Gulf capitals are attracted towards the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’, one that is attractive on paper but challenging in practice
Lost in the myriad of global events over the past few years, it is important to remember that Russia has played a critical role in Syria over the past decade. Russia has aligned with Iran on achieving its goals of having a strong foothold in Damascus by protecting the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and the Kremlin’s military presence on the coast of the Mediterranean. With OPEC+ on the strategic side and its Syria operations on the tactical side, Moscow has balanced its engagements in West Asia between the Shia and Sunni power blocs. However, the long-term prospect of maintaining this balance in the region is also increasingly standing on precarious grounds, with Tehran’s direct help for President Vladimir Putin by way of providing military equipment, specifically armed drones, as Moscow suffered losses of both man and machine. If Russia and Putin manage to come out of this self-inflicted conflict battered and bruised, but still in control, Iran will push for the Kremlin to prioritise Iranian interests in the region over those of its Gulf partners, including OPEC+, despite Tehran being a member of the original formulation of OPEC itself since the pre-Revolution time in the 1960s. To colour this argument further, a potential Russian sale of high-end Sukhoi 35 fighter jets to Iran could add significant stress between Moscow and the Arab states. The challenges have only mounted further as the Ukraine crisis continues—and may do so for some time. This will exacerbate a “global reshuffling” of how the international order has been perceived post the Cold War. What is adding to the pressure is Saudi Arabia’s pursual of an apparent hedging strategy—of pacifying both Washington and Moscow up to a certain degree—which is ultimately for its own benefit as a producer with a set idea of what prices work best. While oil prices were a challenge for Biden’s domestic agenda, they were a challenge for the Global South as well, a region that Moscow saw opportunities in during voting trends at the UN on Ukraine. However, now that the US midterm elections have moved in favour of President Joe Biden and the Democrats, the Iran nuclear deal all but out of favour in the immediate future at least, and there has been an apparent collapse of an under-the-radar but critical regional dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran hosted by Iraq—this could mean the US is gaining more breathing space, specifically after a failed Biden visit to Jeddah just before the midterms at a time when oil prices were breaking multiple ceilings.
With OPEC+ on the strategic side and its Syria operations on the tactical side, Moscow has balanced its engagements in West Asia between the Shia and Sunni power blocs.
Another critical aspect not talked about enough is the flight of Russian money and business into Gulf states, specifically the UAE, since the start of the Ukraine conflict. Western sanctions forced Russian oligarchs to move assets out of both Russia and Europe to protect their financial assets. The Russian oligarchy has made its wealth often with the help of the state, whether it is in the energy sector or running a private military, however, the question that stands today is whether their loyalty to their political base or their economic base is greater.
While oil prices were a challenge for Biden’s domestic agenda, they were a challenge for the Global South as well, a region that Moscow saw opportunities in during voting trends at the UN on Ukraine.
The gathering of the G20 group of countries in Indonesia this month without Putin in attendance also highlights how the question of Russia’s actions on Ukraine are not a zero-sum game politically for many states. Contrary to popular belief, from an international politics point of view, the power-tussles between the US, China, and Russia are increasingly set to clear cut lines. It is the middle and smaller powers who are having to contort their foreign policy designs to navigate the formation of new power blocs of the future. And this is increasingly becoming a driving reason why Gulf capitals are attracted towards the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’, one that is attractive on paper, but for West Asia, challenging in practice. Finally, perhaps, Eugene Rumer’s 2019 view of Moscow’s influence, politics and policies for this region remains most apt, ‘Russia in the Middle East: Jack of all trades, master of none’.
President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Saudi Arabia before the end of this year, backed by an interest by the likes of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to engage with China despite increasing American voices against such ties.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.
Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +