BY SINEM CENGIZ
AZERI OBSERVER CONTRIBUTOR
At a time where the Middle East is experiencing major developments ranging from the Syrian conflict to the Qatari dispute and the Yemeni war to the refugee issue, there are important advancements taking place in the Russian-Gulf relations. Last August, a significant workshop on “The Gulf Post-Syrian-Crisis Political Architecture and the Roles of the External Actors: The United States of America, Russia, and China” took place at Cambridge University. The event, which was organized by the Gulf Research Center, brought together prominent academics from several countries who discussed the future of Russian-Gulf relations and the role of other external powers in Syria.
During the three-day long discussion at the workshop, academics questioned the real motivation behind Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey, and China in Syria and strived to decode the Gulf stance towards these actors. The main focus of the discussion revolved around three topics: diminishing US interest in the Gulf, rising Russian-Chinese power in the region, and the security of energy routes. Intellectuals mainly questioned Russia’s position in Syria and the context of the Russian-Gulf relations. I presented a paper on the Russian-Saudi relations within the context of the Syrian war and what I observed during the discussion of the topic was that there is a lack of knowledge and comprehensive understanding on the Russian and the Gulf side over each other’s policies towards Syria and the region as a whole. The intellectuals concluded in the discussion that a broader framework should be developed to overcome this situation and there should be more focus on joint projects which could expand the understanding of the Russian-Gulf relations.
In the Soviet era, the relations between the USSR and the Gulf countries were limited due to the different political considerations. Moscow was backing pro-Soviet Arab regimes, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, while the Gulf countries were enjoying a close alliance with the United States that was harming Soviet objectives in the region. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union affected the geopolitical and geostrategic balances in the world in general, and in the Gulf in particular. Especially in the early 2000s, with the internal transformations, the developments in regional and international levels, Russian-Gulf relations seemed to enter a positive track. On the Russian side, President Vladimir Putin’s third term focused on establishing multidimensional relations with regional Arab countries, particularly with Saudi Arabia. On the Gulf side, the succession of the new leaders played a significant role in the Russo-Gulf rapprochement. Amid the geopolitical uncertainty, with shrinking US influence in the region and the oil price issues, the Gulf countries and Russia appear to have reconsidered their relationship and moved toward something closer.
Despite their conflicting interests in Syria, there will always be a mixture of common, overlapping and colliding interests and concerns driving Moscow and the Gulf capitals in dealing with each other. Both sides share the main concerns of trade, mutual investments, selling of armaments, the joint production of military equipment, the safety of the energy routes, the fight against extremism, and the peace and security of the Gulf. Overall, Moscow’s and the Gulf’s changing relations with their traditional allies have assuaged their approach towards each other; although this is not reflected in their overarching partnership or alliance, it has in regards to cooperation on certain issues. In other words, Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) have found their own “niche” in their relationship. Some scholars even underline that the best description of the Russian-Gulf relations is “inconsistent.” According to Ahmad Al-Hamli, the head of the research center TRENDS, based in Abu Dhabi, “Russia’s inconsistent foreign policy is a source of frustration for GCC states, but also provides significant opportunities for them, collectively and individually, to direct and influence the nature of Russian engagement in the region.” The Russian-Gulf relations have witnessed the stages of convergence and divergence, but have found the pragmatism as an influential way to continue cooperation.
Intellectuals suggested that both Russia and the Gulf countries should be able to “agree to disagree” on the matter that they diverge, such as Syria and Iran. They should focus on the following points to overcome the lack of knowledge that hampers the future of the Russian-Gulf relations: (1) Gulf countries should strengthen their partnership with Russia, (2) Gulf countries seek to convince Russia to understand their security concerns, mainly increasing Iranian influence, (3) There should be more done to strengthen the Gulf-Asian partnership, and (4) Gulf countries should engage more in regional issues with Russia in order to restrict Iran’s regional influence.
Despite the fact the Gulf leaders were frustrated by the passive American position towards the Syrian crisis, they concluded that Russia could not compensate for a diminished United States presence in the Gulf. This is not only due to the years-long U.S.-Gulf alliance in the region but also to Russia’s lack of a permanent mechanism for dialogue, which started and ended in 2016. While no one argues that Russia could not be an alternative to the Gulf; there is also an agreement that the Gulf cannot be a platform for Russia as they work hard to resolve their problems in Syria and elsewhere in the region. Some of the main questions asked by the intellectuals were “How can Russia support the Gulf countries in Yemen? Will China and Russia join the sanctions against Iran? Can Russian-Iranian relations progress beyond the Syrian issue?” These questions can be answered through in-depth research.
This workshop made us realize that one major obstacle between Russia and the Gulf countries to understand each other’s priorities, capabilities, and areas of cooperation is because the relations are read through the lens of the Syrian war merely. There are significant areas of cooperation which could help us understand both sides that “business is business and politics is politics” and ease their divergence through cooperation areas. In other words, Russian-Gulf relations require a strategic depth. As the words of the prominent scholar on Russian-Gulf relations, Alexey Vasiliev, who was the director of the workshop, “Soft power is needed to bolster the knowledge on both the Russian and the Gulf sides.”