Russia and the GCC crisis

Russia’s energy interests determine its position on the GCC crisis.

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Putin shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister bin Salman during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a meeting at the Kremlin on May 30, 2017 [Reuters/Pavel Golovkin]

The current GCC crisis has purely regional dimensions that lie in the very nature of the relations between Riyadh and the five monarchies of the Gulf. As such, Russia sees that an intervention in an internal GCC conflict would be very impractical.

Taking a side officially could endanger Russia’s energy interests and, with that in mind, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared on June 5, 2017: “These are bilateral relations of the states. We do not interfere in these decisions.

But despite Russia’s official neutrality – necessary to maintain good relations with key energy partner Saudi Arabia – Qatar does enjoy much sympathy in Moscow. Furthermore, the current crisis has given the Kremlin a chance to get closer to an important ally of the United States and strengthen its partnership with Turkey and Iran.

Why Russia cannot officially take sides

Relations between Russia and Qatar have improved significantly in recent years. Qatar began actively to invest in Russia at a time when the Russian economy was experiencing a deficit of foreign investment. For example, Qatari investors bought large stakes in Russian-owned VTB Bank and Pulkovo Airport in St Petersburg. And at the end of last year, 19.5 percent of Russian state-owned Rosneft’s shares were privatised. The buyers were the Swiss trader company Glencore and Qatar Investment Authority. This gave the Russian budget 700bn rubles ($12bn), which allowed the Russian Ministry of Finance to avoid having to dip into the Reserve Fund to finance the state budget.

In addition, Qatar, Russia and Iran are the countries with the biggest natural gas reserves. Qatar shares the largest gas field in the world, the South Pars/North Dome, with Iran. The headquarters of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, which was established in 2008, is located in Doha. Not surprisingly, Qatar, Iran and Russia are the main lobbyists for the creation of the so-called “Gas OPEC”, which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States are actively working against.

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Saudi Arabia is an equally important energy partner for Moscow, at least in the area of maintaining agreements on the volume of oil production. On the eve of the May OPEC summit in Vienna, the energy ministers of Russia and Saudi Arabia, Alexander Novak and Khalid al-Falih, agreed to stabilise the oil market and extend previously reached agreements on limiting oil production until March 2018. Subsequently, the Russian-Saudi initiative was supported by the remaining members of the cartel. For the Kremlin, these agreements are highly important owing to the dependence of the Russian budget on oil prices and are the result of lengthy and difficult negotiations with the Saudis.

However, the agreements reached within the framework of OPEC are not binding and have the character of a gentleman’s agreement. Therefore, given the key role of Saudi Arabia in OPEC, for Moscow maintaining the partnership with Riyadh is extremely important. This is largely due to the deficit of the Russian budget which is highly dependent on oil prices.

The Kremlin’s moral support

Despite the fact that Russia has taken a neutral position from the very first days of the conflict, it still sympathises with Qatar rather than with Saudi Arabia and its allies. Throughout last week, Moscow and Doha maintained a close dialogue at all levels.

Already on June 5, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and the President’s special representative for the Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Bogdanov, received Fahad Al Attiyah, the Ambassador of Qatar to Moscow. The next day, a telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, took place, during which the Russian president stressed the need for a political settlement of the conflict.

After this, the Russian Minister of Agriculture, Dzhambulat Khatuov, announced Moscow’s readiness to start supplying food to Qatar. Finally, on June 10, Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, arrived in Moscow for a meeting with Sergey Lavrov.

Such an active dialogue between Russia and Qatar sharply contrasts with the lack of a dialogue on the GCC crisis between Moscow and the opposite side of the conflict, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There are three reasons for this.

First, Qatar won the media battle in the Russian media space. Even though Russia’s state media presented a very neutral coverage of the conflict, Russian politicians and the expert community still expressed sympathy with Qatar. This is largely owing to a very active Qatar position aimed at maintaining a permanent dialogue with the Russian authorities.

Secondly, Qatar is much more of a convenient partner for the Russian leadership than Saudi Arabia. The very pragmatic position of Doha, for example on Iran, is much closer to Moscow‘s than the deterministic policy of Riyadh. Russia, like Qatar, advocates utilitarianism in foreign policy, trying to minimise the dependence of national interests on ideological attitudes.

Finally, in the current situation, there are elements of geopolitical rivalry between Moscow and the United States. While Washington took a pro-Saudi position, Moscow did not fail to use it to get closer to Qatar. Moreover, among the countries that expressed support for Doha were Turkey and Iran, with which Moscow has recently maintained partnership relations.

However, all this is only a manifestation of indirect support for Qatar from Moscow, and one should not expect more from Moscow. Recently, relations between Moscow and the Gulf countries have progressed significantly, and only the escalation of the conflict into the military phase can harm them. However, so far this scenario seems quite implausible.

Leonid Issaev is a Lecturer at the Higher School of Economics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.