The Qatar crisis has afforded Moscow opportunities to secure geopolitical gains in the Persian Gulf region and the greater Middle East, building on Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria that began in September 2015. Once the “quartet” – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – cut off diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar on June 5, 2017, Moscow took a neutral stance while signaling a willingness to assist with mediation.
Moscow’s June 9 welcoming of Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Doha, Kuwait City and Abu Dhabi in late August underscored the Kremlin’s balanced response.[i], [ii] By going to one Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state on each side of the rift – in addition to Kuwait, which Moscow fully supports with respect to Emir Sabah Al Sabah’s mediation efforts – Lavrov’s shuttle diplomacy demonstrated Russia’s commitment to promoting a resolution to the Qatar crisis and its vested interest in the GCC’s survival as a regional organization.
From the Kremlin’s vantage point, this diplomatic row in the GCC is bizarre. In 2016, and for years before, officials in Moscow frequently accused both Saudi Arabia and Qatar of sponsoring terrorism and promoting Islamic extremism across the Arab world, chiefly in Syria, as well as in southwestern Russia. Thus, the eruption of the crisis in the Arabian Peninsula, in which Saudi Arabia justifies its actions against Qatar largely on the basis of Doha’s patronage of terrorist groups, genuinely surprised the Russian leadership. Long before June 5, the Kremlin was unquestionably aware of the GCC’s internal divisions, underscored by the March-November 2014 diplomatic spat, yet the decision of three Council members to take such unprecedented action against a fellow GCC state shocked officials in Moscow.
The Kremlin quickly and carefully crafted a balanced response that avoided damaging Moscow’s relationship with either the quartet or Qatar. Russia and Saudi Arabia share vital interests in many areas despite historical disagreements and tension between Moscow and Riyadh over the Syrian crisis. Russian officials understand that expanding Moscow’s influence in the greater Arab/Muslim world requires some level of cooperation with Saudi Arabia, given the Kingdom’s religious and political influence. King Salman’s watershed October 2017 trip to Russia, which resulted in Moscow signing agreements to sell Riyadh S-400 air defense missiles, anti-tank guided missile systems and multiple rocket launchers, in addition to other deals that will increase investment in projects in other sectors ranging from energy to infrastructure and technology, marked a landmark development for relations between the two countries amid the four-month-old Qatar crisis.[iii],[iv]
The other three quartet members also significantly deepened their strategic partnerships with Russia during Barack Obama’s presidency in an effort to hedge their bets, no longer trusting the United States as a security guarantor as they did under previous administrations. To be sure Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Manama have continued to invest in closer relations with Moscow throughout Donald Trump’s presidency as uncertainties persist regarding the wisdom of remaining dependent on Washington for defense.
Despite the blockading countries’ importance to Russia, the Kremlin’s interest in pursuing better relations with Qatar prevented Moscow from taking the quartet’s side against Doha. Apparently, Qatar’s efforts to diversify its security, investment and diplomatic relations with major powers – which entailed improving bilateral ties with Russia – have paid off for Doha. Indeed, Qatari-Russian relations have evolved substantially over the years. An understanding of the historical context is useful for interpreting the current dynamics of this relationship.
History of the Relationship
Until recently, warmth and cordiality did not define relations between Doha and the Kremlin. From its independence in 1971 until 1988, the pro-Western and conservative Persian Gulf emirate had no formal relations with the Soviet Union.[v] Throughout the 1990s, Moscow accused Qatar of sponsoring terrorism in Russia’s northern Caucasus. The 2004 assassination of financer Zelimkhan Yandarbivev, acting president of the breakaway Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, in a car bombing outside a mosque in Doha led to a diplomatic rift. Two Russian Military Intelligence agents caught in a GCC dragnet were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment but were later extradited to Russia.[vi], [vii]
In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Qatar, as well as to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to pursue plans for a north-south corridor linking Russia and the GCC.[viii] At that time, there was much talk of the world’s gas suppliers — chiefly Iran, Qatar and Russia — and their newly established Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), an equivalent of OPEC. Yet GECF never became a cartel, due to a host of structural challenges and increased competition from the United States. Nonetheless, GECF has long been a source of concern in European countries, which depend on Russian gas and fear Moscow’s manipulation of the continent’s supply for political purposes. Qatar has also challenged Russia’s plans for dominating GECF.[ix]
The Arab Spring put Qatar and Russia on a collision course. Beginning in 2011, Doha sought to capitalize on its relations with Islamist factions and expand Qatar’s regional clout by backing them amid political openings across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) following a series of uprisings that toppled longstanding autocrats in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. As a strong supporter of the Syrian regime, Moscow naturally became Doha’s rival. The Russians viewed Qatar as the Middle East’s “enfant terrible.” Media outlets in Qatar labeled Putin “the dictator of the 21st century” and invoked Islam in lashing out against the Russian leader.[x] In November 2011, Vladimir Titorenko, Russia’s then-ambassador to Qatar, was the victim of an assault at Doha’s Hamad International Airport, resulting in Moscow’s downgrading its diplomatic relations with the emirate.[xi] In December 2015, Lavrov cited the Kremlin’s disagreements with Qatar as “one of the major problems in the Syrian settlement process.”[xii]
Yet, long before the current GCC crisis, Qatar’s foreign-policy strategy has been pragmatic. For all its disagreements with Russia over Syria and other hotspots such as Egypt and Libya, Doha recognized that wooing Moscow served its interests. Fear of Saudi Arabia has long been one of the drivers of its approach to international affairs. Riyadh’s involvement in Qatari palace politics in the 1990s, in addition to a series of border clashes, have shaped Qatari views of the kingdom and its history of not always respecting the smaller GCC members’ sovereignty.[xiii]
During their diplomatic spat of 2014, none of the GCC countries that withdrew their ambassadors from Doha imposed a blockade on Qatar, but Saudi Arabia did threaten to do so.[xiv] Due to that experience, the Qataris have devised contingency plans to meet their security requirements in aviation, food and other sectors, as well as to further diversify their security alliances/partnerships around the world, not only in the West. Doha has sought to give a stake in Qatar’s independence and prosperity to other powerful states, including Russia.
The Persian Gulf sheikdom’s sovereign wealth fund (SWF) – the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) – has played a key role in Doha’s approach to improving relations with Russia. In May 2013, QIA purchased a $500 million stake in VTB, a Russian bank currently sanctioned by the West.[xv], [xvi] In October 2016, the Qatari SWF acquired a 24.99 percent stake in the Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg.[xvii] And in December 2016, QIA invested $11.3 billion in Rosneft, one-fifth of the Russian oil firm’s privatization portfolio.[xviii] During the crisis of September 2017, QIA reshuffled its Rosneft holdings to recover monies necessary to fuel the Qatari economy; Russia sees this as a loan to be paid back later.[xix]
Qatar and Russia, as gas-exporting giants, see room today for cooperation on energy matters, unlike the negotiations ten years ago over the GECF concept. Doha and Moscow established an Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation, as well as direct communication between RDIF and QIA. President Putin stated that his government would pursue cooperation with Doha via the GECF, and numerous Russian energy firms (Gazprom, Lukoil, etc.) have signaled their desire to enter Qatar’s market. Both countries have greater incentive to work together to counter the negative impact of price fluctuations now that Iran has re-entered the global gas markets. In Putin’s words, the two “feel the need to harmonize policies in the energy sphere, especially in the gas industry.”[xx] To be sure, when bilateral relations began to warm, Qatar’s incorporation of Russia into its long-term foreign-policy thinking was enhancing the Arabian emirate’s leverage in the region and the geopolitical order. Moreover, Qatar is likely to capitalize on U.S.-Russia friction by pitting Washington and Moscow against each other as the crisis continues, if need be.
Bilateral relations reached a watershed on January 18, 2016, when Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met Putin during his first official visit to Moscow. The two leaders signed bilateral agreements covering visa-free travel and cultural exchange.[xxi] By that point, bilateral trade had suffered, declining 50 percent in 2015 from the previous year.[xxii] The visit ended with both sides agreeing to establish a framework for increased economic links. This past January, the emir returned to Russia to discuss Middle Eastern geopolitics and global energy issues. The Qatari monarch declared that “Russia plays a leading role in stability in the world.”[xxiii] Putin asserted that “Qatar is an important component of the situation in the Middle East and the Gulf.”[xxiv] Two trips to Moscow in two years by the emir provided strong evidence of Qatari interest in Russia.
In April, Lavrov held negotiations with Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani.[xxv] The two covered a host of investment, energy and political issues. Lavrov said that both sides had agreed to discuss deepening economic links, with Russia’s SWF — the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) — playing a major role in bilateral ties. Qatar’s foreign minister explained that Doha and Moscow are engaged in a dialogue on Syria, seeking “common ground” and “mutual understanding and agreements.”[xxvi]
From the Russian perspective, investing in deeper ties with Qatar serves Moscow’s agenda in the Middle East: maintaining a partnership with Iran and strong support for Syria, as well as a good relationship with Israel, in addition to improving ties with Turkey — despite supporting the Syrian Kurds — while also seeking better relations with the GCC states. Improved relations with Qatar provide another way for the Kremlin to strengthen its own policies towards the region. In sum, Russia sees Qatar as a country it can cajole. Western sanctions have taken a toll on Russia’s economy, and the injection of Qatari money will help Putin address domestic issues.
Regarding Syria, as a consequence of the Qatar crisis, Doha has substantially softened its tone toward Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Despite being one of the major supporters of Sunni rebel groups in Syria, which Qatar backed with billions of dollars following the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 against the country’s Baathist regime, Doha’s realignment toward Tehran and Moscow – and away from Riyadh – represents a change in the Persian Gulf sheikdom’s foreign policy. Qatar has essentially come to terms with the post-blockade fact that securing closer ties with Iran and Russia requires abandoning a rigid position that was unrealistic, given facts on the ground in the Syria, especially since the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian Arab Army took control of Aleppo in late 2016 and other strategically prized areas of the country throughout 2017. Evidence of this shift in Qatar’s Syria policy was the emir’s statement in Germany on June 15. According to Gulf Times, he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that “there must be a political solution acceptable to all parties in Syria,” presumably including the Damascus regime.[xxvii]
Ultimately, the Qatar crisis has provided Russia opportunities to enhance its image in the Arab world as an influential actor in the Middle East that represents not only an anchor of a new security landscape, but also an alternative to American hegemony. In contrast to the United States, whose president tweeted a de facto endorsement of the quartet’s blockade one day after the four Arab states severed relations with Qatar – before the U.S. defense and diplomatic establishment contradicted his message only hours later – Russia is portraying itself as the mature global power truly committed to helping the parties negotiate a settlement without taking sides.[xxviii] Put simply, Moscow is using the Qatar crisis to further sell Russia as an indispensable peace broker in the MENA region, as it has in Libya and Syria.
Doha understands, that with the Qatar crisis unlikely to be resolved in the near-to-medium term, Russia’s interest in portraying itself as a neutral actor in the Arab world will prompt Moscow to avoid picking sides. By the same token, Russia is keenly aware that the Arabian emirate is charting a new foreign-policy course based on the assumption that Qatar’s ties with the quartet will probably remain severed for quite some time. Therefore, Doha will need to invest in its alliances/partnerships with the major powers to counterbalance the negative political and economic consequences of its Sunni Arab neighbors’ blockade and accusations. Unquestionably, Russia, along with Turkey, Iran, India, Kuwait, Oman and Pakistan, is set to play an important role in helping Qatar maintain its sovereignty while under pressure from the Saudi/UAE-led bloc to capitulate to its 13 demands.
Qatar’s foreign-policy strategy has always been flexible. Fear of Saudi Arabia has long been one of the drivers of its approach to international affairs, even prior to the eruption of the current diplomatic row. There is no doubt that Russia will play an important role in Qatar’s new foreign policy, as Moscow will likely reap more geopolitical and economic benefits from the tension between Qatar and the Saudi/UAE-led bloc. For all of Qatar’s disagreements with Russia on certain regional issues, the country’s leadership believes that deeper ties with Moscow will best serve Doha’s own interests as the blockaded country seeks to further expand its relationships and give more powerful actors in all corners of the world a higher stake in Qatar’s future as an independent, sovereign and prosperous country. Several months into the GCC’s gravest internal crisis since its establishment in 1981, Doha’s interest in further diversifying its security relationships can only lead to stronger Qatari-Russian ties.