Although Moscow’s power projection capacity in the Gulf region is very limited compared to Washington’s, and its partnerships vary in strategic depth, Lavrov’s Gulf tour should be viewed as a qualified success for Russia.
From March 8 to 12, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov travelled to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. As Russia and the UAE have been strategic partners since June 2018 and cooperate militarily in Libya, Lavrov’s trip to Abu Dhabi extended the two nations’ already strong bilateral relationship to new frontiers. In Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Lavrov’s trip mitigated disagreements over OPEC+ and Syria, respectively, and expanded Russia’s cooperation with both countries on regional crises.
As the United States recently announced its plans to end its support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive military actions in Yemen and implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Lavrov was possibly seeking to capitalize on Saudi and Emirati discontent with President Joe Biden. However, the timing of Lavrov’s trip cannot be solely explained by the Gulf’s unease with U.S. policies. The Russian Foreign Ministry has emphasized the importance of establishing “regular trust-based contacts” with leaders of the Arab monarchies, and has tried to increase the frequency of diplomatic exchanges to help institutionalize Russia-Gulf dialogue. Lavrov’s Gulf tour furthers Russia’s goal of securing diversified economic and security partnerships with all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. While Russia’s ties to the Gulf are still minimal compared to those of the United States and it has not resolved all of its political disagreements with the various GCC nations, its ongoing participation in regional conflict resolution and the capacity for the growth of its energy sector suggest that there is ample room for additional bilateral cooperation and the strengthening of ties in the future.
The Russia-UAE Vector: Upgrading a Strategic Partnership
Sergei Lavrov’s March 8 visit to Abu Dhabi was preceded by a series of bilateral exchanges between Russia and the UAE. In December 2020, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed visited Russia, and the leaders of Russia’s two chief Muslim-majority regions, Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov and Tatarstan’s Rustam Minnikhanov, attended Abu Dhabi’s IDEX 2021 Defence Expo in February.
This spirit of cooperation extended to Lavrov’s trip to the UAE. Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed endorsed Syria’s return to the Arab League and condemned the U.S. Caesar Civilian Protection Act sanctions, which were signed into law in December 2019. While UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash expressed regret about Syria’s Arab League return in June 2018 and UAE firms participated in the August 2019 Damascus Trade Fair, Abdullah bin Zayed formalized Abu Dhabi’s policies towards Syria and laid the foundations for long-term cooperation with Russia on Syria’s post-war reconstruction.
As Russia-UAE trade has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, economic cooperation was high on FM Lavrov’s agenda. Lavrov also urged the UAE to register Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine for regular use, as it is currently only registered as an “emergency” replacement for American and European vaccines. Although Abdullah bin Zayed did not make any formal commitments on Sputnik V, the UAE announced on March 11 that it had completed the inoculation phase of clinical trials of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine. As the UAE has shipped 60,000 Sputnik V does to the Palestinian Authority and has used these vaccine shipments to bolster Mohamed Dahlan’s political standing, Russia-UAE coordination against COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip could gain new momentum.
Although the immediate impacts of Lavrov’s trip on conflict resolution efforts in Libya and Palestine are unclear, there are some trends worth watching. The positive spirit of the Russia-UAE dialogue on Libya, which was their first consultation since the national unity government was sworn in, could help bridge the divide between Abu Dhabi’s rigid alliance with Libya National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Haftar and Moscow’s more pragmatic approach. As Russia has offered to host direct negotiations on Israel-Palestine and the UAE is highlighting its commitment to a two state-solution, Moscow and Abu Dhabi could work together on advancing the Arab Peace Initiative.
Lavrov’s Trip to Saudi Arabia: A Bid to Save OPEC+
During his March 10 visit to Riyadh, Lavrov sought to prevent a repeat of the March 2020 oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month, friction between the two nations regarding oil production flared up, as Moscow desired a supply increase while Riyadh preferred more expansive supply cuts to increase the price. On March 4, Saudi Arabia agreed to extend its 1 million barrel per day production cut, but Russia was given an exemption to produce 130,000 more barrels per day by April. During his visit to Riyadh, Lavrov vowed to expand hydrocarbon cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan committed to upholding OPEC+. In synchrony with Lavrov’s trip, Vladimir Putin hailed Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Energy Alexander Novak’s role in finalizing the OPEC+ agreement.
Beyond OPEC+, Syria and Yemen also featured prominently on the agenda. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held talks with Russia’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, ahead of Lavrov’s arrival in Riyadh. Lavrov also condemned Houthi attacks on Saudi oil facilities as “unacceptable.” Although Russia maintains diplomatic contacts with the Houthis, it has shown little willingness or capacity to pressure the movement over its drone strikes on Saudi territory. However, Lavrov’s solidarity with Saudi Arabia against the Houthis was welcomed by Faisal bin Farhan, as Riyadh was likely concerned by Russia’s efforts to elevate Iran’s diplomatic role in Yemen.
Russia’s Diplomatic Breakthrough with Qatar
Due to Qatar’s extensive support for the Syrian opposition during the early stages of the civil war and its competition with Russia in the liquefied natural gas sphere, the post-2017 improvement in Russia-Gulf relations took longer to reach Qatar. While Russia’s consistent solidarity with Qatar after the Saudi-led blockade began in June 2017 eased bilateral tensions, Lavrov’s trip to Doha took bilateral relations to a new level. During Lavrov’s visit, Russia and Qatar discussed an expansion of commercial ties, as Moscow wants Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund to diversify its investments in Russia beyond the energy sector to include infrastructure and agriculture.
The most significant development during Lavrov’s visit to Doha was the establishment of the Russia-Turkey-Qatar trilateral format on Syria. This format highlighted the need for a political solution to the Syrian Civil War and discussed humanitarian aid provisions to Syria. As Qatar still opposes Syria’s return to the Arab League, continues to support humanitarian aid deliveries to rebel-held areas, and recently condemned President Bashar al-Assad’s human rights abuses, the prospects for substantive Russia-Qatar cooperation on Syria are uncertain. However, continued dialogue between Russia and Qatar on Syria suits both sides, as it allows Doha to highlight its active role in regional diplomacy and Moscow to engage more closely with Arab countries in Syria. The extension of Russia-Qatar diplomatic cooperation on Syria to Afghanistan, which was discussed during Lavrov’s trip and took root with Qatar’s participation in the March 18 Moscow-format negotiations, was another positive consequence of Sergei Lavrov’s trip.
Ultimately, although Moscow’s power projection capacity in the Gulf region is very limited compared to Washington’s, and its partnerships vary in strategic depth, Lavrov’s Gulf tour should be viewed as a qualified success for Russia. As conflict resolution processes edge forward in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan, Russia-GCC cooperation is likely to continue its steady expansion in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.