In light of the Middle East’s dire situation at present, there are stark differences in the political prisms through which the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Russia view the region. While most of the GCC states find themselves in a proxy war against Iran, and view it as a belligerent actor in the region, Russia has increased its cooperation and partnership with the Islamic Republic. A similar confliction of interests can be found in Syria, where states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have invested tremendous political capital in supporting Syrian rebels, Russia has deployed its political, economic and military might in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Historically, GCC-Russia relations have never realized their full potential, marred by misunderstandings and, on many occasions, opposing views of geopolitical events. Recent years have seen an attempt by both sides to elevate cooperation, as reflected by the increased back-and-forth visits by high level officials, economic investments, and the potential sale of military equipment. GCC members such as the Kingdom of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have developed much more concrete relationships with their Russian counterparts. There remain many as yet unexplored opportunities, but a host of obstacles must be overcome.
In an ever-changing region and now with a new and unknown political figure in President-elect Trump; what is the trajectory of GCC-Russia relations? Will events in the region see an alignment of interests, or further hurdles that impede this growing relationship? From the perspective of some GCC analysts, the ball is in Russia’s court.
The Past and Today
Russia’s regional role has always been minimal compared to that of various western powers, such as the EU and US, especially since Egypt chose to align with the US at the USSR’s expense in the 1970s. Yet, in an unforeseen turn of events, due to a combination of unintentional US action and inaction in the region, Russia finds itself back in the Middle East in what appears to be a geopolitical position of strength. From the Gulf to the Mediterranean and beyond, Russia finds itself playing some role.
Russia has no doubt taken advantage of the US political shift away (in many aspects) from the region, and the troubling ties that the US has formed with many of the states, including the GCC countries under the Obama administration. It is also no secret that GCC has sought to diversify its partnerships and alliances, in an effort to reduce its reliance on the US.
Thus far, there have been a total of four strategic dialogues held between the GCC and Russia in the last few years. This does not include the various high level delegations that have visited Russia. For example, HM King of Bahrain has met with Putin in Moscow twice this year, with the last visit in September. Since the late 2000s, almost all visits and discussions with Putin has taken place in Russia. While Putin has visited the GCC only once in the last ten years.
The Russian Role
The fact the Putin has visited the Gulf once since 2007 points to an imbalance in the relationship between the two, which has perhaps led to further misunderstandings. In contrast, President Putin visited Iran as recently as November 2015. It is difficult to assess what sort of role Russia envisages for itself in the Middle East. There have been a multitude of op-eds calling this the “Russian century” and the re-emergence of Russia as a great power in the region and beyond.
The view from the region and beyond is that Putin has been playing a short-term zero-sum game of one-upmanship against the US from Europe to the Middle East. Russia’s desire to be a global power requires a more nuanced and long term view; especially of the second and third order effects of its actions.
For the GCC states, and especially Saudi Arabia, Russian backing of Iran (through sale of sophisticated military equipment) and its military and political support of the Syrian regime is of grave concern. The nuclear deal has only emboldened Iran’s aggressive actions and seen an uptick in its support for terrorist groups throughout the region. The campaign by the Syrian regime against its own people has had a devastating spillover impact. The GCC states have been patient observers of Russia’s actions.
The GCC states have attempted to use various economic and political levers to bring Russia closer. Most GCC-Russia business and economic initiatives have yet to see the light of day. Per one Russian expert, Russian business is notoriously slow at responding to challenges and seizing opportunities. Economic and business decision making circles in Russia have little understanding of the Middle East. Furthermore, as Abdulaziz Sager (Chairman of the Gulf Research Center) points out, economic incentives, in trying to bring Russia in to the GCC fold, have clearly been insufficient, in spite of being potentially highly profitable for all parties. This further supports the view that Russia seems to have hedged its bet with Tehran and Damascus with a disregard to wider GCC interests.
Alliances and President-Elect Trump
Moscow has hoped that the disappointment with the Obama administration would lead most of the GCC states to rethink their alliances with the US. While they have reevaluated, expanded and sought to improve their alliances, the assumption that they would end up at Moscow’s door step, whatever the cost, is likely to be an inaccurate one. In fact, disappointment with the US role in the region has led to a much more forceful and proactive foreign policy by the GCC states.
Furthermore, with the election of Trump, the possibility of rehabilitating relations between the Gulf states and the US has also substantially increased, further improving the GCC’s position. While media rhetoric has spoken of a new reset of relations between the US and Russia, there are no real signs which point to any great bargains being made in the region at the cost of US traditional allies. Most of the individuals that make up the Trump team are ardent supporters of actions against Iran, and have even called for further punitive action to be taken against Russia.
The GCC states understand and acknowledge the importance of Russia as a major global player, and its potential role in the region. It is also clear that Russia has an old and historic relationship with Iran that will not end any time soon, nor is it expected of Russia to take steps to diminish such ties.
Russia, on the other hand, must make an increased and serious effort in understanding the threats that the GCC states face from states like Iran, and appreciate the impetus provided to terrorist groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda due to the detrimental interference of Iran in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states.
Another way forward is to increase the number of strategic dialogues held, which must include candid and frank discussions between the various parties. President Putin reciprocating the visits made by GCC leaders by visiting the Gulf would be a welcome development, as would concrete steps that reflect an understanding of the threats that Iranian interference has upon GCC security.
While the potential in GCC-Russia relations is tremendous, Iran will always prove to be an obstacle in some way and form. Today, in a region beset with conflict, the GCC countries constitute the most stable and prosperous group of states, with political, military and economic levers of power. The challenge for policymakers on both sides is to devise ways of unlocking these latent opportunities.