless, Moscow’s increased willingness to cooperate with the Gulf monarchies on issues of shared concern bodes well for the long-term future of the Russia-GCC relationship. The long-term trajectory of Russia-GCC relations will be intertwined closely with that of the Moscow-Tehran partnership. But if current trends persist, Russia’s Middle East strategy is likely to shift from being Iran-centric towards a multi-vector approach in the years to come.

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