GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Russia and the GCC countries: Hard to be Friends but Impossible to Remain Foes
Paper Proposal Text :
Recent years have been challenging for the relationship between Russia and the GCC members. The war in Syria, in particular, has put Moscow in direct confrontation with Riyadh and Doha, the strength of whose opposition to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been matched by Moscow’s support for his regime. Political tensions have also had economic ramifications, limiting opportunities for co-operation or investment.
By November 2011, Moscow’s confrontation with Qatar was essentially out in the open, with the withdrawal of the Russian ambassador to Doha Vladimir Titorenko after a row over a diplomatic bag. Moscow’s relations with Saudi Arabia were not faring much better. Television channels and newspapers supported by the GCC countries played an important role in damaging Russia’s image in the Middle East, associating Moscow, in popular opinion, with dictatorship and bloodshed. Some media began to discuss other topics sensitive for the Kremlin, such as the state of democracy, or Muslim minorities in Russia. Since 2011, for example, Al Jazeera has periodically voiced concerns about the domestic policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in October 2012, state-run Qatar Television broadcast a sermon by the senior Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi in which the latter called Russia Islam’s “enemy number one”.
Statements like Qaradawi’s stoked Russian fears that Doha might use its influence to undermine Russia’s dialogue with religious leaders in the Middle East, something Moscow sees as central to maintaining domestic stability. Pursuing such dialogue, Moscow believes, can help to limit moral and financial assistance to radical Islamists active in southern Russia. Qatari, and Saudi, support for radical factions in Syria since 2011 has been a particular concern, given the presence of Russian Islamists on that terrain.
Yet, events in Syria have not resulted in a breakdown in Russian relations with the GCC countries. If 2011-12 was a stress-test for the relationships, 2013-14 demonstrated that Moscow would not walk away. In part, Russia’s reconsideration of its relations with the Arab Gulf states was down to the 2012 return to the presidency of Putin, who is less pro-Western and more pragmatic than his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev. According to Russian diplomats, the decision to re-energise contacts with some Middle Eastern states (including Qatar and Saudi Arabia) was entirely Putin’s initiative; his return also saw Russia become both cleverer and more forceful in defending its foreign policy red lines, such as the unacceptability of foreign military intervention in Syria, and the need to stop the spread of jihadism.
Analysts say that the toughening of Russian policy encouraged Gulf states to reciprocate Russia’s attempts to re-engage. Russia’s undermining of US attempts to intervene militarily in Syria in 2013 did not go unnoticed, nor its key role in the initiative to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, forcing Qatar and others to accept Moscow as an important player, albeit one with different strategic goals. These days, Russia makes clear its interest in dialogue with almost all forces in the Middle Eastern arena. Seeing the Gulf states as central players, it has made several efforts to re-establish contacts with Qatar, assessing that a policy of confrontation has done more harm than good. On 22 November 2013, Moscow appointed a new ambassador to Doha, despite not having received an official explanation for the Titorenko incident, as it had initially demanded, and on 10 February 2014, a high-ranking delegation of Russian MPs, headed by Mikhail Margelov, visited Qatar. Margelov’s visit was important to secure, at the very least, a minimal level of bilateral dialogue. And preceding that visit by just a few days - and thus demonstrating Qatar’s willingness to reciprocate - was Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad’s 5 February visit to the Olympic Games in Sochi, where he held a working meeting with Putin.
Tensions between Riyadh and Washington have also been viewed as an opportunity in Moscow, which has been trying to increase its presence in the Gulf since 2003. In 2013-14, the US’ growing energy independence, the international rapprochement with Iran and the reluctance of the international community to intervene in Syria put some distance between Washington and its traditional Gulf allies, encouraging Riyadhto re-evaluate other relationships. Two visits to Moscow by Saudi Arabia’s then chief of the General Intelligence Directorate, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, in July and December 2013 attracted considerable attention and much speculation; though the agenda was never revealed, some analysts suggest it was an unofficial attempt to bridge the divide gouged by Syria. There was a further suggestion of co-operation in November that year, when Egyptian press reported that the Saudis and Emiratis would help the Egyptians buy Russian weapons, to compensate for the decrease in US munitions. And, according to the Russian government’s official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, when Saudi foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal visited Moscow in November 2014, one of the topics discussed was joint anti-terrorist efforts; a Saudi statement that the kingdom would not support the funding of separatists in southern Russia was read as a sign of good will.
That there should be dialogue between the two countries is no surprise. Moscow and Riyadh have many interests in common, including regional political stability and sectors like energy and space. Energy is a prime example. In 2004, for instance, Lukoil Overseas signed a contract with Saudi Arabia which granted the company a 40-year concession to explore and develop a gas field in the Empty Quarter. To implement this project, Lukoil Overseas and Saudi Aramco established a joint company, Lukoil Saudi Arabia Energy (LUKSAR), 80% owned by the Russians, which went on in 2006, to discover a new hydrocarbon field with estimated reserves of 85m tonnes of oil equivalent. Currently LUKSAR is making an assessment of discovered reserves in order to begin the development of the field.
Yet, while it seems that Moscow and the GCC countries are willing to maintain a certain level of exchange, and even cordiality, the persistence of their irreconcilable differences on Syria will remain an obstacle to any significant co-operation.