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Like a Bear in the Desert? Lavrov’s GCC Tour

by Nikola Zukalová

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, engaged in a round of shuttle-diplomacy to the Gulf, visiting the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar between 9-11 March 2021. This visitation foreshadowed the marking of the 10-year anniversary of Syria’s civil war, Gabi Ashkenazi’s — Israel’s Foreign Minister — visit to Moscow and Afghan talks hosted by Russia the following week. Lavrov’s tour also took place in the context of the OPEC+ meeting in which the ministers decided to prolong oil production cuts until the end of April with exceptions made for Russia and Kazakhstan.


In the Gulf, talks were dominated by issues related to trade, energy cooperation and regional crises, particularly in Syria, Libya and Yemen—perhaps even in that order. There is a tendency to view Moscow as a regional, political and military kingmaker but its motivations are squarely on economic opportunism. Since the final days of the Cold War, the US has retained a dominant position in the wider region; and Russia was unable to make serious inroads. This is reflected in Putin’s first regional visit, in 2007, which produced generic good will but saw no serious investments. Moscow enhanced its (wider) Middle Eastern and, especially, GCC position post-2011, as the GCC countries began to emerge as increasingly important, international actors. This corresponded with Russia’s lurch away from Europe and the US: it faced a wave of sanctions over the annexation of Crimea and involvement in Eastern Ukraine (2014) in addition to other disruptive activities, including Moscow’s intervention in Syria. As a result, Russia was seeking new more distant market opportunities and partnerships to expand its influence, including in the Middle East.


Its economic struggle has led it to be chiefly interested in the GCC countries’ enormous sovereign wealth funds. The Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA), the UAE’s Mubadala Investment Company, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) and the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) have all played key roles in expanding bilateral relations with Moscow via the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) since the very first agreement, between KIP and RDIF, in 2012. Beyond energy cooperation and attracting foreign investments, Moscow has also sought to expand relations with the GCC countries as prospective markets for its numerous state majors, notably Roscosmos and Rosatom, as the Gulf states look to diversify their economies away from hydrocarbons and develop their space and nuclear energy industries. After securing a stake in supplying uranium products to the UAE’s first nuclear power plant, Rosatom is now competing for a piece in Saudi plans to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2040. These nuclear power projects are supposed to help satisfy growing domestic electricity demands, which is, among other things, crucial for desalination and providing potable water.


With a sharp increase in the UAE-Russia trade in the past year (to $3.27 billion), the two countries now also vowed to expand cooperation in energy, agriculture, space, automobile and aircraft manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, banking, and military fields. Lavrov was less enthusiastic about the modestly increased $1.7 billion trade exchange with Saudi Arabia and wants to facilitate business between the two countries by enhancing a legal framework. Recently, Russia has also toyed with arms sales and has steadily marketed its S-400 anti-aircraft missile system to the GCC countries, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, along with other military hardware. Over the past four years, Russian exports to the Middle East grew by 64% as the region becomes increasingly militarised. All three GCC countries that Lavrov toured last week are among the world’s top ten major arms importers—a list led by Saudi Arabia. And, while Moscow managed to become the UAE’s third largest arms supplier in the same period, accounting for about 5% of its total supplies, it still remains far behind the US, which continues to be the uncontested major arms supplier to the GCC.


A focused set of political objectives are also being touted by Moscow. Presenting itself as “neutral” and a “mediator,” with its own proposals on regional security architecture, which was not met with much enthusiasm, Russia is testing the waters. This is motivated by two key factors: 1. its assumed pragmatism rooted in maintaining key economic interests with various actors in dispute with each other (particularly evident during the intra-GCC crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt), 2. it sticks to the principle of non-interference: Russia does not want the Gulf states to interfere in its affairs and so stays out of theirs. Instead of taking sides on regional disputes it uses them as opportunities to advance its interests. Russia needs to cooperate with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Qatar and Iran on energy issues within the framework of OPEC+ and the Gas Exporting Countries Forum but it also seeks to leverage those countries to its advantage in regional conflicts.


Moscow, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh share common animosity towards Islamists, which has been among the major fault-lines in the Russia-Qatar relationship. In Libya, Moscow is aligned with the UAE and France against Turkey and Qatar, in Syria it is loosely aligned with Turkey, Qatar and Iran, and likely played a role in bringing the UAE on-board regarding restoring its relations with the Assad regime. During Lavrov’s concluding Gulf visit to Doha, they were joined by Turkey for trilateral ministerial talks on Syria to chart a way out of the abyss. Following the meeting Lavrov sought to diffuse rumours that Russia was trying to create an alternative mechanism on Syria without Iran, which has been part of the Astana process, or hijack the Afghan talks from Qatar with the planned meeting in Moscow featuring US, China, Pakistan, Taliban and Afghan government, where Qatar was invited as “an honoured guest.” Moscow has been trying to enlist the wealthy Arab countries to fund the reconstruction of Syria and rehabilitate the Assad regime.


Russia, as others, benefits from regional turmoil. Much like in Europe and the US, Moscow has exploited divisions, both among internal and external actors in the GCC, in pursuit of its geopolitical ambitions. As long as its rivals, notably Iran and Turkey, remain preoccupied with conflicts in the Gulf, Yemen, Libya, Syria and the East Mediterranean, Russia can continue to make inroads into other theatres, including Central Asia, largely undisturbed.


Lavrov’s GCC visit also included the increasingly sensitive issue of containing Iran. Russia and Iran are not allies; they cooperate on some issues, while they are strategic competitors in others. For example, Tehran and Moscow may have pursued common goals in Syria — preserving the Bashar Al Assad regime — and it is true that Moscow helps construct Iran’s nuclear facilities, but they remain enduring rivals in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea basin. Even in Syria, Israeli air strikes on Iranian targets most likely received tacit acceptance from Russia, which controls Syrian skies. Tel Aviv seems to be considerably more important than Tehran for Moscow—the former’s technological prowess, sizeable ethnic Russian community and that it is not proximate and competitive gives Israel an advantage in the Kremlin—one the Islamic Republic cannot wean away. In that way, Russia might be tracing opportunities to build on the Abraham Accords — that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain — rather than seeking to accommodate revisionism in Tehran.


With the high number of external actors queuing to enter Gulf affairs, the situation is increasingly prone to escalation due to imported external rivalries to an already volatile region. Russia will try to enhance its stakes in the GCC, however, Moscow’s ability to exert political influence in the GCC should not be overestimated as their relationships remain largely transactional. The Kremlin lacks significant leverage and Washington continues to be the primary go to security guarantor, though it increasingly delegates security responsibility. One thing is certain, the Russian bear cannot be ignored.

19 March 2021

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