On 6 December 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin undertook a rare visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was his maiden outing in the Middle East following the COVID-19 pandemic. More importantly, it was the Russian President’s first trip to the region since the initiation of the war in Ukraine and consequent international sanctions levelled at Russia. A quick one-day visit was meant to solidify Mr Putin’s position in the Middle East, where two major oil-producing countries hosted him. Receiving a warm welcome in the Gulf, the visit worked as a means for him to showcase that he still has allies on the global stage.
President Putin has primarily been keeping his movement limited to the Russian capital since March when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants against him on charges of illegally deporting Ukrainian children to Russia. Due to the arrest warrants for war crimes, he has refrained from visiting the 123 countries that are members of the ICC. Saudi Arabia and UAE have not ratified the Rome Statute. Therefore, the jurisdiction of the ICC does not extend to them, making President Putin’s Gulf trip possible.
The purpose of the recent trip was to strengthen Russia’s partnerships, counteract efforts by the United States (US) and Europe to isolate Putin in the international arena and regulate oil prices with the other two OPEC+ members. The visit was marked by a grand reception, complete with a whole cavalry escort and a national aerobatics team display, which highlighted the growing ties between the Gulf and Russia. Mr Putin’s first destination in the Middle East was the UAE. His plane that landed in UAE was accompanied by a quartet of Russian Su-35 fighter jets. Russia obtained special permits from several states to allow the fighter jets to fly over. The UAE is currently hosting the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). According to a statement issued by the Kremlin prior to Putin’s visit, matters pertaining to oil production and trade, as well as the situation in Syria and Yemen, were on the agenda of the UAE meeting. Also, while interacting with Mr Putin, UAE’s leadership that recognised Israel in 2020 underscored the need to end the atrocities in Gaza.
The purpose of the recent trip was to strengthen Russia’s partnerships, counteract efforts by the United States (US) and Europe to isolate Putin in the international arena and regulate oil prices with the other two OPEC+ members.
During their meeting, Putin underscored the significance of the Russo-UAE relations, maintaining that the bilateral ties have attained “unprecedented levels”. Likewise, UAE’s Sheikh Mohamed expressed the UAE’s preference for resolving conflicts through dialogue and diplomacy, which differs from the West’s use of sanctions following the February 2022 invasion. The UAE accounts for over half of Russia’s trade with the Gulf region, making it Russia’s largest trading partner. The trade is estimated to be worth around $10 billion. How the trip will fare for the US is yet to be seen since UAE also enjoys close ties with Washington.
The same day, Mr Putin landed in Saudi Arabia. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has kept close ties with President Putin, notwithstanding the insistence from the West to isolate Russia. He has presented himself as a possible intermediary in the Ukraine conflict. For the Ukraine crisis, the Russian convoy appreciated the Saudi Crown Prince’s humanitarian and political steps and the continuing efforts to this end. As for the Gaza conflict, both states highlighted the need to realise a two-state solution. At the same time, Saudi-Russian bilateral trade, economy, investment, and different areas of collaboration in multilateral formats were also discussed.
Markedly, raising oil prices emerged as a major agenda of the lightning visit. Russia, UAE, and Saudi Arabia are all part of the OPEC+ group of oil-producing countries. For Russia to maintain its war effort, it heavily relies on income from oil. Russia’s participation in OPEC+ has aided it in managing the significant costs associated with its war in Ukraine and the consequent wider international sanctions. Cooperating with Arab partners to keep oil revenue up is critical for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
It is important to note that Putin met the leaders of the two countries that are about to join BRICS in January 2024. Also, Veteran journalist Elijah J. Magnier commented that considering the warm welcome that both the host countries extended for President Putin’s trip indicates that the Western efforts to corner Russia have not been fruitful. Rather, it has instigated Russia to decrease its dependence on the US and Europe rapidly.
On the other hand, the Gulf countries looking to realign their foreign policy have found the right time and opportunity to do so. Immediately after his return from the Gulf trip, President Putin received his Iranian counterpart in Moscow. The visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a key partner in the region and a major opponent of Western interests, highlights Russia’s efforts to play a role in wider Middle East diplomacy and the mutual interest of both states in dampening international sanctions.
The Gulf has traditionally been seen as a sphere of Western influence. Putin’s visit intended to challenge this perception and assert Moscow’s regional interest. The recent visit by Russia to the Middle East signals the country’s escalating influence in the region, coinciding with a more withdrawn approach from the US. It was a strategic move that aimed to achieve multiple objectives. It is still uncertain whether he will succeed in these endeavours, but the visit has definitely created ripples in the region’s geopolitical landscape. The Gulf States are currently exploring opportunities to expand their partnerships beyond the US and are considering Russia as a possible ally. This visit marks the beginning of a stronger economic collaboration between Russia and the Gulf countries, covering areas such as trade, investments, and energy. As Russia establishes new alliances and extends its influence, it presents a challenge to the existing US-led global order.