Russia and the Persian Gulf littoral countries made major strides in 2019 in boosting ties, a highlight of which was Vladimir Putin’s trips to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for signing several major cooperation agreements in the economic sphere. Russia’s move to adopt a more active foreign policy towards Persian Gulf region is part of that country’s Middle East policy dynamism, which pursues not only the bilateral issues, but also the geopolitical and strategic purposes in the area of regional and global competition. To gain a better understanding, we would take a look at the history of ties between the two sides.
In general, the expansion of ties between Russia and the Persian Gulf southern littoral states began after 2000. Before that time and in the period from the foundation of those countries (Saudi Arabia in 1932, Kuwait in 1961, and Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain in 1971) until dissolution of the Soviet Union, there were no serious relations between the two sides and the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia had even severed diplomatic ties. In the 1990s, despite the formal diplomatic relations between Russia and those countries, the atmosphere of ties was influenced by the internal developments in Russia (the economic problems and the conflict with Chechen separatists who occasionally received support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and the international circumstances, such as the first Persian Gulf War and the Balkan Crisis. The atmosphere was not positive in general.
After recovering from the shocks of dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia got Putin as the new president in 2000, started to carry out a reform of domestic and foreign policy, and began to revive and rebuild its position in the international system. In the meantime, the rising energy prices, particularly in the first decade of the new century, helped Russia, improved its economic conditions, settled many domestic problems, and boosted the Russian officials’ self-confidence in the international arena. As a result, the expansion of cooperation with various countries in the world was put on Russia’s foreign policy strategy, including the promotion of ties with the Persian Gulf littoral states. Major landmarks in the history of relations between Russia and the Persian Gulf southern littoral states happened when then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdulaziz paid a visit to Moscow in 2003, and Russian President Vladimir Putin made a trip to Riyadh in 2007 and also visited Qatar and the UAE in the tour. A three-day tour of Moscow by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in 2017 was the first official visit by the highest-ranking Saudi authority to Russia (and the Soviet Union), which was described by the media as an unexpected friendship between two enemies. The landmark visit resulted in a series of cooperation agreements and bilateral deals in the oil exploration sector and the military and space industries, including a $3 billion arms deal. Moreover, Saudi Arabia undertook to make an investment of $1 billion in the Russian energy projects, and a Russian company engaged in the natural gas and petrochemical industry (Sibir Energy) undertook to construct a factory in Saudi Arabia worth $1.1 billion.
One of the main lines of cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia in recent years has been their interaction in the OPEC plus (the OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers) with the purpose of regulating the oil market, which began in 2016 and helped stabilize the oil prices at that time. Although the two countries’ failure to agree on a plan to cut oil production in early 2020 posed a challenge to their cooperation and resulted in a historic drop in the oil prices, the two sides finally agreed on oil output cuts in April 2020 and maintained cooperation within the OPEC plus.
The relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia involve factors of convergence and divergence as well, some of which depend on the international situation, as some others are fixed and a function of general relations among the countries. A number of major variables in the relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia are as follows.
A) Energy: Russia and Saudi Arabia are the biggest oil producers among the OPEC and non-OPEC member states. Oil and energy have great significance in the economies and, consequently, in the political power of the two countries. The both nations give high priority to maintaining power in the production and sale of oil. Thus, oil is a factor in the rivalry and cooperation between the two countries, although the quality of interaction would change considering the changeable international conditions in the energy market.
B) Geopolitics: Russia has been seeking to play a more active role in the world politics over the past decade. As a result, it has broadened its relations with the other countries and various regions of the world, specifically with the West Asia and the Persian Gulf region. Unlike the US, which has hostile ties with Iran, Syria and Palestine, the Russians have established balanced ties with all countries in the region, have achieved a better position compared to the US, and are trying to exploit such geopolitical asset by promoting the political consultations and economic cooperation. Furthermore, a stronger Russian presence in the international arena requires the maximum employment of all geopolitical capacities. Russia’s plan for Persian Gulf security, proposed last year, is considered part of those efforts. This is also significant for Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran and Turkey as regional rivals. Therefore, cooperation with Russia would be more important for Saudi Arabia.
C) Economic Variable: Russia’s economy is much smaller than those of its international rivals –the US, China and Europe- and needs to be strengthened. The West Asia region is of great significance because of abundant financial resources suitable for investment and because of the export market, particularly the export of military equipment. Therefore, Russia has adopted such approach and is seeking to take advantage of the capacities available in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia. The bilateral economic agreements are also part of that plan.
D) Security Variable: One of Russia’s troubles in the 1990s was the presence of Sunni Muslim fighters in the North Caucasus regions of that country. Those fighters received financial and ideological supports form Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A top priority for Russia is to keep the Russian Muslims and even the Central Asian nations away from the influence of the Salafi extremist movement. Such effort could be made successfully in cooperation with the Persian Gulf countries.
Other Cooperation Variables
Syrian Crisis: Another subject in the course of relations between the two countries relates to the differences between Moscow and Riyadh over the situation in Syria. Russia’s political and military support for Bashar al-Assad’s government, which benefits from the backing of Tehran, and Saudi Arabia’s support for the Syrian opposition forces are among the issues that have led to indirect confrontation between the two countries. However, Moscow has been trying to prevent the Syrian crisis from damaging its general policy towards Saudi Arabia, an issue that has been also observed by Saudi Arabia.
Yemen Crisis: Moscow has adopted such a policy on the Yemen crisis, in which Saudi Arabia has been entangled, to maintain the balance and at the same time avoid upsetting Saudis, considering that the Houthi fighters battling against the Saudi-led coalition are being supported by Tehran. Meanwhile, Russia’s decision to suspend the activities of its embassy in Yemeni capital Sana’a and transfer the embassy staff to Riyadh one week after the killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2017 was seen by Riyadh as a positive signal that Moscow is resolved to proceed with the policy of keeping balance in the region. Such Russian move immediately received a response from the Saudi rulers. As of 2017, Saudi Arabia has backed off from supporting the UN resolutions that condemn Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and has decided to abstain instead.
Crisis in Relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar: Following a decision from five Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017, Moscow tried to maintain impartiality and adopt moderate stances. Moreover, Russians proposed to mediate between the two countries in July 2017.
Human Rights and Supports for Saudi Stances: Following the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi security forces in October 2018, Putin said, “Why do we need to take some steps towards the deterioration of our relations (with Saudi Arabia) if we don’t understand what is happening?” Also in August 2018, Russia sided with Saudi Arabia in a conflict between the Saudis and Canada. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that “the politicization of human rights matters is unacceptable.”
All in all, it can be concluded that Russia’s view on the relations with Saudi Arabia entail both the customary bilateral affairs and fulfillment of its major strategy for promoting and raising its position in the international system and strengthening multilateralism. Such Russian policy does not include a political viewpoint alone, but considers the economic dimensions and capacities as well, particularly the energy and security. On the other hand, Russians are well aware that they have to face a serious obstacle in this way, like the United States and the rivals such as Europe and China. Thus, Russia is trying to avoid arousing sensitivity among the other stakeholders and powers, to work towards its goals slowly and gradually, and to elevate Moscow’s role in creating regional balance and subsequently international security, an effort that has yielded results so far.
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)