Russian influence in the Gulf has its limits

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov came back home almost empty-handed after his recent trip to the Gulf.

Lavrov in Gulf
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz meets with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 5, 2019 [File: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court via Reuters]

Since Russia launched its direct military intervention in Syria in September 2015, there has been much talk about its perceived “resurgence” in the Middle East. Some have argued that Russia is growing powerful and is putting up a challenge to US hegemony. Others have said, it is filling a “vacuum” that the US pivot out of the region has left behind.

These perceptions are very much based on Russia’s vigorous diplomatic activity in recent years and its efforts to draw public attention to it. But while Moscow’s diplomatic corps has indeed been active in visiting the region and hosting Arab delegations, there are few results it is able to show for the amount of effort it has put in. This is because Russia’s influence in the region and, particularly, the Gulf has its natural limits that are difficult to overcome.

A case in point is the Russian foreign minister’s visit to the Gulf last month, which came on the heels of a similar tour by special White House adviser Jared Kushner, and just before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to the region. The message was clear: Russia, too, has ambitions in the Middle East, just as the United States.

Like their American counterparts, the Russian diplomats came to the Gulf with a big agenda and big hopes for a breakthrough on a number of major political, economic and military issues.

At the top of that agenda was, of course, Russia’s main foreign policy “asset” in the Middle East: Syria.

Believing in Russian capacity to shape the future of post-conflict Syria but still being in need of financial and diplomatic support for launching the process of political reconciliation and economic reconstruction, Lavrov sought to convince the Gulf monarchies to back two Russian initiatives.

One, he tried to persuade them to agree to Damascus being readmitted to the Arab League, which would confer much-needed legitimacy to the Assad regime. Two, he hoped to secure Gulf economic assistance for the reconstruction of the war-torn country. In exchange, Russia could offer a guarantee that Gulf economic and political interests would be secured in post-war Syria.

It seems, however, that Lavrov failed to achieve much progress on both of these offers. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar rejected the question of Damascus joining the Arab League and seemed reluctant to commit funds for reconstruction at this point.

The only major achievement on the Syria file that Lavrov managed to come away with was his meeting with part of the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition based in Riyadh; he reportedly was “satisfied” with the outcomes of the “constructive and fruitful” meeting.

One of the reasons why Russia’s big hopes for securing Gulf backing for its plans for Syria were disappointed is the fact that it continues to overestimate the current potential of its military investments in Syria to affect the international relations of the Middle East.

The Syrian conflict has entered a new stage in which military leverage is less important than a political one. While the Russian dominance at the battlefield remains unchallenged, Russia’s ability to single-handedly lead the process of political reconciliation and reconstruction of Syria is under question. It is, by now, quite clear that it desperately needs the cooperation and help of other regional players.

Apart from that, it is not yet clear what Russia’s guarantees to ensure the future presence of the Gulf states in Syria is worth. Gulf states are aware of all this and are not in a hurry to accept Moscow’s proposals.

In the Gulf, Russia has also tried to present itself as a neutral and reliable broker, who can help mediate the now two-year-old crisis that pitted Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain against Qatar.

To underscore its neutrality, the Russian delegation visited Saudi Arabia right after Qatar, demonstrating equal distance from the two camps and readiness to talk to both of them.

The Russian initiative to reconcile Qatar with the so-called “blockade countries” revolved around the suggestion to resume the ministerial consultations of the Russia-GCC forum in Moscow, which were put on hold after the crisis broke out in June 2017.

Eager to assume the role of a mediator, Lavrov even came up with a list of concessions that the two sides could make in order to overcome the current deadlock, according to some Arab diplomats we spoke to. However, his suggestions did not meet much enthusiasm.

Currently, the region is full of would-be mediators from the US, EU and the Middle East itself and Russia, by far, is not the most influential among them. The conflict is too deep and too personal and mediation efforts limited to simple appeals for compromise would not resolve it. A breakthrough would only happen if severe pressure is applied – something Moscow alone cannot do. As one Gulf diplomat told us recently: “Russia has to have cards to play the mediation game and it does not [have any].”

During his trip to the Gulf, Lavrov also tried to secure some Gulf investment in Russia. Over the past few years, announcements of a number of major arms deals and cooperation in the energy sector have made the headlines in international media, creating the perception that Moscow has been successful in cashing in on its growing influence in the Middle East.

This perception, however, does not entirely reflect the reality on the ground. At the moment, Russia’s struggling economy and heavy industry have little to offer to Gulf countries, who do not perceive investment in Russian assets as safe and profitable. In recent years, the Kremlin tried hard to draw the Gulf monarchies’ attention to a number of ambitious investment projects. Yet, most of these attempts have failed or have not yet brought the desired results.

GCC countries did agree to invest in several large projects in recent years, however, funds for the realisation of these projects are being allocated very slowly. Of the $10bn Saudi Arabia promised to invest in Russia in 2015, for example, only a quarter has been invested so far. Meanwhile, the UAE invested only $2bn of the $7bn they promised in 2013. In 2017, Russia’s trade turnover with the GCC reached $3.5bn, which is similar to Russia’s annual trade turnover with Bulgaria.

Furthermore, the much-touted cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia within the so-called “OPEC+” has also not been as successful it was envisaged. It has been plagued by a number of major problems including periodical lack of compliance on part of Russia to cut oil production, its repeated attempts to bargain for better conditions and the potential gradual decline in Russia’s oil production after 2020 (2022) as a result of the depletion of the old oil-fields and problems with the development and exploration of new ones. All of these cannot but concern and sometimes irritate the Saudis and other participants of the oil cartel from the Gulf. Russia’s declining oil production will eventually make it less of a factor on the global energy market and less attractive as an OPEC partner.

Consequently, it is not a surprise that Lavrov’s attempts to boost Russia’s economic cooperation with the Gulf were not crowned with success. The meeting of Russian-Kuwaiti joint committee on trade and economic cooperation held during the Russian foreign minister’s visit to Kuwait was rather a polite gesture to please the Russian guest rather than a result of genuine Kuwaiti intention to find economic projects to work on with Moscow.

Overall, despite all the media hype around his Gulf tour, Lavrov came back to Moscow almost empty-handed. The fact that Russian diplomacy is failing to produce many results can lead to one of two outcomes.

Moscow will either try to identify the barriers to its foreign policy in the Gulf and try to overcome them, or it might decide that the region is too unreceptive, put its efforts to strengthen relations with it on hold. The first option is less likely as it would require a lot of effort and resources Russia currently does not have.

Disengagement is indeed much more likely. Russian economists have already started talking about “Middle Eastern fatigue” within Russian business circles, pointing out the disappointing results of seeking Gulf investments. This, in turn, might affect how the Kremlin sees its political priorities in the Middle East.

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