Russia's Subtle Victory in the Middle East

In the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) failed to increase oil output, lower the price of oil, or issue an overt condemnation of Moscow’s actions, much to Washington’s dismay. Leaders in both Gulf countries even failed to take a call from U.S President Biden to discuss the matter.

The president’s trip to Saudi Arabia later in 2022—and his notorious fist bump with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman—did little to change the Saudi’s position. Despite American rapprochement, Saudi Arabia, as the largest oil producer in OPEC, recently agreed with Russia to reduce oil production, driving up the price per barrel and giving both petrostates a windfall in revenue.

Furthermore, to Washington’s consternation, Saudi Arabia’s agreement with Russia gives Putin further resources to prosecute the Ukraine war, in spite of Moscow’s recent setbacks, including the loss of territory outside of Kharkiv and the strike on the bridge to Crimea.

Riyadh’s decision to commit such a risky geopolitical gambit is based on more than the desire to accrue oil rents. Media articles have focused on the Gulf States’ disillusionment with Biden’s re-engagement with regional rival Iran and the nuclear deal, as well as what they see as a failure to designate Yemen’s Houthis as a terrorist group.

This narrative emphasizes what the United States has not done for the two Gulf States. But it misses what Russia has done and can do for the Gulf States, and for the Middle East region in general. Russia was able to return to the region due to the Syrian civil war, and has only expanded its influence since then. There is a continuity between the Cold War of the 20th and 21st centuries. Moscow entered the fray that is the Middle Eastern state system with military and financial support to Egypt in 1955. In 2015, the Syrian civil war allowed Russia the opportunity to return to the region.

First, Russia has demonstrated its military capabilities. Close to 30 years ago, the Soviet Union was a peripheral power during the 1990-1991 Gulf Crisis, ultimately acquiescing to a US-led multilateral alliance through the UN to militarily eject Iraq from Kuwait. The American-UN effort required a massive, six-week air campaign, including hundreds of aircraft, including American B-52s and stealth fighters, and a short ground war of 100 hours to do so.

In the fall of 2015, the USSR’s successor, the Russian Federation, intervened in Syria with a mere 30 aircraft. In tandem with mercenaries and an array of foreign militias, Moscow turned the tide of the Syrian civil war in favor of Bashar al-Assad. Russia demonstrated its ability to determine outcomes in Syria, as well as its ability to deploy aircraft and mercenaries there and in Libya. Putin demonstrated that it is not only the US that has “boots on the ground” and air assets in the region. In terms of regional politics, Moscow demonstrated that it too has the power to dictate the fate of nations in the Middle East.

Russia does not seek to place itself in one particular camp in the region, but projects itself as a moderator and influencer.

The Syrian intervention and the seizure of Crimea in 2014 secured two ports vital to the Russian navy in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. The US failed to deter Russia on two consecutive occasions. While the Obama administration thought Russia would enter a quagmire in Syria, Moscow demonstrated it could dictate outcomes in the Middle East, such as ensuring Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s survival in the face of an uprising supported by Turkey, the Gulf States, and the West.

Second, while both the Obama and Biden administrations emphasized a “pivot to Asia,” Russia sought to fill in the void by engaging in several high-level visits to Iraq, Egypt, and the Gulf, discussing military sales and security agreements, a projection of its “hard power” in the region.

In March 2021 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov embarked on a diplomatic tour of the Gulf, with visits to the heads of state of UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Lavrov’s visit and the Gulf’s acceptance of Moscow’s overture demonstrated a Russian fait accompli. The Gulf States acquiesced to Al-Assad’s victory and recognized Russia’s attempt to serve as a regional moderator, rather than being associated with a single axis of allies. This was one of Putin’s objectives. Russia does not seek to place itself in one particular camp in the region, but projects itself as a moderator and influencer. Only Russia could mediate between both Hizballah and Israel, or between the Gulf states and Iran and Syria, a role that the US could not provide.

Thanks to its use of military and diplomatic muscle, Russia is now also in a position to exercise “soft power” and potentially serve as a power broker between its ally Iran, and Tehran’s regional adversaries in the Arab Gulf.

Finally, while Russia is no longer in a position to provide arms sales (its arsenal having been tied up in Ukraine), it can still coordinate energy policy. It has developed a modus operandi with the Gulf States via the OPEC+ forum. While they might disagree on oil prices, the Arab rentier states do not ever have to worry about Moscow transitioning to a green economy or facing opprobrium from Russia for failing to do so.

The emergence of Covid-19 led to a divergence between Russia and the Gulf states in OPEC, whereupon they could not agree on production quotas, leading to a sudden drop in the price-per-barrel of oil. On the eve of the global shutdown due to Covid-19, Russia was willing to let the price of oil drop to make the costlier American shale oil extraction process unprofitable. This decision, combined with the global decrease in demand for oil during the lockdowns, led to the lowest prices of oil per barrel in the 21st century. Just two years later, though, the recent Gulf States’ cooperation with Russia has led to some of the highest prices of oil per barrel, providing a win-win scenario for both parties. All that Saudi Arabia incurred was the umbrage of the Biden administration.

Russian foreign policy in the region has evolved substantially since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Russia took advantage of the Arab uprisings of 2011 to spread its influence from Libya to Syria. These uprisings, combined with the Iran deal of 2015, highlighted the vulnerabilities of the Gulf States and the need to rely not only on the US, but on Russia and China as well. The confluence of these events allowed Russia to enhance its influence in a region, which for Moscow provides greater access to vital waterways and energy resources, while concurrently seeking to undermine America’s position.

The American presence in the Middle East is still more extensive and expansive than Russia’s, yet Russia has successfully demonstrated that it has a relative advantage over the US, in terms of its potential to serve as a moderator. While Russia, for the moment, has lost in Ukraine, it has achieved a subtle victory in the Middle East, demonstrating its presence and influence in the region can seriously challenge the US.