Russia’s Return to the Middle East
The American President, Donald Trump, recently announced his intentions to negotiate with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar to rethink their stated intentions of purchasing military equipment from the Russian Federation.
David Schenker, a candidate for Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, was quoted by Reuters that he “would work with our allies to dissuade them, or encourage them, to avoid military purchases that would be potentially sanctionable”.
Egypt wants to buy 50 fighter planes and 46 helicopters from Russia, while the Saudis and, lately, the Qataris, are interested in the S-400 missile system.
Vladimir Putin is not only frequentable by Western leaders, and we refer here to the recent visits to Russia of Angela Merkel, Emanuel Macron and Shinzo Abe, but also by Middle Eastern leaders. Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, made a visit to the Russian Federation right after Donald Trump’s announcement regarding the moving of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In 2017, the Saudi king also visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
The major preoccupation of these states was not Qatar’s connections to Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, but its increasing rapprochement with Iran due to strategic interests regarding the underwater gas fields to which both states have access.
Also in 2018, none other than the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Moscow, showing that the Persian Gulf state is diversifying its foreign policy connections under pressure of regional tensions. This happened in the context of the May 2017 decision by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen decided to break off relations with Doha, accusing Qatar of supporting regional terrorism. The major preoccupation of these states was not Qatar’s connections to Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, but its increasing rapprochement with Iran due to strategic interests regarding the underwater gas fields to which both states have access.
It is enough to acknowledge the visit of the Emir of Qatar to Moscow to understand Russia’s rising credit in the region.
The Qatari crisis, as the International press has dubbed it, is the greatest threat so far to the cohesion of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) started in 1981 under Saudi Arabian leadership as a response to Iran’s regional ambitions. The Saudis were joined by Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, the latter refraining from following in the footsteps of the Saudis to break off diplomatic relations with Qatar. Both these states had been trying, just like Qatar, to achieve a balance in their relations with Riyadh and Tehran.
An exhaustive analysis of this picture would require a more complex approach, but it is enough to acknowledge the visit of the Emir of Qatar to Moscow to understand Russia’s rising credit in the region, partly due to the vagaries of US policies towards the Middle East in the past few years.
In 1990 or even in 2016, Russia itself was accusing Qatar of backing terrorism, and now Moscow’s relations with Riyadh and Doha are simultaneously stable, which should not surprise us if Russia is going to attempt to mediate between the two states, moreso since Doha is forced to diversify its economic partnerships to manage the effects of the economic embargo.
Repositioning Moscow from an actor supporting the Assad regime into a regional security broker would mean a resumption of its role in the Middle East.
The March announcement that Qatar is considering buying the Russian-made S-400 missile system provoked Saudi fury, who sent a strongly worded letter to the French President informing him, according to Le Monde, that they will intervene militarily in the neighboring state if they go through with the plan.
It is hard to believe, in the short and medium term, that Doha will go through with the plan of acquiring the D-400 system, on account of the costs and other financial constraints, but also because of the difficulties of creating an integrated system with the American-made Patriot and THAAD systems.
In this same context, Doha, one of the prime contesters of the Assad regime, has toned down its rhetoric regarding the Syrian situation, which has led even the Egyptian press to speak of an Axis of Evil, made up of Qatar, Turkey and Iran. Nothing about Russia is said, though.
Therefore, the visit of the Emir to Russia shows that the latter is not being marginalized by the Arab states for its policies in Syria and is still being regarded as an element of the eventual peace process.
Repositioning Moscow from an actor supporting the Assad regime into a regional security broker would mean a resumption of its role in the Middle East far above any expectation generated by its military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.