GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Russia and the Gulf countries: from economics to geopolitics
Paper Proposal Text :
In recent years, Russia’s Middle East policy has begun shifting back to the Soviet
model, in which the region was regarded primarily through the prism of the strategic, geopolitical views of Russia, specifically in relation to its strategic competition with the United States. Under this model, economic interests are sidelined, being perceived as secondary and subordinated to the greater political goals. The basic logic of the Soviet model is to achieve geopolitical goals at any financial or economic expense. This is in contrast to the period under President Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s, when economic objectives in the Middle East were deemed as more important than geopolitical ones.

Russia’s approach to the Arab Gulf countries in 2014 was characterized by three major factors. The first concerned tension in the relations between the GCC States and the United States caused by the Russian-American “chemical deal” over Syria as well as the Arab concerns over the “5+1” talks with Iran. On both of these issues, some of the GCC States felt encouraged to partly reach out to Russia. Second, there was the decline in Russia’s relationship with the major Western countries. As sanctions were imposed that resulted in economic and financial hardships for Russia, Moscow undertook an intense search for alternatives. Due to the financial status of the GCC countries and their role as potential sources of investments, Russia began to seek out the GCC as economic and trade partners. Third, the emergence of the “Islamic State” as a clear terrorist threat was seen in Russia as restoring to a degree the understanding and interaction of the Arab monarchies with the United States. The fact that Moscow’s stayed out of the international coalition against ISIS underscored remaining and significant Russian-GCC divergences.

In its relationship with the Gulf countries, Russia has found itself caught between its political and strategic prerogatives in the region (backing of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and maintaining special ties with Iran) on one hand, and the urgent need to improve its relations with GCC countries, particular in the economic field, on the other hand. The Ukrainian crisis aggravated this contradiction of Russian policy as increasingly Moscow’s backing Assad became regarded as a tool to be used in the broader standoff with the West – namely, something not to be abandoned without at least some clear steps by the West to ease sanctions imposed on Russia. In short, any move by Russia on Syria is now seconded to what happens in the Ukraine.

Russia’s bilateral relations with the Gulf countries in 2014 might be depicted as maneuvering between two extremes – namely, cool ties with Qatar and Saudi Arabia (focusing to a large extent on the Syrian issue) and a move towards closer ties with Bahrain culminated in the visit of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to Russia and his meeting with the President Vladimir Putin in October. Two months later, Denis Manturov, the Russian minister of industry and trade, paid a reciprocal visit in return.

The effort to build better ties with Bahrain can be seen in the context of Manama’s remarkable cooling of its relationship with Washington. During his visit, the Bahraini King highlighted the pivotal role that can be played by Russia in overcoming the challenges faced by the world within the framework of international legitimacy. Such statement came in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis where the Russia’s role was strongly condemned by the US and the European Union.

Yet despite these cases, the relationship with the Saudi Arabia remains the barometer for Russia’s ties with the rest of the GCC countries. Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s visits to Moscow in late 2013 and early 2014, which were said to consist of an offer extended to President Putin to conclude arms purchases of USD 15 billion in exchange for curbing Russia’s support to Bashar Assad in Syria, did not succeed due in large part to the fact that Assad’s army started to make advances on the battlefield at the precise time that Bandar made his offer. In the end, nothing came of the proposal. Nevertheless, as pointed out by the New York Times on February 3, 2015, Riyadh has not stop trying to pressure President Putin to abandon his support for President Bashar al-Assad, using its dominance of the global oil markets at a time when the Russian government is reeling from the effects of plummeting oil prices. American and Saudi officials confirmed that the kingdom and Russia were likely to have had numerous discussions over the latter months of 2014, although again without producing a significant breakthrough. It is unclear how explicitly Saudi officials have linked oil to the issue of Syria during the talks, but Saudi officials have indicated that they think they have some leverage over Mr. Putin because of their ability to reduce the supply of oil and possibly drive up market prices.
While seeing ISIS as a terrorist threat, Russia nonetheless preferred to stay outside the international coalition headed by the US due to the aggravated Russian-US relations over the Ukrainian crisis. In addition, the fact that one of the proclaimed goals of the coalition was extending support and assistance to the moderate opposition against the Assad regime was unacceptable to Moscow. In this context, Moscow preferred to act on its own and help the legitimate governments in Damascus and Baghdad directly in their fight against ISIS. This, however, came at the expense of any kind of cooperation with the GCC.
Iran continues to be viewed by Moscow as a potential major partner given regional and global developments. Russia has hastened to revive the cooperation with Tehran in all aspects – political, economic and military. Iran’s policy and experience to withstand the international sanctions regime over the country’s nuclear program, is seen by many in Russia’s leadership as a “valuable and useful” model to follow.