Elena Suponina, Advisor to the Director, expert on the Middle East and international affairs

The Strategic Dialogue of Russia and the Gulf – was the main point of informative speech delivered by Dr Elena Suponina at the First Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, held from 18-20 October at Emirates and organized by Emirates Policy Center (the President – Dr Ebtesam Al-Ketbi).

The primary goal of this conference was to bring together experts in the field of foreign policy from around the world in an open dialogue, to discuss the security issues facing Middle East and Gulf region, and to develop possible strategies.      

Ladies and Gentlemen, please allow me to express my thanks to the organizers of this conference and congratulate them on the start of their important work. This is a good opportunity to exchange views about events in the region and offer forecasts. The immediate future, however, is alarming.

There is a general impression that problems in the Middle East will grow and spread beyond the region. And here it’s important, following Noah’s example, not to predict the flood as it is, but rather to build an Ark to help each other in this fast moving current of instability. Meetings such as this are exactly the kind of material needed for such an Ark. There is no other way but to stand together against shared threats, to promote dialogue, and to expand networks along socio-academic and government lines.

Dialogue and cooperation between Russia and the Persian Gulf serve exactly that purpose. In two weeks’ time, on 1 November, it will be three years since the beginning of the Strategic Dialogue between Russia and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC). The first meeting in that dialogue at the level of foreign ministries was in Abu Dhabi on 1 November 2011. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov then held talks with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Emirates’ Foreign Minister. The Ministers met recently – in September this year, during the General Assembly session in New York. They discussed bilateral cooperation and how to confront the “Islamic State” and similar extremists together.

As one of the first countries to be faced with the threat of terrorism masquerading behind religious slogans, Russia is acutely aware of the need to come together in the fight against this evil. This summer Moscow responded quicker than others to the request of the Iraqi Government to stop the advance of the militants. And while the Americans were thinking how to respond, Iraqi authorities received planes and other Russian manufactured equipment. The main thing is that it was done quickly and in a timely manner. As the Russian saying goes, “a spoon is dear when lunch is near”.

However, Russia would not like to see the fight against terrorism become a pretext for other purposes, for example in Syria. Russia and many Arab Gulf countries differed in their estimates of developments in Syria. There was a nervous atmosphere in Riyadh in November 2013 at the second meeting of the Strategic Dialogue between Russia and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf.

As a result, there was no meeting of the Strategic Dialogue in 2013. And that was wrong. Differences should not obstruct the prospect of developing relations between Russia and the Arab countries of the Gulf. Moreover, there is mutual understanding on many other issues. Even during the most acute differences of opinion the Arab States accorded continued to accord Russia’s experience in international relations the same weight and respect.

To give but one example, in April 2013, I happened to speak with the President of Yemen, Abder-Rabbo Mansur Al-Hadi, during his visit to Moscow. And the first words he spoke were words of appreciation for Russia, for the support she gave in the autumn of 2011 for the initiative of the Arab monarchies in relation to the peaceful transfer of power in Yemen. Importantly, this was also confirmed by several UN Security Council resolutions, which were adopted unanimously.

Fortunately, the meeting of the Strategic Dialogue between Russia and the GCC has resumed, and the third round was held in Kuwait in February this year.

It is also essential that operations to combat terrorism comply with the norms of international law. There must be close coordination between all the players in the region who should resolve all contentious issues between them in a peaceful manner.

The Concept for ensuring security in the Persian Gulf, launched by Russia in the late 1990s and updated in 2004, is based upon these principles. Moscow even proposed establishing an Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf akin to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe set up in the mid-70s. Russia, the European Union, the United States and other states could join this new organization as observers.

It is difficult to see how the main problems of the region can be solved without the participation of Iran. In recent years the Emirates, in particular, have steadily featured among Iran’s ten major trade partners. The Emirates are also among the five major importers of non-oil products from Iran, along with Iraq, China, India, and Afghanistan.

So the Emirates, despite a number of problems with Iran, should, more than any of their neighbors, be closest to the Russian idea of a gradual easing of economic sanctions on Iran as its nuclear program is controlled. Russia supports the easing of relations between Iran and its Arab neighbours in the Gulf. An important step was a meeting in New York at the UN General Assembly between the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Another major issue that cannot be solved without the cooperation of Iran and the Arab countries is Palestine. Radical changes in the Arab world over the past three years have wrongly pushed the issue onto the the back burner. This is a big mistake. There will be no stability in the Middle East without resolving the issue of Palestine.

Agreement on this and many other issues will allow Russia and the Gulf countries to enhance cooperation. In the meantime, the economic potential is not being realized. In 2013 the trade turnover between Russia and the countries of the GCC amounted to $3.650 billion, not including military-technical cooperation.

It is pleasing to note that the Emirates lead in this regard – last year the trade turnover between our countries rose above $2.5 billion for the first time. There are also billions of investments through private equity funds. It is possible that Gulf countries will invest in Russia in connection with the 2018 World Cup.

Clearly, these figures are not comparable with the tens of billions of dollars of trade between Arab countries and China or the United States. And this, of course, must be remedied. I must note that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, under the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin, generally paid little attention to the Arab East.

In Soviet times, interest in the region either had largely ideological overtones or was associated with more global challenges on the international scene. But the revival of a real pragmatic interest only began about 10 years ago. 

Until 2007, for example, no Russian leader had ever visited an Arab monarchy. The breakthrough happened in the first half of February 2007 when President Vladimir Putin visited three countries: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan. As I was one of the analysts accompanying the president on this visit, I can say that relations had to be built almost from scratch. The first visit by a Russian President to the Emirates took place in September that year. 

Since then, much has been done, although revolutionary events in the Middle East have somewhat delayed these plans. Today, we see a desire to work together on both sides. And if the political will is present, it means we have a chance to do much more. I hope we take advantage of this chance.