Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, relations between Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council have deteriorated sharply due to disagreements between both actors over the future of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Russia has strongly supported Assad, claiming that his Baathist regime is a bulwark against Islamic extremism. By contrast, the Saudi-led GCC has actively supported Assad’s ouster, as his demise would reduce Iran’s regional influence. This discord, combined with a Russian-Saudi oil-price war, has caused many Middle East experts to argue that Russia-GCC relations are at a historic nadir.
A closer examination of geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East reveals that growing perceptions of a crisis in Russia-GCC relations are misplaced. In fact, a credible case can be made that Russia’s geopolitical influence and soft power in the Persian Gulf has increased since the start of President Vladimir Putin’s third term in 2012. Through stronger investment linkages and diplomatic overtures, Russia has attempted to carve out a more prominent geopolitical role in the Persian Gulf. Russia is unlikely to threaten Saudi Arabia’s hegemony over the GCC bloc. But stronger relations between Moscow and Saudi Arabia’s closest allies have caused some GCC countries to be more receptive to Russia’s calls for a political solution in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s fear of being isolated from the Arab world’s consensus could cause Riyadh to eventually soften its belligerent anti-Assad approach and diplomatically reengage with Russia. This scenario differs dramatically from the Russian-Saudi collision course predicted by many regional analysts.
Notwithstanding their disagreements over Syria, Russia has strengthened economic ties with Qatar, the UAE, Oman and Kuwait to balance against Saudi Arabia’s hegemony in the Persian Gulf. These economic linkages have been successful in resolving long-standing disputes that have impeded cooperation between Russia and the Gulf states for decades.