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Russian foreign minister’s visit aimed at challenging US influence in Gulf

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent visit to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar came amid uncertainty among these states about their future relations with the new US administration.
Sergey Lavrov, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Mevlut Cavusoglu

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on March 9-11 took place against the backdrop of uncertainty among these states about their future relations with the new US administration, which is rethinking many of President Donald Trump's approaches to Middle East affairs. Amid this context, Moscow is seeking to remind the leading Arab monarchies of its readiness to fill the possible "void" that could arise if their ties with Washington stagnate, both in the security sphere and in the military-technical and military-political spheres.

On the other hand, Moscow demonstrated — especially to Saudi Arabia and the UAE — its adherence to the course of taking into account their interests in the region and focusing on promoting joint economic programs. Russia also made it clear that the basis of its partnership with Ankara, the main regional rival of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, is not common geopolitical interests, but above all mutual benefit. Such interaction will last as long as the parties can receive dividends from it. Thus Russia will also consider any forms of strengthening ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which could compete with Russian-Turkish projects in importance.

This is probably why Lavrov's visit to Saudi Arabia coincided with the televised broadcast (with the participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) of the opening of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant March 10, built by Russian specialists in Turkey. Russia is offering the Gulf countries the chance to develop their own nuclear energy with the help of the Russian monopoly Rosatom, as Ankara has already done. In addition, Moscow, which has delivered its S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems to Turkey, has also repeatedly made it clear to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that if they are interested it is ready to sell these systems to them.

At the same time, while Lavrov's visit to Saudi Arabia was generally without incident and was largely a matter of “protocol," the visit by the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry to Abu Dhabi can be viewed as a landmark event — primarily relating to the Syrian track of Russian foreign policy.

In particular, following talks with Lavrov, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said he advocates the gradual return of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League. He did note, however, that this will also require efforts both from the Syrian side and from the members of the Arab League. Most importantly, the UAE foreign minister disagreed with the American approach to Damascus. He called the Caesar Act and sanctions against Damascus "a big obstacle" to coordination and cooperation with Syria, which the UAE would like to develop. The UAE has already restored diplomatic ties with Syria.

Such statements from the UAE have confirmed the importance of Abu Dhabi as a key partner of Moscow in the Middle East. We should probably expect further steps by Russia and the Emirates to overcome or bypass the sanctions against Syria. Russia would like to attract Emirati funding to restore the destroyed Syrian economy and the country's infrastructure.

In particular, Russia and the UAE could use the "Kurdish factor" in Syria to create "offshore" zones. We are talking about northeastern Syria, which is under the control of the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Abu Dhabi has fairly close ties with these formations, as does Russia, which acts as a mediator in the negotiations between the Kurds and the Assad regime. This is not to mention that Russian and Syrian troops (along with American ones) are also stationed in areas under the auspices of the SDF on the basis of the Sochi memorandum. At the same time, some cities (such as Qamishli) are under the mixed control of government forces and Kurds. This creates an opportunity for the creation of "gray zones" in these areas where Emirati companies could operate without falling under the Caesar Act, and their funds and services could also be used in Damascus.

Another such "zone" could be southern Syria, where the forces of the "reconciled opposition" are still operating; part of this became part of the pro-Russian Syrian 5th Corps. Many opposition fighters from these regions also have ties to the UAE, which supported them during the conflict and helped reach reconciliation agreements with the Russian military and the Assad regime. Therefore, the creation of a special zone in southern Syria, from which it would be possible to oust the pro-Iranian formations and where the main role would remain with the reconciled opposition, would be in the interests of Israel's security, and thus would not provoke opposition from the United States regarding the placement of UAE investments there.

In general, Lavrov's visit to the UAE confirmed that the two countries have similar assessments of the situation in the Middle East. Apart from Syria, the positions of Moscow and Abu Dhabi are also close in the Libyan case. Here it is enough to mention the increasingly frequent reports of the UAE possibly financing Russian private military companies in Libya. Russia also perceives the UAE as an important element in countering radical Islamism and terrorism in the region. Therefore, the expansion of the military presence of the armed forces of the Emirates and the creation of a network of UAE military bases in the countries of the region is positively perceived by the Russian side.

At the same time, the results of Lavrov's talks in Qatar also deserve close attention. Here, Russian diplomacy has shown its ability to "sit on several chairs" and after the breakthrough statements of the UAE on Syria, it has found something to offer to the main competitors of the Emirates for influence in the region — namely Qatar and Turkey.

For example, a regular trilateral meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Qatar took place in Doha, at which it was decided to give these contacts a regular character and create another "triple" format for the Syrian settlement of these states. Although the Syrian "troika" of Moscow-Ankara-Doha will act only at the level of heads of foreign affairs agencies, and not heads of state as occurs with the Astana 1"trio" of Moscow-Ankara-Tehran, there is still a wide area here to fill such interaction with practical content.

According to Lavrov, trilateral consultations between Russia, Qatar and Turkey on a Syrian settlement do not replace work in the Astana format, but rather supplement it.

“This format (Russia-Qatar-Turkey) has existed for over a year. Our representatives met at least three times to exchange views on how to help resolve the Syrian crisis in accordance with [UN Security Council] Resolution 2254. And, of course, it does not in any way replace the Astana format, it complements it,” Lavrov said during his visit.

Perhaps the most promising area of ​​work of this "troika" could be providing assistance to Syrian refugees, which was also the focus of the talks. Specifically, it would be in Turkey's interests to attract Qatari funds to build infrastructure for Syrian internally displaced persons in Idlib, Afrin and in the zone of Turkey's Operation Peace Spring. It would also allow some of the Syrian refugees in Turkey itself to be returned to these territories. At the same time, Moscow — although it declares the need to return all of Syria to the Damascus government as soon as possible — does not really object to supporting Syrian internally displaced persons in opposition-held regions. In response, the Russian side would like part of the funds to be redirected to areas controlled by the Syrian regime, so that conditions there could be created for the return of Syrian refugees, primarily from Lebanon and Jordan.

In addition, the creation of such a format is also a certain signal to Tehran, whose participation in the "Astana troika" has become an empty formality.

Also during Lavrov's visit to Doha, attention was paid to the development of Qatari-Russian economic ties. Qatar is a significant investor in the Russian economy. It is important for Russia that the investments of the Qatari sovereign fund are directed not only to the oil production sector (Rosneft corporation), but also to transport, logistics (Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg), agriculture and retail chains, etc. Moscow is interested in building up such cooperation.

Yet the Syrian agenda still prevails in Russian officials’ meetings with representatives of the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Without the "Syrian case" of common interests, Moscow and the Gulf capitals would have much less in common. Russian diplomacy thus needs to continue its efforts to eventually free its Middle East agenda from the "shackles" of the Syrian campaign; otherwise the importance of Russia as a regional player will decline. Moreover, under such conditions, there can be no question of trying to compete with the United States for influence in the region.

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