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GCC-Russia relations: A lot of rhetoric but little substance
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 21 - 06 - 2016

The meeting in Moscow between Russia and the GCC foreign ministers on May 26, 2016 proved to be another opportunity to exchange views and bridge the gaps between Russian and GCC priorities when it comes to regional developments, in particular with regard to Syria. While the meeting produced what some commentators referred to as "candid discussion," it failed to narrow the differences that currently affect the relationship. It is unlikely that this will change any time soon.
The GCC states are aware that the international environment is changing and that the Cold War era, when there was a clear choice between one side and the other, is over. While relations with the United States remain important, they are no longer the only game in town. Instead, the new philosophy in a rapidly changing globalized world is one of promoting and securing one's national interest disregarding past alliances and previous arrangements. The need to diversify international relationships as well as become more self-reliant and independent in foreign policy choices is recognized. It is in this context that Russia-GCC relations must be understood.
The GCC is fully aware that Russia cannot be ignored in the region. Russia's long-standing ties to Iran along with its decision to intervene militarily in Syria are indicators that Russian policy prerogatives when it comes to the Middle East must be acknowledged and understood. While US hesitancy has been noticed, it is also clear that Russian involvement in Middle Eastern affairs will remain. This realization was at the heart of the fourth round of strategic cooperation talks that were held in Moscow at the end of the May.
Yet, the fact that Russia is aligned with the GCC's main adversaries in the region points to the clear limitations in the further development of bilateral ties. While there are several areas with a potential for deeper relations, such as greater economic investment in Russia, military sales, cooperation on oil matters, and nuclear energy, progress is constrained by the fact that the political umbrella covering overall relations remains missing. As far as Russia is concerned, it is trying to balance its Middle East policy between four pillars — Iran, Israel, Turkey, and the Arab states. This is an extremely tricky balance to achieve due to the many contradictions involved. It reminds one of Turkey's zero problem policy via-à-vis its neighbors which, due to inherent contradictions, exacerbated rather than resolved tensions with those same neighbors. From the GCC perspective, Russian policy could likely meet a similar fate and ultimately fall short on its stated objectives. The view in the GCC capitals is that Moscow's short-term tactics are being applied at the expense of a long-term coherent strategy.
What the GCC needs to understand is that, for the moment, Russia is not ready for a more comprehensive partnership with the Arab Gulf region. Moscow is hoping that the GCC countries will be pushed in Russia's direction due to their disappointment with US policy and because issues such as Syria cannot be solved without Russia's involvement. That Russia does not prioritize its ties to the GCC is clear from the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far visited the GCC states only once, way back in 2007. Since then, all meetings and exchanges with Putin have taken place in Russia. Visits to the Gulf States in the meantime are conducted by Putin's ministerial colleagues.
In the absence of a long-term strategy, there are no clear indicators as to the direction in which GCC-Russian relations will evolve in the near term. There are clear limits to what the GCC can offer Russia to persuade it to modify its approach to the region, as economic incentives are clearly insufficient to alter Russian policy. At the same time, there are also limits to what the GCC should expect of Russia. Without a doubt, there is a need to keep channels of communication open and maintain a dialogue with Russia. Yet, one should have no illusions that such talks will form the basis of a broader strategic relationship in the near future.
Abdulaziz Sager is chairman of the Gulf Research Center, Jeddah.

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