BY SINEM CENGIZ
AZERI OBSERVER CONTRIBUTOR
Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy said that people do not become leaders due to fate or their characteristics, but due to the social circumstances at that time — zeitgeist (spirit of the time). Nowadays, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is reading the zeitgeist in the Middle East. He visited the Gulf region in 2019, for the first time in over a decade.
In order to understand the Russian view of the Gulf region, it is significant to look at the history, as Fred Halliday advises, “It is certainly important to look at history and for two reasons above all: history is necessary to explain why countries act as they do, and, equally, to provide a basis for analyzing how states, and their opponents, claim to use, select and falsify history to justify what they do.”
The burgeoning relationship between the Soviet Union and the Gulf region have only just recently enjoyed its mutual interest in each other. However, the Soviet Union was an active player in the politics of the Arabian Peninsula as early as the 1920s, and even in 1932, the Crown Prince Faisal bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia paid a visit to Moscow. Regrettably, due to several reasons related to both regional and international conditions, the relations between the two countries were put on hold. Soviet policy towards the Gulf was significantly influenced by the bipolar system of international relations, which in turn necessitate the formulation of policies based on the confrontation between the two super powers. Throughout the Cold War era, rather than formulating a specific policy towards the Gulf, the Soviet’s main goal was to establish an “anti-imperialist” front in the Middle East.
By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed giving way to today’s Russia. The dissolution of the USSR, not only led the whole international system to undergo unprecedented transformations, but also had considerable impact on Russia’s relations with the Gulf. Boris Yeltsin followed the path initiated by Gorbachev and considered the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as an alternative market and source of financial support. In 1992, the then Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Kozyrev embarked on a Gulf tour and visited all the six GCC states, emphasizing Russia’s fresh policy of “now we prefer to deal with stable, moderate regimes” rather than the Soviet’s previous allies; Libya, Iran and Iraq. Russia’s domestic and foreign policy underwent significant change, particularly after Vladimir Putin became president of Russia at the end of 1999. Putin’s foreign policy approach witnessed an important improvement in the role Russia played in the international balance of power, and its relationship with the Middle East and the Gulf region. The year 2000 marked the beginning of a new era in Russian policy towards the region, and this policy proved to be successful for the resulting 10 years.
Russian and Gulf foreign policies, are driven by a range of considerations, with self-interest being the top concern. From the Russian point of view, Moscow’s attempts to reassert a place of international influence, power and cooperation on the energy sector was the key factor. The Gulf’s concern is regional instability, terrorism and contradicting US policies. However, Moscow and the Gulf’s changing relations with some of their traditional allies, endeavor to gravitate towards each other; although this is not a reflection in their level of an alliance, moreover a cooperation on relevant issues. In other words, Russia and the GCC have found their own ‘niche’ in their relationship.
Saudi Arabia: Putin was the first Russian president to ever visit the Saudi kingdom in February 2007, when he met with the late King Abdullah, as well as King Salman, who was then the governor of Riyadh. His visit in 2019 was of great importance; Putin was welcomed with a red carpet, in contrast to his last more unassuming state visit to the country in 2007. A series of memorandums of understanding and cooperation deals valued at $2 billion in the fields of energy, petrochemicals, transport and artificial intelligence were signed in this visit. Putin’s gulf tour, which also included the UAE, came at a time when the US troops withdrew from the northern Syria as Russian-backed regime forces deployed deep inside Kurdish-held territory. Putin met King Salman and his son, de facto king, Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS), with whom he has friendly relations. In televised remarks, the two leaders stated that the relations between two countries were significant to regional security and stability.
Kuwait: Despite its presence in the Western camp during the Cold War, Kuwait developed a cordial relationship with the Soviet Union. Since the formation of the Russian Federation, Kuwait continues to buy Russian arms and has been not openly vocal over the Russian policies in the region, in contrast to those of the other GCC members. In March 2018, Russian Foreign Ministry, in a statement described the Russian-Kuwaiti relations as follows: “the strengthening of bilateral ties meets the long-term interests of our nations, contributes to the maintenance of peace and security in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.” Kuwait’s pursuance of a neutral stance towards the conflicts in the region, ranging from Syrian war to Qatar crisis, is welcomed by Russia.
United Arab Emirates (UAE): Besides Kuwait, the UAE was only the second Gulf country to develop relations with the Soviet Union, and then Russia, becoming a key importer of Russian weapons. In 2015, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s visit to Russia and his talks with Putin, paved the way for the acceleration of the opening of a trade mission in the UAE, in order to facilitate the development of the bilateral trade and investments between two countries. Emirati officials have paid several visits to Russia in the past three years, playing a key role in cementing rapprochement between the two sides. From the UAE side, Russian involvement in the Middle East – which has achieved unprecedented levels since the end of the Cold War – is considered as a positive development.
Qatar: Despite the existence of disagreements between two sides due to Syria, the course of Russian-Qatari relations have entered into a new phase. The regional (Gulf crisis) and international (Trump’s presidency) developments have played a significant role in this change. The two sides have acknowledged that cooperation based on certain issues can serve in both their interests. When the Gulf crisis erupted between Qatar and the Saudi-led quartet in mid-2017, Moscow took a neutral stance while signaling a willingness to assist with mediation. In March 2018, a delegation of Qatari ministers accompanied Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim in his visit to Moscow, where several deals were signed. However, the political importance of the visit shouldn’t be underestimated, as it coincided with other GCC countries (which are at odds with Qatar) intensifying their relationship with Moscow.
Bahrain: It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Bahrain was the leading country to develop relations with Russia during the Arab uprisings since 2011. Moscow did not support the protests against the Bahrain government, who is a US ally. Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s visit to Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s residence in Sochi in 2016, carried a symbolistic reasoning with a modicum of enthusiasm between Bahrain and Russia, to further develop ties while the Middle East was experiencing turbulence. In this visit, the two leaders exchanged gifts, with Putin presenting the Bahraini king with a stallion and the latter presenting the former, with a sword made of Damascus steel, which the king called a “sword of victory.” The same year, the Bahraini king paid another visit to Moscow at a time when the international community had fixed its eyes on the Russian war crimes in Syria. This particular visit combined not only a sense of cooperation, but also witnessed the signing of a military cooperation agreement. Bahrain, who considers Russia to be a significant and serious player in the region, was also among the other GCC countries to sign an agreement to enhance military cooperation in 2015.
Oman: Although being a member of the GCC, and critical player of the Assad regime in Syria, Oman adopts a low profile policy towards the Syrian crisis, keeping Muscat at odds with the other GCC members on the Syrian issue. Oman even left its embassy in Damascus open, refusing to join the Saudi-led war on Yemen and has kept its ports open to Qatar in the recent Gulf crisis, in order to verify its neutral position. It has therefore been referred to as the “Switzerland of the Gulf.”