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Russia’s growing ties with Gulf Arabs

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar earlier this month raises some uncomfortable issues for the Biden Administration. At a time when the new administration is taking a harder line on Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin, three of America’s closest Gulf Arab allies are instead pursuing better relations with Moscow.

One issue that unites Moscow with these Gulf Arab governments is their common wariness of the Biden administration’s renewed emphasis on human rights concerns — something that the Trump administration downplayed. For Saudi Arabia in particular, warming relations with Russia may be intended to serve as a warning to Washington that if the United States intends to take punitive actions against the kingdom over human rights concerns, Riyadh can respond by buying more Russian and fewer American weapons.

The hope for economic gain is one of Moscow’s main motives for improving ties with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha. These three Gulf Arab states have far greater potential to trade with and invest in Russia than Moscow’s traditional anti-American partners in the region, Iran and Syria. What is especially remarkable, though, is that Russia and the UAE, in particular, appear to be working together to subvert U.S. economic sanctions related to Syria.

As Kirill Semenov noted in Al-Monitor, in parts of northeastern Syria there are areas where both Syrian Kurdish as well as Assad government forces are present. This raises the possibility that activities by UAE firms in these gray zones will evade U.S. Caesar Act sanctions against economic interaction with enterprises and individuals linked to the Assad regime. If so, this would be a remarkable example of a U.S. ally working with Russia to thwart U.S. sanctions policy. What it also suggests is that, while the UAE shares Washington’s hostility toward Iran, Abu Dhabi sees working with Russia and the Assad regime as an effective means of limiting or even reducing Iranian influence in Syria.

This highlights the difference between the U.S. approach to Russia and Iran and that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE (as well as Israel) toward them. The Biden administration sees Russia as an adversary throughout the world (including the Middle East) and Iran as a concern whose behavior might be positively modified through the revival of the JCPOA. By contrast, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel see Iran as the principal threat to them. While concerned about Russian cooperation with Iran (including in Syria), they see the possibility of nudging Moscow away from Tehran through Gulf-Russian economic cooperation. Moscow, naturally, is quite willing to take advantage of this difference in threat prioritization on the part of the United States on the one hand and some of its Middle Eastern allies on the other.

Iran, of course, is not the only concern that the Gulf Arab states have. Russia and the United Arab Emirates in particular both oppose Turkish efforts to extend Ankara’s influence, especially in Syria and in Libya. But at the same time, Russia has been increasing its cooperation with Turkey and its Gulf ally, Qatar, which has recently been at odds with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This is yet another example of Putin supporting opposing sides simultaneously without falling out with either.

Indeed, what is remarkable about Russian foreign policy toward the Middle East as a whole — not just in the Gulf — is that Moscow now has good relations with all American allies in the region. What this means for the Biden administration, then, is that any U.S. effort to reduce Russian influence in the Middle East — or to get the U.S.’s Middle Eastern allies to support U.S. sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, Europe, and (most especially) human rights inside Russia — is unlikely to succeed.

But Moscow’s improved relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar along with Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and others is uncomfortable not just for Washington, but also for Tehran. Russia’s willingness to cooperate closely with all America’s Middle Eastern allies — including those that are hostile toward Iran — shows Tehran that solidarity with Iran is hardly Putin’s highest priority.

Indeed, Tehran is undoubtedly well aware that continued hostility between the United States. and Iran means Moscow does not have to fear that Tehran can turn to Washington or anyone else if it objects to Russian cooperation with its regional rivals. Nor can Iran outbid the Gulf Arabs in particular with economic incentives for taking its interests into account. Even if it could, Moscow would undoubtedly seek to pocket concessions from both sides (just as it does with Qatar and the UAE in their ongoing rivalry).

It would be a major achievement for Russian diplomacy if Moscow can persuade the Gulf Arabs to fund any Moscow-backed reconstruction efforts in Syria, even if mainly in the gray zones where Assad government and Syrian Kurdish forces are present. Russian, and not Iranian, enterprises would undoubtedly obtain these contracts. Still, as much as they cooperate with Russia, the Gulf Arabs are unlikely to forego their close ties to Washington — especially since they are well aware that Moscow is not going to abandon its ties with Iran.

Just as Moscow is willing to work with opposing sides in the Middle East, Middle Eastern governments are willing to work with opposing external great powers. Nor are the United States and Russia their only choices of external partner. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi this week began his visit to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman.

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