Gulf-Russia Summit: Moving beyond stated objectives

Analysts say both sides need to find more common grounds to make the partnership mutually beneficial

Ehtesham Shahid
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It was somewhat ironical that the Russia-GCC Summit, which should have been about boosting ties, ended up knotted in issues such as Syrian conflict, war on terror and Iran’s interference in the Gulf region. This was the fourth such engagement between the two sides in five years and the first one in the Russian capital.

The joint press conference – addressed by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – veered around the opposition delegation to the next round of talks on Syria, developing mechanisms to fight terror and on Russia’s role in solving problems in Gulf-Iran relations.


There were of course customary references to the historical ties, honoring sovereignty and being committed to international law. Al-Jubeir praised Russia’s support for the Palestinian cause and emphasized on the importance of fighting radicalism.

Lavrov, on the other hand, had more of the same. “Under the Security Council auspices we supported the continuing process of the search for a settlement in Yemen, Libya and a number of other countries of the Middle East and northern Africa and discussed the situation in Iraq,” he said.

Suspended animation

Analysts observing the turn of events in the region and beyond see this as mere suspended animation wherein both sides are choosing to look elsewhere rather than at each other to build a mutually beneficial future. They may stop short of calling this as missed opportunity but insist that not much would come out of it.

Dr. John Bruni, Director at Adelaide-based think-tank, SAGE International, says the dialogue is not expected to generate a breakthrough on any diplomatic front. “Essentially it is a confidence building mechanism between Moscow and the Gulf capitals designed primarily to narrow strategic differences between them on a range of issues, from energy to security, as well as explore strategic back channels that could benefit the parties to this dialogue,” he says.

According to Dr. Bruni, there are many things that divide Russia from the Gulf Arab states. “Through its military intervention in Syria, Russia has successfully injected itself into the affairs of the Middle East. A peace deal in Syria cannot be had without Russian support,” he says.

Dr. Bruni asserts that leveraging the concept of “good relations” with Russia, in spite of the differences, allows Gulf countries to assert that they have options other than dependence on American largess.

“In the near-term it is unlikely that the Gulf states will move significantly away from American and Western support, so at this stage of the game it is all about signaling,” says Bruni. In other words, engagement with Russia signals the Gulf’s “displeasure at feeling abandoned by Washington”.

Moscow motivations

There is no denying that Russia under Putin has demonstrated larger interest in the wider Middle East coinciding with the Obama administration’s “hands off” policy in the region. However, Bayram Aliyev, a Researcher at the international relations department of Istanbul University, says that this is another indicator of Russia’s “motivation to be a great power”.

“Current situation in the Middle East shows that Russia-Iran cooperation will be balanced by the Turkish-Saudi Arabian side,” says Aliyev.

Whichever way one looks at it, serious synergy can be found if the two sides detach themselves from their surroundings and focus on the bilateral aspect, instead of getting mired in the multilateral maze that the Middle East has become. In a way, this has already be happening on the trade front.

In an analysis published in April, Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, says that for 20 years Russia did not challenge the US hegemony in the Arab world directly. However, the so-called Arab Spring has changed fundamentals and the failed transition in Libya has been an important learning experience for Moscow.

Kortunov concludes his analysis with a rather succinct projection. “As for external factors affecting the Arab world, the influence of overseas’ players is likely to get less significant, while the influence of neighboring non-Arab states (Iran, Turkey, Israel) is likely to grow further.”

That probably sums up why the Middle East, in general, and Gulf countries, in particular, need to look more within than without even when it comes to engagement with the outside world. This, at some stage, is bound to become the focus of attention in future dialogues between GCC and Russia.

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