December 11, 2023
IntelBrief: Key Gulf States Help Putin Break out of Isolation
On December 6, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin made a one-day visit to two key strategic allies of the United States in the Persian Gulf – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He received lavish and elaborate welcomes in both countries, and UAE President Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) and Saudi de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) stated that they considered Putin a “dear friend” or “dear guest,” respectively, in their meetings with him. The day after his return, Putin received visiting Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, highlighting that the Russian leader is able to engage with all sides of the strategic and political divides of the volatile Persian Gulf region. Prior to his Gulf trip, Putin, against whom the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for alleged Russian war crimes (abductions of children) in Ukraine, had only visited strategic partners such as Iran, China, and Central Asian countries. Neither they nor Saudi Arabia and the UAE are signatories to the ICC’s Rome Statue requiring them to arrest him. Still, Saudi Arabia and the UAE clearly risked offending Washington by receiving Putin. All the Gulf countries have avoided taking sides in the Ukraine war. However, in August, Saudi Arabia hosted a high-level multilateral meeting to examine Ukraine’s proposals for ending the war.
Putin’s Gulf tour was timed to take maximum advantage of the regional unrest over Israel’s offensive against Hamas and U.S. backing for Israel’s goal of eliminating Hamas’ military infrastructure from Gaza. During the visit, Putin sought to highlight his argument that the West is holding Russia to a double standard by providing arms for Israel's civilian casualty-intensive offensive in Gaza while accusing Russia of war crimes in Ukraine. For their part, the Saudi and Emirati leaders calculated that receiving Putin, who is a vocal critic of U.S. global hegemony, might help mollify public sentiment in the Gulf and broader Muslim world that is clamoring for a ceasefire in Gaza. Putin has condemned the Hamas October 7 attack on Israel, but he has also sought to attribute the conflict to a failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East, including Washington’s staunch and consistent support for Israel. Yet, the Gulf rulers are seeking to align with public sentiment while at the same time preserving the key pillars of their national strategies that require close relations with the United States and, in the case of UAE, has led to normalization of relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia, too, is hoping to revive talks to normalize with Israel after the Gaza war ends and public outrage over the civilian death toll in Gaza abates. By lavishly welcoming Putin, MBS and MBZ also signaled Washington that they have alternative great power allies and are not beholden to the United States. Both Gulf powers have expressed doubts in recent years over the U.S. commitment to securing the Gulf and have engaged with U.S. adversaries as well as its allies. In the context of the Israel-Hamas war, however, U.S. officials have, to some extent, assuaged Gulf doubts about the U.S. commitment to regional security by significantly enhancing the U.S. regional force posture to deter Iran and Iran-backed groups from fully joining Hamas’ battle against Israel.
The Putin visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE also had a substantive economic component. The three governments are part of the “OPEC+” oil producers coalition that has failed to stem a recent decline in the global price of crude oil. Despite agreements by OPEC+ in early 2023 to cut production at least through all of 2023, Russia has apparently not reduced its output significantly. Russia has generally argued that it needs to keep its production elevated to fund its war against Ukraine in the face of significant U.S. and European sanctions. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, has argued for significant production cuts to keep prices firm in the face of slowing Western economies and continuing Chinese economic underperformance. Like Russia, the UAE generally seeks to produce as much as possible, although for a different reason: Abu Dhabi argues that Western countries are making substantial progress in expanding the use of renewable energies, reducing the inherent value of crude oil. On November 30, and perhaps paving the way for Putin’s hastily organized Gulf trip, OPEC+ announced that Saudi Arabia would keep in place, until March 31, 2024, its existing production cut of 1 million barrels per day; Russia would reduce its output by half that amount, and the UAE would further reduce production by about 160,000 barrels per day. The cuts, which Saudi leaders reportedly argued should have been steeper, were intended to counter the effects of significantly increasing U.S. production – the main factor that has caused oil prices to skid to approximately $70 per barrel (U.S. crude).
The day after his return, Putin hosted in the Kremlin Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, who, in clear contrast to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is a strategic adversary of the United States. Iran and Russia have long been aligned in support of the Assad regime in Syria, and Moscow and Tehran have expanded their strategic relationship into a broader effort to undermine the global and regional influence of the United States and its allies. Raisi’s visit gave both leaders the opportunity to appeal to the Global South’s opposition to Israeli tactics in Gaza, and, in so doing, to try to discredit the United States and its partners. Putin was quoted as telling Raisi that the sight of suffering and bloodied children in Gaza makes "tears come to your eyes” – clearly seeking to discredit the United States for its backing of Israel indirectly. For his part, Raisi took the opportunity provided by his meeting with the Russian leader to stress Iran’s alignment with Hamas - a key member of Tehran’s “axis of resistance” and the Palestinians more broadly - by stating: "What is happening in Palestine and Gaza is of course genocide and a crime against humanity." He added it was "even more sad" that the United States and the West supported this.
In their public comments, the Russian and Iranian leaders made little mention of their growing military cooperation, or the oil production issues that link Russia, the Arab Gulf states Putin had just visited, Iran, and other major producers. It is clear that military and oil-related topics were discussed because Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as well as Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, Putin's point man on oil, were present in the Kremlin meetings. Both Iran and Russia are subject to comprehensive U.S.-led economic sanctions that have limited the number of potential buyers for their oil. In OPEC+ discussions, Moscow and Tehran have sought to shift as many of the pledged production cuts as possible to the Gulf states, particularly the largest of the group’s producers, Saudi Arabia. Still, it is Iran-Russia military cooperation - which Iranian authorities describe as “expanding day by day” - that National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described on December 6 as "worrisome." The U.S. concerns are based primarily on Iran’s supply of sophisticated armed drones to Russia and reported discussions to sell Moscow ballistic missiles as well. In exchange, Russia is apparently willing to help Tehran rectify its relative deficiency in advanced conventional weapons. Iran said in November that it had finalized arrangements for Russia to provide it with Su-35 fighter jets, Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak-130 pilot training aircraft. Yet, Putin’s intensified diplomacy in early December produced no measurable change in U.S., Israeli, or European policy toward the Israel-Hamas conflict or the Ukraine war, rendering Putin’s summitry mostly symbolic. Nevertheless, Israeli Prime Minister, in a call with Putin, voiced his disapproval of Moscow's growing ties with Tehran.