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Partnership Diversification

What are the implications of the sixth round of the Russia-GCC strategic dialogue?

25 July 2023

Following a five-year hiatus, Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, held the sixth round of their strategic dialogue in Moscow on July 10, 2023, at a critical juncture. The meeting has several implications aligning with the Gulf’s endeavors that began in the wake of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and later took shape in the wake of the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine. 

Strategic Objectives

 The resumption of the strategic dialogue between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Russia signifies the mutual desire of both parties for strengthening consultations on various issues of bilateral cooperation, as well as international issues of common interest. That is because this dialogue serves the following objectives for both sides:

1. Gulf’s quest for diversified partnerships:

The growing geopolitical importance of Gulf countries has provided the Gulf states with an opportunity to diversify their strategic partnerships and diplomatic options. This comes as the international system shifts from unipolarity led by the United States to multipolarity that enhances the influence and presence of Gulf Arab countries and their ability to engage in growing relationships with various parties even if and when they stand in contrast to positions taken by the United States and allied Western countries. 

Based on all of the above, the Gulf countries, through openness to major powers in general, and to Russia in particular, both on the collective and bilateral levels, aim to enhance their presence in the international balance of power and to make the best use of global geopolitical changes on both political and economic levels. 

2. Russia’s openness

The Russian-Ukrainian war has imposed a wide range of pressures on Moscow due to the mounting Western sanctions on one hand, and the international condemnations it has faced for its military aggression against Ukraine as expressed in the resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council, and other bodies, on the other.

That is why, since the beginning of the war, Russia has always been keen to show the West its resilience in the face of Western pressures and sanctions. This is evident in the series of international meetings and gatherings it has established to send the message that not the whole world has adhered to Western decisions, and that Russia had a wide range of options in various regions of the world to enhance cooperation and partnerships through  the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, held in June 2023 and the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit, held earlier this month. 

From this perspective, efforts to organize the fifth round of Russia-GCC strategic dialogue in June 2022, only four months after Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine, cannot be overlooked. Within this perspective, one should also consider the Gulf's idiosyncrasy emanating from its growing geopolitical significance, driven by the changes brought about by the war and the international energy crisis. These dynamics would contribute significantly to reducing Russia’s isolation and strengthening Russia’s influence as a significant player in the Middle East.

Significant Implications

The sixth round of the Russia-GCC strategic dialogue has several significant implications, as follows:

1. Collective Gulf movement:

The recent actions taken by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the context of their relations with major powers indicate a collective stance on collectively formulating the bloc’s foreign policies on these powers. This collective approach became evident despite limited variations within the GCC regarding numerous regional and Gulf-specific issues. 

This was evidenced when the Gulf countries preferred to engage with the three major powers i.e. the United States, Russia, and Chin through what can be called "summit diplomacy." Examples include the fifth round of the strategic dialogue between the GCC countries and Russia in June 2022, the U.S.-GCC Summit held in Jeddah in July 2022, which was followed by the Jeddah Security and Development Summit 2022, attended by U.S. President Joe Biden. Later, the first China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit was held in December 2022 and was followed by the first China-Arab States Summit.

This approach was reflected in the final communique of the sixth round of Russia-GCC strategic dialogue, in which both sides emphasized the importance of this dialogue referring to the GCC as an organization. Additionally, at the conclusion of the dialogue, the two sides agreed to adopt a joint action plan for the period 2023-2028 in implementation of a memorandum of understanding signed by Russia and Gulf countries in November 2011 at their first joint ministerial meeting for their strategic dialogue.

The plan calls for enhancing political dialogue between the two sides, continuing regular communication among foreign ministers, senior officials and experts from the GCC countries and the Russian Federation to consistently exchange views on regional and international political issues of common interest, and monitor progress in carrying out the joint action plan.

2. Economy as a driver of relations

The need for cooperation between the Gulf and Russia after Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine was further highlighted by the vital role of both parties in the international energy system and the subsequent energy crisis which was triggered by the war impacting the entire world and European countries in particular. 

This cooperation between the two sides was clearly evident in their high-level coordination in the framework of the OPEC+ group which made decisions to reduce oil production to maintain oil prices at acceptable levels.

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum is another aspect of the focus on the economic aspects of the relations between the two sides. This became even more evident when Russia chose the United Arab Emirates as the guest of honor for the latest edition of the forum. Additionally, the Russia—the Islamic World: Kazan Summit 2021 reflects Russia's desire to expand its economic and trade partnerships to alleviate the pressures it is facing، and to have new allies to offset economic relations that were suspended with the West, European countries, over the war in Ukraine.

Total trade between Russia and the Gulf Arab countries exceeded $11 billion in 2022, a significant increase from USD 3.7 billion in 2011. This is one of the main factors that helped spare the Russian economy from severe impact from the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

Therefore, the final communique of the Russia-GCC strategic dialogue reflected a shared desire to enhance economic and trade relations by agreeing to create an environment conducive to increasing trade exchange, investment, and to the development of energy supply chains. Both sides expressed their commitment to utilizing all available opportunities and resources to achieve these goals.

3. Supporting the Gulf's role

Gulf countries have been playing various mediation roles on both regional and international levels. These include efforts to resolve crises in Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, as well as to facilitate dialogue between Iran and Arab countries and between Russia and Ukraine in prisoner-exchange agreements.

Additionally, the Russia-Gulf strategic dialogue is likely to facilitate Russia's support for these roles played by Gulf countries, especially regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war. This support could be manifested in areas such as prisoner-exchange agreements, the grain export agreement, which Russia refused to extend, as well as potential roles in conflict resolution efforts in general. The dialogue provides a platform for discussing and coordinating such matters, fostering mutual understanding, and potentially enhancing cooperation between Russia and the Gulf countries in these various roles.

In this context, it is essential not to overlook the invitation extended to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to attend the recent Arab summit hosted by Saudi Arabia. The move indicates that Gulf countries can leverage the relationships they have cultivated with international parties to facilitate their roles on both regional and international levels. This was also highlighted in the final communique of the sixth round of the strategic dialogue, where the Russian and Gulf ministers welcomed the efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in mediating to create conditions conducive to a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine that is in accordance with international law and the United Nations Charter. Both sides expressed hope that these efforts would lead to a just, comprehensive, and sustainable peace and help restore security and stability in the region. The importance of ensuring unimpeded access to global markets for food and fertilizers, as well as humanitarian assistance, was also reaffirmed in the communique as an essential way of contributing to food security in affected countries.

On the other hand, Gulf countries can create a favorable climate for Russia to play a role in some regional issues. This was evidenced by a statement made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after the dialogue. The Russian top diplomat informed the Gulf ministers about a Russian initiative to hold a consultative meeting involving Russia, the Arab League, and a group of regional countries actively involved in the Middle East. The purpose of this meeting would be to resume the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

In conclusion, the sixth round of the Russia-GCC strategic dialogue is likely to lead to the enhancement of bilateral cooperation on various levels as both sides recognize each other's strategic importance in the dynamics of the ever-shifting international balances of power. They also clearly share a desire to steer the world towards a different path of multipolarity. Perhaps choosing Doha as the venue for holding the seventh round of the strategic dialogue next year demonstrates the commitment of both parties to regularize these dialogues and play advances roles in various issues in the coming period.