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The Uneasy Russia-GCC Partnership

On July 10, a litany of Gulf diplomats—including the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, the state ministers for foreign affairs of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and the State Secretary of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—congregated in Moscow for the Sixth Round of Russia-GCC Strategic Dialogue. In his address to his GCC counterparts, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov praised the previous year’s 6% increase in Russia-GCC trade to $11 billion and expressed optimism about deeper Russia-GCC economic and security cooperation.

The GCC’s expression of interest in deeper economic ties with Russia came as a welcome relief to the Kremlin, as it occurred just two weeks after Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched an abortive mutiny against Russia’s military leadership. While GCC countries have publicly maintained a business-as-usual relationship with Russia since Prigozhin’s coup attempt, concerns about Russia’s stability are growing amongst Russia’s Arab partners, and Moscow must also ensure that its courtship of GCC countries does not strain its multidimensional partnership with Iran.

Reactions to the Mutiny

As Wagner Group forces occupied Rostov-on-Don and marched on Moscow from June 23-24, GCC countries took a “wait-and-see” approach to the developments inside Russia. In a public statement, the UAE’s foreign ministry expressed “great concern” about the situation, subtly criticizing Prigozhin’s actions by “stressing the need to respect the rules and principles of international law.” Bahrain took a firmer stance against the coup attempt, explicitly insisting on “the importance of preserving stability in the Russian Federation under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin.” In the days following the mutiny, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed spoke with Putin and endorsed the actions he took to defuse Prigozhin’s coup attempt.

In the aftermath of the incident, media outlets and commentators in the Gulf region expressed serious concerns about Russia’s long-term stability. Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla described the Wagner Group mutiny as a “difficult moment in the history of Russia” and highlighted widespread support for Prigozhin from within Russia’s security apparatus. Tariq al-Homayed, the former editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, warned that Russia had “become a problem for its enemies and allies alike” and blasted Putin as an unreliable ally who “disappeared” on the day Wagner marched on Moscow.

Putin’s decision to outsource key aspects of Russian foreign and security policy to a private army also received criticism. Al-Homayed depicted Wagner’s insurrection as a cautionary tale and warned that “a state, no matter how powerful, cannot grow dependent on mercenaries or militia forces, instead of a regular army, to defend the country.” GCC Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Negotiations Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg expounded on this warning by indirectly comparing Wagner to Hezbollah, which both serves in the Lebanese government and pursues an independent foreign policy to that government’s detriment. Given the UAE’s well-documented reliance on mercenaries in Libya and Yemen, such a strong condemnation of private armies by a senior GCC official is striking and could reveal discord within the alliance.

The Russia-GCC Strategic Dialogue caused these pessimistic analyses to give way to more optimistic rhetoric. Mohammed al-Sulami, the head of the International Institute of Iranian Studies in Riyadh, argued that conditions for a “mutual cooperation agenda” between Russia and the GCC were more favorable than at any time in the past decade. Al-Sulami also hailed Russia as a “global power with significant weight” and urged Gulf countries to distance themselves from regional polarization and disputes when cooperating with Russia.

Prospects for Russia-GCC Cooperation After the Wagner Mutiny

In recent weeks, Russia has taken noteworthy steps towards strengthening economic relations with GCC countries, leveraging the Russia-GCC Strategic Dialogue to enhance this process. Although Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised the strength of Russia’s relationship with Saudi Arabia on June 1, the country’s media outlets expressed concerns about the sustainability of energy market cooperation. A June 18 RIA Novosti article called Saudi Arabia’s plans to cut production to a ten-year low as a “desperate step,” claiming that Saudi Arabia was losing market share to Russia and framing Middle Eastern petrostates as direct competitors to Russia in Asia. Peskov publicly acknowledged the potential for the U.S. to pressure Saudi Arabia on its energy policy on June 9 and emphasized the Kingdom’s sovereignty.

Despite these trepidations, Saudi-Russian coordination on energy production and prices has endured. On July 3, Saudi Arabia announced that it would extend its voluntary oil output cut of 1 million barrels per day for at least another month, and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak simultaneously confirmed its own 500,000 bpd cut. After this coordinated supply cut, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman dismissed concerns about the opacity of Russia’s energy production and weakening commitment to production cuts. Riyadh also imported a record 910,000 metric tons of fuel oil from Russia in June, underscoring its commitment to compensating for EU sanctions on Russian fuel oil. Saudi Arabia’s coordination with Turkey on the repatriation of Ukrainian children from Russia suggests that it is using oil price coordination as a stepping stone for diplomacy.

As the UAE faces intensified secondary sanctions pressure from the U.S. and probes into its alleged facilitation of Wagner Group activities, the Kremlin is seeking to shore up its partnership with Abu Dhabi. On June 13, Russia and the UAE held a second round of negotiations on a double taxation avoidance agreement, as reducing trade barriers will help Moscow mitigate the impact of Western sanctions. De-dollarization marks another way to avoid U.S. interference; India’s recent decision to use Emirati dirhams rather than dollars in its oil purchases is officially bilateral and without a broader strategic objective, but Russia hopes that dirhams can be used on a more regular basis to streamline Indian oil purchases.

Russia’s partnership with the UAE was boosted further by Moscow’s acquiescence to Abu Dhabi’s claims to the Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa Islands—incensing Iran, which controls those islands. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian castigated Russia for “interference” with Iran’s territorial integrity, and Iranian netizens fumed at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Arabic channel’s refusal to use the phrase “Persian Gulf.” The adverse implications of Russia’s solidarity with the UAE for Moscow-Tehran relations have been widely discussed by Russian commentators. Former Kremlin advisor Sergei Markov expressed alarm at Iran’s sudden recognition of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and called for an urgent foreign minister resolution to the “conflict’ between Russia and Iran.

Russia’s relations with Oman and Qatar could also strengthen in the months ahead. On June 8, Russia and Oman signed a double taxation avoidance agreement, which built on their 46% increase in trade in 2022. As chair of the Russia-GCC Strategic Dialogue Summit, Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Hamad al-Busaidi praised Russia’s commitment to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Putin declared on June 22 that Russia’s trade potential with Qatar had “yet to be uncovered,” while Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin simultaneously announced $1.9 billion in new investment projects with Qatar.

In short, although the Wagner mutiny exposed Putin’s vulnerability to an ultranationalist challenge, it has not derailed Russia’s efforts to strengthen its cooperation with the GCC. In the months ahead, the Kremlin will have to reassure GCC investors of Russia’s internal stability and prevent its outreaches to GCC countries from escalating tensions with Iran.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security
Country: GCC

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Dr. Samuel Ramani is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum. He is also a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford. Samuel has published extensively on the Gulf region for media outlets and think tanks, such as the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Middle East Institute, and is a regular commentator on broadcast media outlets, such as CNN, the BBC World Service and Al Jazeera English. Samuel’s first book entitled Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender will be published by Hurst and Co. in June and by Oxford University Press later in the year.  


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