Russia and the GCC: A Rising Partnership?
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, many analysts of Russia-Middle East relations have
Veteran Russian diplomat
This balancing act has caused Russian policymakers to
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
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
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
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
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.