By: Barsha Hazarika, Research Analyst, GSDN
The Narrative Unfolds
In a remarkable turn of events on December 6, 2023 Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on an extraordinary one-day whirlwind tour to the Middle East. This historic journey saw him making a brief stop in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) before heading to Saudi Arabia, escorted by an entourage of four fighter jets.
Touching down in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, on a Wednesday, Putin’s arrival coincided with the United Nations COP28 climate talks hosted by the city. The grandeur of the occasion was marked by the presence of four UAE military jets, symbolically trailing smoke in the hues of the Russian flag, as they executed a flyby and a resounding 21-gun salute, welcoming the Russian leader to the Presidential Palace.
Subsequently, Putin hastened to Riyadh, where he engaged in a significant face-to-face meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), marking their first encounter since October 2019.
While in Abu Dhabi, the Russian President took the opportunity to meet with Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), President of the UAE, expressing admiration for the robust state of Russia-UAE relations. Putin also extended congratulations to the Gulf Arab country for hosting COP28, a global event that had commenced six days prior to his visit.
Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, Putin received a warm welcome from the UAE’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the airport. The Ilyushin-96, accompanied by four Su-35 fighter jets from Russia, set the stage for a ceremonial greeting at Qasr al-Watan palace. The welcoming spectacle included a 21-gun salute and Emirati military jets leaving behind trails of smoke in the red, white, and blue colors reminiscent of Russia’s flag.
Noteworthy is the evolving closeness between Putin and key Middle Eastern figures, namely President Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. It was only fitting that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh were chosen as the initial Arab capitals for Putin’s visit, marking a continuation of the diplomatic ties forged since February 2022.
During discussions that spanned a spectrum of topics, from regional conflicts like Gaza to global concerns such as oil production, Ukraine and Sudan, MbZ released a statement emphasizing the leaders’ commitment to “strengthening dialogue and cooperation for stability and progress.”
Simultaneously, Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia witnessed a significant milestone, with MbS declaring that the relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia had reached unprecedented heights. Stressing the importance of exchanging information and assessments on regional affairs, Putin echoed the sentiment, highlighting the necessity for ongoing dialogue.
MbS went on to affirm that Riyadh’s collaboration with Moscow had enhanced security across the Middle East, expressing optimism about the positive global impact of their future political interaction and cooperation. The leaders also delved into discussions on Israel’s actions in Gaza and various other sensitive international issues.
Among the multifaceted topics explored during their meeting, energy industry collaboration and advancements in technology emerged as focal points, as reported by Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency.
A noticeable pivot from Ukraine to the escalating Gaza crisis has taken place on the global stage since October 7, 2023 capturing President Vladimir Putin’s government’s strategic attention. The evolving narrative, with reduced emphasis on the 23-month-long conflict in Eastern Europe, conveniently aligns with Moscow’s ambitions to assert influence and pursue interests in the Middle East. Simultaneously, the region has witnessed a surge in anti-American sentiment amid the deepening Gaza crisis.
Against this backdrop, Putin embarked on a one-day visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia on December 6, 2023 marking his inaugural trip to the Arab world since Russia’s comprehensive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
According to Al Jazeera, Putin’s meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince occurred against the backdrop of falling oil prices, despite OPEC+ commitments to further cut production. The Russian leader’s international travels have been limited since March 2023, following an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant accusing him of deporting Ukrainian children.
Crucially, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, having not ratified the ICC’s founding treaty, hold no obligation to apprehend Putin on their territories. Moscow has deftly capitalized on the United States’ isolation within the United Nations regarding the ceasefire discourse amid the Israeli war on Gaza in October. This diplomatic maneuvering exploits the Biden administration’s steadfast support for Israeli actions in the besieged enclave, presenting an opportune moment for Putin to navigate international dynamics in the Middle East.
Focus of Putin’s Middle East Visit
Vladimir Putin’s journey to the Middle East serves as a crucial component of his broader campaign to showcase the perceived failure of Western efforts to isolate Moscow through sanctions related to the Ukrainian conflict. His diplomatic mission aims to convey a distinct message to the broader Arab-Islamic world. Russia stands apart from the United States concerning the Palestinian cause.
The core of Putin’s communication is that, in contrast to the US, Moscow aligns with the international community in advocating for a ceasefire and insists on resolving the Palestinian issue in accordance with established international law, rejecting any attempts to sideline or dismiss it.
Despite Moscow’s steadfast stance on Palestine, Russia has historically maintained a nuanced and balanced position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, diverging from Washington’s unequivocal support for Israel. While fostering positive relations with Israel, Russia has concurrently underlined its support for Palestinian statehood. Significantly, Moscow recognizes Hamas not as a mere terrorist organization but as a legitimate political entity representing Palestinian interests.
This diplomatic strategy allows Russia to engage with both sides, navigating the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a pragmatic approach. While fostering ties with Israel, Moscow upholds its commitment to the Palestinian cause, stressing the need for a resolution that adheres to international legal principles. This duality positions Russia as an influential mediator with the capacity to engage diverse stakeholders in the region.
By asserting its unique stance on Palestine and strategically navigating the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Putin’s visit to the Middle East underscores Russia’s role as a key player in regional diplomacy, challenging the narrative of isolation propagated by Western sanctions related to the Ukrainian war.
Outcomes and Implications of the Visit
The diplomatic maneuvers initiated by Vladimir Putin in the Middle East are set to yield significant outcomes, shaping regional dynamics and global perceptions. In a strategic sequence, Putin hosted the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on December 07, 2023 a day after his visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Putin’s commentary on Israel’s two-month bombardment of Gaza positions and the United States’ diplomatic efforts as unsuccessful, presenting an opportunity for Moscow to step in as a mediator. Leveraging its amicable ties with both Israel and the Palestinians, Russia seeks to redefine its role in regional conflicts, challenging Western dominance.
While the West interprets this move as Russia’s quest for enhanced influence in the Middle East, it is acknowledged that the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while unlikely to replace the US with Russia as their security guarantor in the near future, view their ties with Moscow as a means of asserting autonomy from Washington. This aligns with the consistent strategy of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, balancing partnerships with global powers in an evolving, multipolar international order that deviates from Western centrality.
The symbolism of Putin’s warm reception in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh on December 6, 2023 resonates powerfully. It sends a message to Western capitals that Russia is not perceived as a rogue or pariah state in the Arab region. The visit underscores the assertiveness of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, signaling that they don’t merely follow Washington’s directives, even while relying on the US for security.
Despite their security dependencies on the US, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh exhibit a willingness to pursue independent foreign policy agendas when aligned with long-term national interests. This presents a challenge for the Biden administration, which expresses concerns over the growing closeness between the Gulf nations and Russia. Efforts to pull Saudi Arabia away from Russia, particularly in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion, have proven challenging, with the US, UK, and EU seeking to pressure the UAE to curb its role in Russia’s sanctions evasion.
However, the ability of the West to create distance between Russia and its Gulf allies remains uncertain. The GCC states, despite their wealth, display a multi-aligned foreign policy approach, refusing to permanently align with a single geopolitical camp. Their relationships with Russia, as seen in responses to the Ukraine invasion, mirror the broader stance of the Arab region and the Global South, navigating partnerships with both Western powers and adversaries like Russia and China.
In this multipolar world with fluid realities, the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s preparedness to join the BRICS bloc highlights the shifting geopolitical landscape. As they engage in multi-alignment, the Middle East is becoming a pivotal arena where global powers must navigate nuanced relationships to influence regional outcomes. Welcome to a new era marked by multipolarity, where alliances are dynamic, and strategic autonomy is paramount, an era that is undeniably here to stay.