Putin’s Surprise Middle East Trip: Deciphering its Regional Significance

The political dynamics in the Middle East witnessed a significant turn of events when the Russian president made an unexpected visit. Despite its brevity, the trip holds significance in the context of contemporary global politics. As the Western powers, particularly the USA, are actively engaging in the region, this visit signifies a heightened level of tension and a potential divergence in geopolitical dynamics.

Accompanied by four fighter jets, Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on a single-day whirlwind tour to the Middle East, which included visits to Saudi Arabia and a brief stop in the United Arab Emirates. On December 6, Putin arrived in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital. The Russian president received a ceremonial welcome at the presidential palace, marked by a 21-gun salute and a display of UAE military jets emitting smoke in the colors of the Russian flag. During the visit, the President of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, referred to Putin as his “dear friend” and expressed happiness at their reunion. Subsequently, Sheikh Mohammed released a statement outlining their discussions, emphasizing the importance of reinforcing dialogue and collaboration to promote stability and progress.

The Russian leader reiterated these sentiments, stating, “Our relations, largely thanks to your stance, have reached an unprecedentedly high level,” and he acknowledged the UAE as Russia’s primary trading partner in the Arab world. This meeting aligns with Russia’s efforts to establish a more influential presence in the Middle East, with a focus on oil cooperation and discussions related to the Israel-Hamas conflict. Among the topics explored by the two leaders were bilateral collaboration in the energy sector and advancements in technology, as reported by Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency.

Notably, between 2017 and 2022, the trade volume between Russia and the UAE has surged nearly sixfold. In 2022, the overall trade spiked by almost 68%, totaling US$9 billion. Within this figure, Russian exports to the UAE amounted to US$8.5 billion, reflecting a 71% increase. Concurrently, UAE exports grew by 6%, reaching US$0.5 billion. The UAE stands as Russia’s 12th most significant trading partner and holds the top position among Middle Eastern countries. Furthermore, the UAE claims the title of Russia’s primary trading partner in the Gulf States. Comprising 55% of Russia’s total trade with the Persian Gulf and 90% within the Gulf Region, the UAE plays a pivotal role. Diamonds take center stage among Russia’s exports, aligning with the UAE’s status as a major global diamond processing hub. Notably, precious stones and gold constituted nearly 40% of Russia’s total exports to the UAE in 2022. The shift in trade focus from the West to Asia has led to distinct developments in Russia-UAE trade relations. Despite being a significant oil producer, the UAE imported around 3.2 million barrels of Russian oil in 2022, intended for re-export to other nations. However, this quantity remains a small fraction compared to Russia’s overall oil export volume of 242 million tons in 2022.

Putin then traveled to Riyadh, where he had a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud – their first direct encounter since October 2019. They have called upon all OPEC+ nations to participate in the group’s consensus on reducing production, asserting that such cooperation aligns with the well-being of the worldwide economy. In initial statements broadcasted on Russian television, Putin expressed gratitude to the crown prince for the invitation, mentioning that the original plan was for MBS to visit Moscow, but plans changed. He anticipated their next meeting in Moscow, emphasizing that nothing would hinder the advancement of their amicable relations. Putin’s discussion with the Saudi crown prince occurred amid a decline in oil prices, despite OPEC+ (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and its allies, including Russia, pledging to further curtail output.

Of particular significance is, approximately 70% of Russia’s exports to Saudi Arabia consisted of cereals. In 2022, there was a 70% surge in Russian beef exports and a 98% increase in poultry meat exports to the Saudi market compared to 2021. Russia also exports rice, milk powder, corn, confectionery, and flour. This positive trend continued into 2023, with the volume of agricultural and food product exports between Russia and Saudi Arabia doubling from January to April. The anticipated potential for cheese exports from Russia to Saudi Arabia is reported to be around US$5 million per year, as indicated in the review by Russia’s Ministry of Agriculture’s Federal Center “Agroexport.” Notably, in 2021, Saudi Arabia imported a total of US$72.7 million worth of cheese from Russia. An interesting development stemming from the Ukraine conflict and the subsequent sanctions on Russia is the increased demand from Saudi Arabia for Russian fertilizers for both domestic use and re-export. Similarly, there has been growth in their oil trade. For instance, throughout 2022, Russia elevated the supply of diesel and fuel oil by US$250 million. As a major oil producer, Saudi Arabia purchases oil products from Russia at a discounted rate and re-exports this oil to global markets. In April 2023, Saudi Arabia imported 330,000 barrels per day of oil from Russia, and in June, the Kingdom set a record by importing 910,000 metric tons (193,000 barrels per day) of fuel oil. 

On Dec. 7, President Putin met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow. Putin has hinted that Moscow may act as a mediator in the protracted Israeli-Palestinian dispute and has painted the Israel-Hamas battle in Gaza as a failure of US diplomacy. Raisi stressed that “What is happening in Palestine and Gaza is, of course, genocide and a crime against humanity.” “It’s not just a regional issue, it’s an issue for the entire humankind”. He also delineated that “it’s necessary to find a quick solution.” Subsequently, the UAE will receive Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday and Saturday. This uncommon visit by Putin marks his first trip to the region since July 2022, when he held talks with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran.

The Russian leader has undertaken limited international travel since an arrest warrant was issued for him by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in March. The ICC accused him of deporting Ukrainian children. Notably, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, having not signed the ICC’s founding treaty, are not bound to apprehend him should he enter their territories.

Regarding Israel’s two-month bombardment of the blockaded Gaza Strip, Putin has criticized the conflict as a breakdown of United States diplomacy. He has proposed that Moscow could potentially act as a mediator given its amicable relations with both Israel and the Palestinians. Putin’s visit to the Middle East is also a component of his endeavors to illustrate that Western efforts to isolate Moscow through sanctions for its involvement in the Ukraine conflict have been ineffective.

What is the Message for the Region?

During November, the People’s Bank of China and the Saudi Central Bank inked a local currency swap deal valued at 50 billion yuan ($6.93 billion) or 26 billion Saudi riyals. This agreement reflects the ongoing momentum in bilateral relations between the two countries. This is evident whether viewed as a. bypassing the dollar or b. bolstering BRICS. However, in both scenarios, the West is apprehensive about losing control over the region. Considering the current global political landscape, it is evident that China and Russia share a strong understanding concerning policies related to the West, particularly the USA.

Oil prices experienced little change on December 5 due to uncertainties surrounding voluntary output cuts by OPEC+, ongoing tensions in the Middle East, and weak economic data from the U.S. Brent crude futures slightly decreased by 1 cent to $78.02 a barrel, while U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures increased by 5 cents to $73.09 a barrel as of 0402 GMT. Kelvin Wong, a senior market analyst for Asia Pacific at OANDA, mentioned that comments from Saudi Arabia’s energy minister about the possibility of extending OPEC+ production cuts beyond the first quarter of 2024 provided some support to the market. In the previous trading session, oil prices had declined as traders doubted the significant impact of supply cuts by OPEC+ and a stronger U.S. dollar, which generally makes oil more expensive for holders of other currencies, potentially dampening oil demand. On December 5, OPEC and its allies, collectively known as OPEC+, agreed to voluntary output cuts totaling about 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd) for the first quarter of 2024. Saudi Arabia led this agreement by rolling over its current voluntary cut. However, at least 1.3 million bpd of those cuts were an extension of voluntary curbs that Saudi Arabia and Russia already had in place. The resumption of fighting in the Israel-Hamas war and attacks on three commercial vessels in international waters in the southern Red Sea raised concerns about oil supply. These incidents followed a series of attacks in Middle Eastern waters since the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas on October 7. Additionally, data revealed that U.S. factory orders fell more than analysts expected in October, marking the most significant decline in over three years. This contributed to a dampened sentiment in the oil market, reinforcing the view that high-interest rates are beginning to limit spending. So the visit indicates solidarity with the OPEC+ members as well.

The recent reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran brokered by China is also a source of concern for the West, and this visit will add another layer of tension to the understanding between China and Russia. For the issue of Gaza, the tension between the USA and Iran is again on the rise and the Russian president’s visit may fill the strategic gap here.

The Middle East may find support from Russia on the issue of Gaza. The alignment of Russia’s views with those of the Middle East, particularly concerning Gaza, suggests a potential source of support and collaboration. This shared perspective indicates that Russia may play a role in advocating for the concerns and interests of the Middle East on the global stage, potentially challenging the narrative and influence of other geopolitical players. The ongoing engagement between Russia and the Middle East implies a willingness to address shared challenges and collaborate on matters of mutual importance, such as the situation in Gaza.

This visit further highlighted that Russian authorities do not appear to view Western sanctions with great severity, signaling a resilience against the imposed restrictions. It also emphasized Russia’s ability to cultivate alliances and partnerships in various regions, providing them with support in navigating and mitigating the impact of sanctions.

The visit also comes against the backdrop of Western sanctions, and these diplomatic engagements may be interpreted as Russia’s attempt to navigate global geopolitics outside the confines of the Western-led order. Views on Russia’s role in various regions may differ, with some perceiving these efforts as part of a multipolar approach, while others might see them as confrontational.

The aftermath of these diplomatic maneuvers remains uncertain, leaving a veil of anticipation over the region’s geopolitical landscape. The complexities of international relations, influenced by competing interests and historical tensions, make predicting the precise outcomes challenging. However, a prevailing certainty is the likelihood of increased tensions soon. The ripple effects of these diplomatic engagements are poised to reverberate across the region, impacting alliances, and power dynamics, and potentially reshaping the geopolitical contours. The actions of global powers often unfold unpredictably, introducing an element of suspense into the evolving narrative of regional relations.

[Photo by Kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs. He was a Research Assistant at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and International Republican Institute (IRI). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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