10 March
Written by Tracy Johnson

An informed Saudi source said that the Gulf tour by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which began Monday, coincides with a Saudi effort to recalibrate its relationship with the United States.

The source added in a statement to the Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity that “the developing relationship with Russia could witness broader and more important dimensions.”

“The new US administration combined its defiance of Saudi Arabia with a display of disinterest in the region’s concerns. We are also reassessing our relations with Washington,” he added.

The tour comes at a time when relations between the United States and the Gulf countries are experiencing a crisis of confidence and many uncertainties, after US President Joe Biden’s administration decided to suspend arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The importance of Lavrov’s Gulf tour lies in Moscow’s clear endeavour to exploit Washington’s errors diplomatically, militarily and economically.

The S-400 missiles will be among the topics that will be discussed in Riyadh, which needs advanced systems to counter Iranian threats.

Russia is working to take advantage of the bemuddled situation between Washington and its traditional allies in the Gulf and is offering alternatives to Riyadh, in particular.

Saudi Arabia is described by analysts as being under multiple US pressures, including the ambiguous position of the Biden administration regarding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, as well as Washington’s position on the Yemen war.

Gulf diplomatic sources described the visit as politically important. Regardless of Moscow’s intentions and its desire to benefit from the errors of the new American administration, Arab Gulf countries will find in the Lavrov tour an opportunity to show that they have alternatives and friends, and that their status as rich oil states provides them with opportunities to balance their relations based on shared interests with various partners and global powers.

The diplomatic sources added that the Biden administration is committing the same mistakes the administration of former President Barack Obama made, which pushed Gulf Arab states to pivot to China, Russia, India, Britain and France and to conclude major agreements with these nations.

It pointed out that the Gulf countries are not just a customer whose goal is only to buy weapons and defence systems, as they have great economic capabilities and assets that could motivate many countries to seek their favour.

A Gulf political source told The Arab Weekly that “Lavrov’s visit is a card in the hands of Saudi Arabia, which puts the Biden administration in front of a chocie between adjusting its strategy which aims to stunt Riyadh’s ambition to play a regional role, or losing major economic and investment opportunities that will go to Russia as it went to China before it.”

The source, who declined to be named, added that “the timing of the visit is important before the Biden administration begins to draw and implement the features of its strategy of opening up to Iran and accepting the influence of its militias in Iraq and Yemen without taking into account Saudi Arabia’s interests and national security imperatives, and without consulting the Gulf countries about their vision for the region’s security.”

On Sunday, the Russian foreign ministry confirmed that Lavrov will visit both of the Emirates from March 8-12 both. There he will meet Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan. He will then travel to Saudi Arabia, where he is scheduled to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, before leaving for Qatar, where he will meet with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani.

Russia’s Tass news agency also highlighted the economic opportunities at stake.

“Among other things, the sides will discuss ways to further increase business cooperation in line with agreements previously reached at the top level. Despite obstacles created by the novel coronavirus pandemic, Russia-UAE trade increased by 78% in the past year, reaching (an) all-time high of $3.27 billion. The Russian side also confirmed previously announced plans to hold later this year a regular plenary session of a bilateral intergovernmental commission on trade, economic and technical cooperation. The commission’s previous meeting took place in October 2019,” it said.

“The sides will also discuss new projects in a wide range of economic sectors, such as power generation, industry, agriculture, infrastructure and peaceful use of space. Special emphasis will be placed on cultural and humanitarian ties as well.”

The Russian foreign ministry statement said that Lavrov will discuss “the main files on the global and regional agenda, with emphasis on the need to settle the existing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa through a comprehensive dialogue that takes into account the interests and concerns of all parties involved in it.”

According to the Russian ministry, Lavrov’s meetings in the UAE are to become an important part of bilateral political dialogue, during which Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains “regular trust-based contacts” with leaders of Arab monarchies.

Lavrov’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar comes a week after the United States released a previously classified intelligence report accusing the Saudi crown prince of ordering the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Before that, the Biden administration stopped selling “offensive weapons” to Saudi Arabia, which it used in the Yemen war. It also worked to appease Iran, opened back channels with the Houthi rebels in Yemen and continued to monitor their targeting of Saudi sites and their threats to oil installations without taking practical steps to deter them, as normally required by the strategic alliance between Washington and Riyadh.

Experts and analysts believe that the Biden administration is pushing the Saudis, in particular, to search for other allies, even if they do not turn away from the United States.

James Dorsey, an expert on Middle East issues, said that Lavrov wanted to seize the opportunity of Biden ignoring key leaders in the Middle East, amid expectations of recalibrated relations with Saudi Arabia.

Dorsey indicated that Biden’s delay in holding phone calls with Gulf leaders indicates that the United States is underestimating the importance of the Middle East in its global strategy, which means reducing its security commitments and potentially withdrawing from the region.

Lavrov’s visit to the region revives controversy over security agreements of a strategic dimension that Gulf states may conclude with China and Russia.

He may present a Russian plan to restructure the regional security landscape, through an initiative to hold a Middle East security conference modeled on the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and a regional non-aggression agreement endorsed by the United States, China, Russia and India.

It is still too early to tell the direction that the Saudi leadership will take in response to cooling relations with Washington.

But until now, Riyadh has insisted that “the partnership between the Kingdom and the United States is a strong and lasting partnership,” despite its criticism of the new US administration’s positions, especially regarding the Khashoggi report.

For now, Saudi Arabia appears determined to face the strong winds coming from the White House and Congress, rather than shift towards Moscow and Beijing to rearrange its geopolitical and security ties.

Riyadh is seeking, through public relations campaigns in the United States, to influence public opinion, business interests and congressional leaders, and through them to pressure the new administration to better develop its relationship with Riyadh.

“We understand that Americans outside Washington are interested in developments in Saudi Arabia. Many of them, including the business community, academic institutions, and various civil society groups, are keen to maintain long-term relations with the Kingdom or develop new ties,” said Fahad Nazer, a spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington.