Recent events in the Persian Gulf have shattered the perennially false myth that somehow Russia was working with Iran and Syria to foment a so-called ‘Shi’a Crescent’ in the Middle East.
This was never true as Russia, in addition to being allies with Shi’a Iran and multi-denominational Syria, always had either normal or good relations with Sunni majority countries in the Arab world including Egypt, Libya, Palestine and the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
Recent events in the Persian Gulf have enhanced Russia’s standing in the region without having any negative implications for Russia. The Qatar crisis has elevated Russia’s position as a genuinely neutral arbiter in this respect. Qatar’s Foreign Minister recently praised Russia as the “main player on the international arena”.
These words from Qatar haven’t however hindered Russia’s surprisingly good relations with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi King Salman is preparing for his first ever visit to Russia. Not only is this Salman’s first visit to Moscow but it will be the first for any Saudi head of state.
Saudi’s ambassador to Moscow Abdulaziz Al Saud has spoken warmly of his thoughts on the forthcoming visit,
“Any visit of such a high level requires tremendous preparation, given that this is the first visit of the King to Russia. It will be a historic visit that will lay the foundation for strategic relations with Russia and open broad prospects for cooperation in all fields. In this regard, we are continuing to coordinate efforts with our Russian friends”.
This deeply positive statement affirms that unlike Turkey which has sided with Qatar in overtly ideological terms, Russia’s genuine neutrality is respected by Riyadh. Beyond this however, is an even more crucial fact. Because Saudi Arabia and Russia (from its position outside of OPEC) are both global energy suppliers, Saudi Arabia may ultimately need Russia more than it needs its traditional American ally. This is especially true as under Donald Trump, the US is making strides in becoming energy independent. While American energy is still expensive by global standards, Trump has affirmed that he seeks to remake America from an energy importer into an exporter.
While Russia remains close with Saudi’s regional foe Iran, Russia’s position of having pragmatic relations with all countries on a materially case by case basis rather than an ideological one, has put Russia in a unique position to cultivate friends and partners at various levels without making enemies along the way.
This is one of the primary reasons that Russia’s role in the Middle East has become one of increased prestige while America’s super-power status in the region has been visibly downgraded.