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What was behind Putin’s rare trip to the Middle East?

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At the 20th edition of the Doha Forum, held in March 2022, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the event.

The embattled leader spoke of his country’s struggle amid war with Russia and its plight under occupation. Zelensky attempted to appeal to a largely Arab-Islamic audience by focusing on Ukraine’s Muslim minority.

But it was notable how Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and not Zelensky, spoke earlier this month at the 21st edition of the Doha Forum. Rather than focusing on Ukraine, the December 2023 Doha Forum was largely consumed by the US-backed Israeli war on Gaza, which has killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians since October.

It is remarkable how much global attention has shifted from Ukraine to the Gaza crisis since 7 October. For President Vladimir Putin’s government, this shift in international focus toward Gaza is extremely convenient.

As the Ukraine war grinds on with less global attention paid to the 22-month-old war in Eastern Europe, Moscow is attempting to secure its influence and advance its interests in the Middle East while taking advantage of soaring anti-American sentiment in the region as the nightmarish crisis in Gaza worsens by the minute.

Within this context, Putin paid a one-day visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia on 6 December, marking his first trip to the Arab world since his country’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“Russia is seeking greater influence in the [Middle East]. It is hard to predict its success; if the Gaza campaign gets worse and the US does nothing, Russia benefits”

Given the extent to which Putin has become close to the President of the UAE Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) and the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), it made sense that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh were the first two Arab capitals visited by Russia’s leader post-February 2022.

While in Abu Dhabi, Putin met with MbZ and praised the state of Russia-UAE relations and congratulated the Gulf Arab country for hosting COP28, which kicked off six days before Putin’s visit.

The UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan greeted Putin at the airport after his Ilyushin-96, which was escorted from Russia by four Su-35 fighter jets, landed in Abu Dhabi. Upon arriving at Qasr al-Watan palace in Abu Dhabi, a 21-gun salute greeted the Russian leader, as did Emirati military jets whose trailing smoke was the red, white, and blue colours of Russia’s flag.

After discussing a host of issues – from Gaza to oil production and Ukraine to Sudan – MbZ released a statement about how the two leaders addressed “the importance of strengthening dialogue and cooperation to ensure stability and progress”.

That same day, Putin visited Saudi Arabia and met with MbS in Riyadh. The Russian president declared that his country’s relations with Saudi Arabia have “reached a level they never saw before” and emphasised that “it’s very important to exchange information and assessments of what’s going on in the region”.

MbS stated that Riyadh’s cooperation with Moscow has bolstered security across the Middle East and he said that “our future political interaction and cooperation will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the global situation”. Additionally, MbS and Putin also discussed Israel’s war on Gaza and “other sensitive issues on the international agenda”.

Jets fly through the sky as incumbent UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin with an official ceremony at Qasr Al Watan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on 6 December 2023. [Getty]

Russian calculations in the Middle East

Russia’s relationship with Israel over the years has been strong, with Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having worked to bring the two countries closer.

In Syria there has been Russian-Israeli coordination, which has, to certain extents, fuelled some tension between Moscow and Tehran.

Yet, in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Moscow has long maintained a balanced position, which contrasts with Washington’s all-out support for the Israeli side. While enjoying positive ties with Israel, Moscow has also emphasised its position in favour of Palestinian statehood and engaged Hamas as a legitimate Palestinian political actor, not a terrorist organisation.

Since the Israeli war on Gaza erupted in October, Moscow has capitalised on the US’s isolation within the United Nations when it comes to the ceasefire debate and the Biden administration’s iron-clad support for Israeli actions in the besieged enclave.

“Putin’s short visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia were not so much aimed at gaining influence as not losing influence as a result of Russia growing closer to Iran”

The message from Putin’s government to the wider Arab-Islamic world is that when it comes to Palestine, Russia is very different from the US because Moscow joins the international community in supporting a ceasefire and believes that the Palestinian issue must be resolved in a manner consistent with international law, and not buried or dismissed.

“Russia is seeking greater influence in the [Middle East],” Patrick Theros, the former US ambassador to Qatar, said in an interview with The New Arab. “It is hard to predict its success; if the Gaza campaign gets worse and the US does nothing, Russia benefits. How much I cannot guess.”

Although neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia will be able to replace the US with Russia as their security guarantor in the foreseeable future, both MbZ and MbS will continue viewing their relationships with Putin’s government as a means of asserting more autonomy from Washington.

This is nothing new and it’s entirely consistent with how Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have been balancing their partnerships with global powers in an increasingly less West-centric international order that grows more multipolar by the day.

Iran

The UAE and Saudi Arabia will not see eye-to-eye with the Kremlin on all issues. Different perspectives concerning Iran are a case in point. Although Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are in periods of détente with Tehran, the Emirati and Saudi leaders continue to view Iran suspiciously.

It would be naïve to suggest that the renormalisation of diplomatic relations between these Gulf Arab states and the Islamic Republic has completely erased the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s threat perceptions of Tehran.

Russia, however, has come closer to Iran since February 2022. With Iran’s government being one of the few in the world to endorse Russia’s narratives about the situation in Ukraine and the perceived NATO threat to Moscow, there is no denying that the war in Ukraine has served to bring Russia and Iran closer.

The delivery of Iranian drones to Moscow and the role of military advisers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Russian-occupied Crimea speak volumes about the extent to which Tehran has made itself increasingly valuable from Moscow’s perspective.

Since the Israeli war on Gaza erupted in October, Moscow has capitalised on the US’ isolation within the United Nations. [Getty]

According to some experts, the deepening of Russian-Iranian defence and security relations in the wake of the war in Ukraine was probably relevant to Putin’s decision to visit Abu Dhabi and Riyadh earlier this month.

“I feel that Putin’s short visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia were not so much aimed at gaining influence as not losing influence as a result of Russia growing closer to Iran and selling it weapons such as the Su-35 that the Gulf Arabs undoubtedly see as threatening,” Dr Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, told TNA.

Iran-related issues will likely continue highlighting some differences between Russia and some of its partners in the Gulf. But it is safe to bet that the UAE and Saudi Arabia will remain close to Moscow throughout the future.

“The United States is really not in a position to pull the UAE and Saudi Arabia from Russia. If they do pull away from Moscow, it is because Riyadh and Abu Dhabi realise that they cannot pull Russia away from Iran”

Moving past a US-dominated order

The symbolism of Putin arriving in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh on 6 December and being greeted as a friend and global leader worthy of much respect was powerful. The message from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to Washington and other Western capitals is that the Arab region does not see Russia as a rogue or pariah state.

For Putin, it was significant to show up in two Gulf Arab countries under the US security umbrella and be so welcome. This visit gave Russia a chance to remind the Americans that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh don’t take orders from Washington as they did in previous periods of modern history.

Put simply, despite Abu Dhabi and Riyadh depending on the US for security, they have no problem going their own way and pursuing foreign policy agendas at odds with those of Washington. MbZ and MbS are approaching Russia based on how they understand the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s long-term national interests.

The Biden administration has major concerns about the extent to which the UAE and Saudi Arabia have grown closer to Russia in recent years. Pulling the Saudis away from Russia and China and bringing the Kingdom back into closer alignment with the West was one of President Joe Biden’s motivations for visiting Jeddah in mid-2022.

The US, UK, and EU have also sought to put pressure on the UAE to be less of a facilitator of Russia’s sanctions evasion in the aftermath of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Just earlier this month, the US Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on some UAE-based firms for allegedly aiding Russia’s procurement.

Nonetheless, the ability of the US and its Western allies to create distance between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s most Russia-friendly members and Moscow is questionable. Thus far, the results of the Biden administration’s efforts to do so have not been particularly successful.

“The United States is really not in a position to pull the UAE and Saudi Arabia from Russia. If they do pull away from Moscow, it is because Riyadh and Abu Dhabi realise that they cannot pull Russia away from Iran,” Dr Katz told TNA.

Although the GCC states are far wealthier than the rest of the Global South, they do belong to the Global South. They pursue foreign policies that are increasingly multi-aligned while refusing to permanently sit in one geopolitical camp. The UAE and Saudi Arabia’s relationships with Russia and their responses to Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine are consistent with essentially the rest of the Arab region and the Global South at large.

At times, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh align with Western powers, but sometimes they side with Russia and China. Their decades-old partnerships with the US by no means prevent them from working with Washington’s adversaries and rivals, underscored by their preparation to join the BRICS bloc.

Welcome to a multipolar world with new realities. It is here to stay.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

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