On Wednesday, December 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on a trip to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, engaging in meetings with the officials of the two countries. This is marked as Putin’s first visit to Arab countries since the onset of the Ukraine war in February 2022. A prominent reason for his late trip may be that he is being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Therefore, he refrained from participating in the BRICS annual meeting in South Africa and the G20 meeting in India and sent a representative.
Putin’s visit to two important countries in the Middle East was accompanied by many side effects, including the fact that he received a warm welcome from the hosts, especially the United Arab Emirates. When Putin arrived in this country, the fighters painted the Russian flag with their smoke in the air, which in its kind was less similar to hosting a president in the Middle East. The way the United Arab Emirates (UAE) welcomed Putin even surpassed the way Riyadh welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping in December 2022, becoming the source of news. Riyadh’s hospitality to Putin was also warm and Mohammed bin Salman went to welcome him and shook his hands warmly several times.
However, during the trip that US President Joe Biden had to Riyadh in July 2022, Ibn Salman did not welcome him and avoided shaking hands with him, which later turned out to be a mockery of Donald Trump, Biden’s rival.
The question that arises is, what is Putin looking for in the Middle East by visiting the territory dominated by the United States?
To answer this question, two points are mentioned:
1- The struggle to overcome the international isolation caused by the war in Ukraine
With Russia being trapped in the war in Ukraine, the prevailing opinion was that this country is isolated with its role being erased from the table of international relations. However, Putin plans to change the circumstances by visiting Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. His main goal of this trip is to overcome isolation and reappear on the international scene. According to him, to be able to play a smart game, Putin has started moving from the area that is considered the traditional base of America: the Persian Gulf. In this context, three factors helped Moscow:
- The failure of Ukraine’s counterattack which commenced a few months ago with the support of NATO and the European Union to withdraw the occupied territories. Even though Kyiv got the necessary assistance and launched a counterattack, it did not make any tangible progress, as confirmed even by Western authorities.
- The process of allocating aid from Western countries to Ukraine has come to a standstill with the officials of the country seeming to be worried. For example, Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, stated on December 5 that if the US does not approve a new support budget for Ukraine, the country will lose to Russia. The US support budget for Ukraine ends at the end of this month, with the Republican representatives of the Congress having yet to accept the plan of Joe Biden’s government to approve the new budget. Additionally, some media have reported that the European Union may not fully pay the aid promised to Ukraine seemingly due to the existence of a difference of opinion among the members of this union.
- The war between Hamas and Israel has also provided a breathing space for Russia since the attention of countries that support Ukraine, especially the United States, is now focused on the Middle East. If the war continues, they bear a grave cost of it, with Ukraine being affected the most.
These three factors have created a space for Putin to maneuver, and by seizing the opportunity, he tries to define his country as free from isolation.
2- Warning to the United States, attracting its allies in the Middle East and trying to maintain the balance between them
Since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are strategic allies of the US, Putin’s choice of those two countries for his country seems meaningful. Saudi Arabia and the UAE chose the middle path in the Ukraine war and not only did not participate in the imposition of sanctions against Russia but also tried to strengthen trade with it. For example, it is alleged that Abu Dhabi is Moscow’s first trading partner in the Arab world, with a trade volume of nine billion dollars. These three countries are still important members of OPEC+. This organization reduced the oil production in May of the current year, which was later called “unproductive” by the United States. OPEC+ still seems determined to maintain its decision and the officials of the three countries may have discussed the matter. In a situation where the Arab world is not satisfied with the US stance on the Gaza war and the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s government has been damaged due to its unwavering support for Israel, Putin’s visit to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is not pleasing to Washington and can be interpreted in opposition to it. More importantly, Moscow supports the position of the Arab world on the Palestinian issue, having called the Gaza war a product of America’s wrong policies. However, this can also have consequences for Israel.
The warm hospitality of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to the President of Russia, who in the opinion of Western governments deserves to be arrested, shows that those two countries are not subordinate to the US in their foreign policy as it is thought. It is accurate that the US is a friend of those two countries, but they showed that they care about Russia as well and seek to maintain the balance between the two rivals.
Putin’s meeting with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi is also important since it reveals that Moscow may be seeking to replace Washington in the Middle East and wants to follow and different policy. One day after the meeting with the officials of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Putin received the President of Iran in Moscow. This shows that Russia seeks to maintain a balance between the states of the Middle East, not to be friends with one and enmity with the other. Perhaps, it was appropriate that Putin was traveling to Iran, but because this country is a friend of Russia and trusts it too much, sometimes it skips some diplomatic courtesies. The issue of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is otherwise since they are friends of Washington. It is reported that Putin was officially invited by Abu Dhabi, but not by Riyadh.
Putin has also gone to Riyadh to enable itself to maintain the balance between the two Arab countries. This is because the relationship between Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of the Emirates, and Mohammed bin Salman has recently become strained. It can be inferred that Putin intends to act beyond the borders of Russia, and the requirement for this is to satisfy all the governments of the Middle East, where the presence of America is supposed to diminish.
In brief, the purpose of Putin’s trip to the Middle East was political rather than commercial, and it was done to get out of isolation and issue a warning to America, which is stuck in the war between Ukraine and Gaza due to its support for its allies. It is unclear yet whether it manages both at the same time or abandons one for the benefit of the other.