Russian FM Lavrov’s Gulf Tour: Context and Recap

The visit has drawn attention due to its timing coinciding with the period that the region is going through significant developments both regional and international.

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Between 9-11 March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a visit to the Gulf region. Within the scope of his tour, he visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, respectively. Issues like improving bilateral relations, mainly energy, trade, and arms sales, as well as establishing a common defense system in the region were on Lavrov’s agenda.

The visit was also remarkable due to its timing. Considering its timing, it is seen that the Russian FM’s visit came as the United States, under Biden’s administration, was attempting to recalibrate its relations with the Gulf countries. In this sense, it can be said that Saudi Arabia is the one that has been mostly affected by this US policy-shift. Suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as the release of the intelligence report regarding Khashoggi’s murder, which approved the involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), were recent developments that caused tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia. From this perspective, Lavrov’s visit has been evaluated by some analysts in the sense that Russia wants to exploit this recent rift occurring between the US and its Gulf allies in favor of its policies in the region.

Within the scope of his tour, Lavrov’s first stop was the UAE. Here, he came together with the UAE Crown Prince and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Bilateral relations, particularly trade between the two countries, and the Syrian crisis were the topics that were handled. Speaking at the joint press conference after the bilateral meeting, the UAE Foreign Minister stated that the US sanctions against Syria barriers dialogue with Syria.

Then, Lavrov passed to Saudi Arabia on March 10, where he met with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. It is seen that the Saudi-Russian meeting was carried around issues like energy and military-technical operation. Considering that the US stopped its support for Saudi-led operation in Yemen, Russia emerged as the most prominent alternative in terms of arms sales. At this juncture, it should be noted that the Russian Minister refrained from any direct criticism towards Iran while touching upon the Yemen crisis. In fact, he confined himself to simply condemning the Iranian-backed Houthi attacks targeting civilians. In the same issue, Lavrov also called for dialogue which would involve all actors, for the resolution of the conflicts.

The last stop of Lavrov’s visit was Qatar. Here, it should be highlighted the fact that Russia’s relations with Qatar have been following a different path than with Saudi Arabia or the Emirates. In this sense, it is seen that the two countries have been pursuing different policies in many regional issues like Libya and Syria. However, given the importance of Qatari investment for the Russian economy, under the US and European sanctions implemented to Russia and Qatar’s prominent position in the natural gas industry, it can be said that Russia cannot ignore Qatar.  Besides, it should also be noted that Lavrov’s visit came amid the context of normalization of relations between Qatar and its neighboring Arab countries.

During his Qatar visit, Lavrov met with Qatari top officials as well as the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The issues related to Afghanistan and Syria were the main topics of the trilateral meeting. It is announced that Russia will host a meeting that will be held within the scope of the intra-Afghan peace process in Moscow on March 18. Upon this issue, Lavrov stated that Russia does not intend to replace Qatar or any other country regarding the process. It was also announced that Russia invited Qatar to the meeting. Relating to the Syrian crisis, it was stated that Qatar will participate in the Turkey-Russia negotiations regarding resolving the crisis. The Qatari Foreign Minister also said that the reasons for Syria’s dismissal from the Arab League are still on the table.

To sum up, it can be said that the Russian Foreign Minister’s visit came at remarkable timing. Through this visit, Russia found a ground in which it could improve bilateral relations with the Gulf countries as well as provide joint policies with these countries regarding issues like Syria, Libya, and oil prices. As a matter of fact, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the visit as more than productive. On the other hand, it can be speculated that this visit also gave the opportunity to the Gulf countries to make pressure on the US regarding its policies in the region.

Ahmet Dogan

Ahmet Doğan is a Gulf Studies Research Assistant holding a BA degree from Hacettepe University's International Relations Department and an MA degree from the Middle East Technical University's History Department. His research focuses on the foreign policies of Gulf countries, particularly towards Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

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