Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to the Middle East – and the 21-gun salute welcome he received there – shows the failure of Washington’s consistent attempts to ‘isolate’ and defeat Russia. The visit also points to the Middle East’s increasing shift away from, and sole reliance on, Washington. Ever since the beginning of the Gaza War on October 7, the Middle East has been keeping contact with China, rather than the US, its first priority. The reason for this is not simply the fact that the US is supporting, militarily and diplomatically, Israel against Palestine, but also because the Middle East is strategically realigning itself with the realities of what is increasingly – and undeniably – a multipolar world. To the extent that the Middle East, a region where the US remained the most dominant extra-regional force for many decades, has made this shift also reflects the ongoing demise of US dominance more generally in the world. To the extent that China and Russia are two major proponents of multipolarity, connect the dots of this anti-US but pro-China and pro-Russia shift.
Putin’s trip to the UAE and Saudi Arabia has many dimensions. One of these dimensions is bilateral. Between 2017-2022, the trade turnover between Russia and the UAE has grown by almost six times. In 2022, the overall trade increased by almost 68% amounting to US$9 billion. The UAE is Russia’s largest trading partner in the Gulf Region, accounting for 55% of Russia’s total trade with the Persian Gulf and 90%.
It, therefore, makes sense for Washington to pressure the UAE government to drastically limit their trade ties with Moscow. Earlier in September, several Western officials from the United Kingdom, EU and US visited the UAE to persuade the UAE to review its trade ties with Russia. Western officials have been assuming that, in the wake of the threats of the Israel-Gaza war spreading to other parts of the Middle East, the UAE would go back to its ultimate security guarantor: the US. This would, however, happen only if the UAE has good ties with the US. Good ties, under the present context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, mean the UAE ending its trade ties with Russia, especially the ones that may have military implications.
The UAE has been resisting these pressures. In fact, its decision to welcome Putin himself means that the UAE is considering an alternative means of protecting itself in the wake of a wider war in the region. It is ensuring Russian (and Chinese support), and it is using this (possible) source of support to send a message to Washington, i.e., multiple options are possible in a multipolar world. The message is quite similar to the message that the Saudis have been giving to the Americans since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine military conflict.
If the Americans have been doing their best to convince the Saudis to break out of the OPEC+ deal and increase the production of oil to help reduce its prices and consequently help control the inflation in the West, the Saudis have not submitted. In this context, Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia sought to reinforce the ‘oil alliance’ – which is also a major dimension of Russia-Saudi bilateral ties – at a time when the burden of wars (supporting Ukraine plus Israel) on the West is increasing manifold. For Putin, an appropriate message to the Middle East in particular and the Global South in general is this: the West supports aggression against all states, regardless of whether it is Russia or Palestine, and it expects other states (e.g., the Middle East) to support that aggression.
Russia understands that the West is fighting two wars, and it does not have any narrative to justify them both simultaneously. As even the US-based Carnegie Endowment said in one of its recent reports, “Washington’s pro-Israel stance undermines the legitimacy of the West’s broader reasons for supporting Ukraine in the eyes of many in the Global South. The moral argument against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now looks like empty words, particularly in Middle East nations”. In this sense, the timing of Putin’s visit was far from coincidental. It aimed to tap into the opportunity to wean powerful states in the Middle East, who are also keen to expand ties with the non-Western world via BRICS, away from the US as much as possible.
Therefore, the purpose of Putin’s visit, as some Western media analysed and sought to trivialise, was not simply to “discuss” the Gaza war. It was part of Moscow’s wider outreach to the Middle East at an appropriate time to reorient the Middle East’s strategic priorities. Soon after coming back, Putin hosted Iran’s president in Moscow to build on the success of his visit and deepen Russia’s foothold in the region, a region that allows Russia to fight the West in the economic field by, for instance, coordinating the production of oil.
Still, the Gaza war was discussed. But that discussion was underpinned by the strategic failure of Washington’s plans to create a new Middle East. The failure of the US in the Middle East becomes yet another opportunity for Moscow to present itself as a potential peace broker rather than, unlike the US, a troublemaker. If it was simply a war of narratives, Russia (and China) are clearly winning it in the Middle East.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.