by Samuel Ramani
In mid-October, Russian President Vladimir Putin will make his first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2007. Putin’s trip underscores Russia’s emergence as a major geopolitical stakeholder on the Arabian Peninsula and gives Moscow an opportunity to cement its partnership with Saudi Arabia on issues ranging from energy security to instability in North Africa. Yet Putin’s trip to Riyadh comes at a time when the Saudi-UAE alliance is facing strains, as both countries arm rival factions in Yemen and pursue contrasting policies towards Iran.
While the United States hopes that Saudi Arabia and the UAE resolve their differences and present a united front against Iran, Russia regards the growing divergence between the Saudi and Emirati foreign policy agendas as a geopolitical opportunity. As the UAE’s policies towards Yemen, Syria, and Iran are not supported by either Riyadh or Washington, Russia is capitalizing on areas of overlap with the UAE in these theaters to strengthen the Moscow-Abu Dhabi strategic partnership. Russia’s soft pivot towards the UAE has been accompanied by parallel conciliatory gestures towards Saudi Arabia, which ensure that Moscow-Riyadh relations continue to improve, and that Russia can benefit from a future Saudi-UAE reconciliation.
In Yemen, Russia has maintained a policy of strategic non-alignment since the start of the Saudi-led military intervention in 2015 and has not overhauled this approach in response to recent developments. Russia’s policy in Yemen has drawn closer to the UAE’s in recent months as Moscow has established closer relations with the Southern Transitional Council (STC). In March, the Russian Foreign Ministry was the first to authorize a formal invitation of the STC to Moscow. In a statement on August 10, Russia’s Deputy UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyansky refused to condemn the STC’s seizure of Aden or emphasize the importance of Yemeni unity, like the U.S. and European Union (EU) did after this event.
Russia’s conciliatory gestures towards the STC are squarely aimed at strengthening Moscow’s relationship with the UAE. Kirill Semenov, a Moscow-based defense analyst, stated that Russia’s engagement with the STC reflects the UAE’s rising importance as a Russian partner, and the reported presence of Russian private military companies in southern Yemen illustrates the potential for durable Russia-UAE cooperation. As Russia may have some interest in establishing a naval base or bases in southern Yemen, a strengthened relationship with the UAE would forestall potential frictions associated with entering Abu Dhabi’s sphere of influence. While Russia is unlikely to support southern Yemen’s independence outright, as this gesture would create serious frictions with Saudi Arabia, Moscow could view a facilitation of the STC’s entrance into UN-brokered peace negotiations as a way to curry the UAE’s favor, without jeopardizing its broader regional balancing strategy.
On Syria, Russia views the UAE’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government as a positive harbinger for enhanced cooperation. Prominent analysts, like Alexander Aksenenok, the Vice-President of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), initially hoped that the UAE’s policy shift would normalize Syria’s relations with other Arab states and modify Saudi Arabia’s position on Assad. As these wholesale changes in the Arab world’s approach to Syria have not come to pass, Russia is now redirecting its focus away from the regional context and towards strengthening its cooperation with the UAE in Syria.
On January 31, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev reportedly engaged in talks with UAE national security advisor Prince Tahnun bin Zayed Al Nahyan on northeastern Syria, which reaffirmed Moscow and Abu Dhabi’s shared desire to contain Turkish influence in this region. Another significant area of cooperation between Russia and the UAE on Syria is financing an Assad-led reconstruction process. Accordingly, the decision of Emirati business leaders to travel to a Damascus trade fair on August 30, in spite of U.S. warnings, was hailed in Russian media outlets. As the UAE’s willingness to act independently of Saudi Arabia and the United States in Syria continues, Russia could extend an invite to Abu Dhabi as an observer in future Astana talks, which would underscore Moscow’s prestige as a diplomatic arbiter in the Middle East.
On Gulf security, Russia is treading more cautiously than in Yemen or Syria, as Moscow and Abu Dhabi disagree fundamentally on Iran’s role in regional affairs. Yet Russia views the UAE’s more cautious approach to diplomacy with Iran, which was revealed by its unwillingness to blame Tehran for the Fujairah oil tanker attacks in May and recent maritime security dialogue with Iran, with optimism. This positive view of the UAE’s efforts to de-escalate tensions with Iran has contributed to the uptick in Russia-UAE diplomatic meetings on Gulf security. On June 26, the UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan travelled to Moscow, and the UAE returned Russia’s invitation on September 1, as Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash in Dubai. In both of these meetings, strategies to de-escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf were thoroughly discussed.
Russia’s shuttle diplomacy campaign also reveals Moscow’s desire to convince the UAE of the merits of its collective security plan in the Persian Gulf. This proposal emphasizes the need for universal consultation of relevant stakeholders and calls for greater UN Security Council involvement on regional security issues. In the short-term, the UAE is unlikely to accede to this proposal, as Abu Dhabi remains committed to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy toward Iran. As the risk of an accidental confrontation with Iran intensifies, however, Russia hopes that the UAE’s economic vulnerabilities will steer it more firmly towards a course of de-escalation and closer to Moscow’s vision for regional security.
At present, a “sustainable divergence” between Saudi Arabia and the UAE that preserves Abu Dhabi’s independent foreign policy and falls short of an outright rift is the optimal scenario from Moscow’s perspective. Yet Russia ultimately hopes that the UAE will steer Saudi Arabia’s policies in ways that benefit Moscow’s interests, and that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will eventually experience a policy realignment. Russia’s belief in the achievability of this scenario stems from how Moscow views the overall power dynamics in the Gulf. Andrey Kortunov, the Director General of RIAC, has argued that the role of regional hegemon in the Gulf is “claimed jointly” by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with Abu Dhabi contributing the “political ideology and strategic vision” to the alliance.
As Russia has taken overt steps to strengthen its partnership with Riyadh during this period of division, like negotiating a deal on wheat exports and publicly shoring up confidence in their OPEC+ oil price stability pact, Moscow hopes that a future realignment of Saudi-UAE relations will contribute favorably to the long-term strength of Russia’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. If this outcome comes to fruition and Russia manages to preserve its improbable balancing act between Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, the resurgence of Moscow’s influence in the Gulf could endure for years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford specializing on Russia’s policy towards the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter@samramani2.