Russia takes a step into the Gulf


Sergei Savostyanov / AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blitz visit to the UAE and KSA seems to have been a response to the wish for an increase in Russian capabilities in the Middle East. In this regard, it is very encouraging to note that the Kremlin master’s talks in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh did not become a separate, albeit very important and indicative, action. There is a strong impression that Putin has launched a qualitatively new stage in the development of Russia’s relations with the Arab world, and his trip to the Gulf is only the beginning.

Indeed, the very next day he met in Moscow with the Crown Prince of the Sultanate of Oman, Theyazin bin Haitham, and then held telephone talks with Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov returned to the Emirates before heading to Qatar to attend two international conferences. Lavrov’s efforts were reinforced by the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov: he arrived in Riyadh as part of a presidential delegation and stayed in Saudia to perform the umrah (minor pilgrimage to Mecca), during which he undoubtedly continued his confidential communication with the Saudi leadership. And soon a Russian-Arab cooperation forum will begin its work in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. In short, we can assume that the Arab direction of Russian foreign policy is becoming one of the leading ones.

At the same time, it should be emphasized that Russia is actively exploring the Gulf, a region where until recently it has not been able to occupy a sufficiently strong position. It is appropriate to recall that since the Great Game of the second half of the 19th — early 20th centuries, the Anglo-Saxons have been trying their best to prevent Russia’s access to the «warm seas», seeing the appearance of the Russian flag on the shores of the Gulf or the Arabian Sea as a threat first to London’s Indian possessions, and then to the supply routes of Arab and Iranian oil to the West. Let the historians deal with their fears and see how justified they were. But now Russia has every opportunity to project its interests in this strategically important region of the world.

What are these interests? There are three main groups: economic, geo-economic and geopolitical.

From the economic point of view, close and long-term interaction with the Arab part of the Gulf means access to the richest investment potential. Russia needs it amid the all-out sanctions war unleashed by the West. Ensuring a stable inflow of Arab capital is the most important task, and it appears that the Kremlin is doing an excellent job of it.

What can Russia offer the Arabs in return? This is where geo-economics comes into play. Russia gives access to its transit capabilities: the Northern Sea Route, land transportation infrastructure, ports, multimodal transport corridors, among which the North-South ITC aimed at the Gulf zone stands out. Such projects have long attracted Arabs around the world; they are intertwined with China’s One Belt, One Road strategy, which Arabs are also actively joining. All of this together creates a solid architecture for a global future that will last for many decades to come and meet the long-term development interests of Russia and the Arab world.

However, such a geo-economic system must be stable and have reliable security guarantees. And here we move to the soil of geopolitics. A major transportation and logistics hub should appear in the Gulf zone — the intersection of the corridors planned within the framework of the Belt and Road (from Asia to the Mediterranean and Africa), the North-South ITC (from the Baltic to the Arabian Sea) and the Development Road projected by Turkey and Arab countries (from the Gulf through Iraq to Turkish ports in the Mediterranean). Add to this a railroad that will connect the monarchies on the Arab side of the Gulf, and a road from Tehran to Damascus, designed by the Iranians, and the result is a dense network of strategically important arteries in the security of which Russia, the Arabs, Iran, the Levant, China, and Europe are all interested… This puts on the agenda the formation of multilateral mechanisms to ensure such security.

There are many projects in this area. The Arab monarchies — members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) — have long been working on creating their own military-political structure, but have not yet made tangible progress. Iran a couple of years ago put forward the initiative of an Arab-Iranian regional structure for the Gulf, closed to non-regional powers. More recently, Turkey has come up with the idea of a security and guarantee mechanism for the Middle East (so far, however, Ankara is talking about Gaza, but there is no doubt that its vision is much broader). Global players have also proposed their own projects: for example, the West has been promoting the concept of a «Middle East NATO» in an attempt to impose its guardianship on the countries of the region.

Russia has also for a number of years been persistently and consistently promoting a plan for a regional security system for the Gulf, based on the need to take into account and harmonize the interests of the littoral states without interference from outside, and to establish a constructive dialogue between the two sides of the Gulf: Iranian and Arab. This project could be considered optimal in many respects, but until recently it was not taken seriously in the region. On the one hand, the degree of tension between the Arabs and Iran was too high, and on the other hand, the Arabian monarchies’ faith in the strength and guarantees of their «traditional allies» — the United States and Britain — was strong.

But the turbulent events of recent years have forced the regional players to look at the situation in a completely different way. The gradual loss of America’s and the West’s positions in the Middle East, their lack of any clear policy in the region, and the absolute failure of Western «security guarantees» even to their closest allies (whether it is Ukraine or Israel) are forcing the countries of the region to look for an alternative to the previous coalitions. At the same time, they are witnessing the war in Syria and Russia’s role in it, seeing Moscow’s filigree work with Tehran and Ankara, following the course of the special military operation in Ukraine and being convinced of the failure of the West’s attempts to bring Russia to its knees. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that Russian approaches to security problems in the Gulf are attracting increasing interest and trust here. Especially since they are based on a promising and mutually beneficial economic base.

If this is indeed the case, then in the not too distant future we should expect the start of an active and regular dialog on issues of regional stability and security in the Gulf with Russia’s participation. The formalization of such a forum would be a huge strategic achievement. Especially if Moscow participates in the mechanism of security guarantees in Palestine that Ankara is talking about.