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Putin’s Gulf Welcomes Show He’s the ‘Region’s Arbiter’

Analyst: Russian president ‘does not lecture anyone on human rights or prohibit secondary arms sales’

Moscow’s growing influence in the Middle East was on full display this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visits to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

The lavish receptions Putin received echoed those given to US President Donald Trump in 2017.

Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, told The Media Line that the Russian leader’s Gulf visits were “a long time in the making.”

“Putin has worked to position the Kremlin as the region’s arbiter, someone who can talk to all sides, be it Israel, Iran or Saudi Arabia,” Borshchevskaya said. “And Putin does not lecture anyone on human rights or prohibit secondary arms sales.”

Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that “Putin views Russia’s ties to Saudi Arabia and UAE through the dual lens of strategic alliances and economic partnerships.”

He said this includes financially enticing opportunities such as Gulf sovereign wealth funds and the burgeoning technology industries in the region.

Aron Lund, a Europe-based fellow at New York’s Century Foundation, told The Media Line that Russian influence in the Middle East increased following the Arab Spring and the war in Libya.

“The fact that the US government got behind the overthrow of [Muammar] Gaddafi in Libya was something that really triggered the Russians to get involved,” Lund said, explaining that “Russia’s reasons to be involved in the Middle East, combined with its changing position on the global stage, have a lot to do with the United States.”

He explained that after Russia’s 2015 intervention in the Syrian conflict, other countries began to see Moscow as playing “a critical role in the region” by defending its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Russia got more and more involved as it saw that the US, first under president [Barack] Obama and now under President [Donald] Trump, wouldn’t go to the lengths necessary to get rid of Assad, which would have taken a considerably larger investment in the insurgency or even direct military involvement,” Lund said.

“Moscow,” he went on, “feels like it is doing something it has to do, but also feels [that] what it is doing is working. The Americans are just stumbling around, and Russia feels that [it] can actually win this. Russia came out of the Syria debacle stronger than before – unlike pretty much everyone else who got involved.”

Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia, told The Media Line that the Jewish state was “not overly concerned” by Moscow’s growing regional influence.

“Israel has a lot of other problems in the Middle East that are relatively [more crucial], like Iran,” he said, adding that the Israelis and Russians were being cautious in dealing with each other.

“While Putin backs the Assad regime in Syria – an enemy of the Jewish state – Israel has the capability to destroy Russian military bases in Syria. And the Russian effort to counter Iranian influence in Damascus is in Israel’s interest,” he explained.

Magen believes that countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia “do not necessarily view the US as a less reliable ally,” although they see “an additional partner or even protector” in Russia.

“These [Gulf] countries are wary of Iranian aggression, and Russian involvement makes the conflict more global,” he said.

“Russia is another actor – in addition to the US, and not instead of,” he continued. “Saudi Arabia and the UAE see it as good to build a relationship with another major player on the global stage. It’s not a question of who is more reliable; it’s a matter of having another partner.”

Mogielnicki, however, disagrees.

“Gulf Arab governments perceive the US as an increasingly unreliable and unpredictable actor in the Middle East, especially following its non-response to the attack on the… Aramco facilities,” he said, referring to the temporarily crippling September 14 aerial attacks on two Saudi oil facilities that have been blamed on Iran.