Going strong

RUSSIA'S Middle Eastern strategy appears to be going from strength to strength. While the US continues to be embroiled in the Iraqi insurgency, and the West's stand-off with Teheran over its alleged nuclear weapons programme fuels tension across the Gulf, 2007 may go down as a landmark year for Moscow's foreign policy making towards the region.

By Dr Marat Terterov (Gulf Angle)

Published: Fri 23 Nov 2007, 9:44 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:30 AM

Russian President Putin's tour of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan in February 2007 — the first such visit by a Russian or Soviet head of state — has already set the stage for Moscow to strongly consolidate on its already vastly improving relations with the Gulf states.

While Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States remain firm allies of the US, they are nevertheless concerned — even alarmed — by the manner in which Washington is imposing its uni-polar foreign policy will in the Gulf and the heightening of security concerns that many in the region believe stems directly from this. As a result, Russia, now flush with petro-dollars and seeking to rival US foreign policy initiatives where possible, is returning to some of the strategic regions of the world where Soviet influence was once extensive. This in turn opens new opportunities also for the GCC states to assess the status of their strategic relations with Moscow and to see where both sides can come together in agreement.

Given the lavish state welcome laid on for the Russian president and his high-level delegation in the GCC states last February, and the numerous agreements on enhancement of economic relations subsequently reached between Riyadh and Moscow, Arab sentiment increasingly reflects a mood where "despite Chechnya, despite what happened in Afghanistan, despite the Cold War and the decades of communism, the Russians are seen as friends of the Arabs". It might be too soon to argue that GCC-Russian relations have indeed reached a complete breakthrough, but if both sides explore the present opportunities, it could yet indicate the dawn of a new era.

With the official visit of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz to Moscow this week, Russian Middle East policy may be on the verge of one of its most pivotal successes in the post-Soviet era. Russia is one of the world's leading armaments exporters and the Russian government's arms exporting agency, RosOboronExport, has tried to break into the GCC arms market — one of the most lucrative in the world — since the early 1990s. However, with the exception of one major contract with the UAE in the 1990s, Moscow has found the GCC market a tough nut to crack. That is until now.

Saudi Arabia, traditionally the most loyal client of Western defence contractors, recently announced a multibillion-dollar purchase of Russian Mil Mi-17 medium multi-role and Mi-35 attack helicopters. Although the contract is yet to be confirmed by RosOboronExport, and while some analysts are sceptical of Russia's ability to fulfil such an order, Riyadh's estimated $2.2 billion order of up to 150 helicopters is expected to go through. This would be a major breakthrough for the Russian arms export industry, which, as already mentioned above, has been seeking to penetrate the lucrative GCC arms market for well over a decade.

Western defence industry sources, however, are already acknowledging that Russia's rival suppliers, to whom Riyadh would usually turn in order to fulfil a defence contract of this magnitude (ie, Sikorsky, Eurocopter and AgustaWestland), have confirmed that the Russian offer had been accepted. Thus, if one were to draw comparison with the Saudi-Russian inter-state agreements in the energy sector reached during the historic Moscow visit by the then Saudi Crown Price (now King) Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in September 2003, we may be about to witness one of the most high-profile arms deals since the Al Yamamah British-Saudi deals of the 1980s. This is because Riyadh, which has already expressed an interest in placing an order for Russian T-90 tanks earlier in the year, is sending a signal to the West that Russia is a potential welcome partner in the regional security environment in the Gulf.

For its part, Moscow has shown particularly strong support for the more active brand of Saudi foreign policy initiatives throughout 2007, such as the peacemaking efforts of Saudi King Abdullah between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas — which resulted in the so-called Makkah Agreements last February. In fact, former Russian foreign minister and now secretary of the security council, Igor Ivanov, has even expressed the hope that it would be possible to use the same pattern (as in the Makkah Agreements) for the settlement of other regional conflicts within countries such as those in Iraq and Lebanon. It is quite likely that this week's visit of the Saudi Crown Prince to Moscow is an acknowledgement of Russia's supportive foreign policy overtures towards the Saudi Kingdom during the course of the present year, which continues to underpin consolidating ties between these non-traditional allies.

One key issue that is bound to be discussed during the visit is how Saudi Arabia and Russian can cooperate in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. The Crown Prince will most certainly be looking for strong Russian support and a commitment to increase the pressure on Teheran to take an increasingly accommodative stance with the international community. Both sides share the deep concern about the wide-ranging consequences that would be felt were matters to end in a military confrontation. But from a GCC perspective, it is necessary to further impress upon the Iranian leadership the seriousness of the situation and the responsibility that Teheran bears for the overall security and stability of the Gulf. Moscow's role in delivering that message is crucial and would certainly contribute to solidifying Russia's strategic value for the GCC countries.

As it stands, Russian-GCC relations have witnessed a tremendous expansion in recent years. While trade volumes have reached record highs and collaboration in the energy sector has increased in scope, it is now time to also focus on the broader political and strategic aspects of mutual ties. In this context, 2007 could certainly prove to be a watershed year.

Dr Marat Terterov is the Programme Manager for Gulf-Russia relations at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai

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