The recent visits of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have raised the eyebrows in the region, causing observers to wonder what the Russian leader is doing in the Middle East. A senior expert has provided answers to this question.
Vladimir Putin, known as the Ice Man of Russia, recently travelled to the Persian Gulf region after 12 years with interesting gifts for the Sheikh of Emirates and the King of Saudi Arabia.
The Russian president’s visits came as Riyadh is still stuck in Yemen’s quagmire and the four-year crisis.
On the other hand, its oil facilities, which are the vital source of the country’s economy, were attacked.
The attack on Aramco was one of the reasons that aroused the curiosity that what Putin has in mind in the current situation in the region and what he wants from the Arabs of the Persian Gulf.
Is he looking for economics or information? Is he looking for security or new partners? Is he after selling oil for its own benefit, or he is after creating division or reconciliation between regional countries?
Dr Bahram Amir-Ahmadian, a Eurasia expert and professor of regional studies has reviewed these important issues in an interview with Khabar Online.
Amir-Ahmadian is a professor of political geography at University of Tehran. He is an expert in Eurasian, Caucasian, and CIS issues.
Q: Russian President Vladimir Putin came to the Persian Gulf after 12 years. Travelling to this region in the current situation was a little suspicious, raising the question that what is he pursuing? Is Putin defining a new role for Russia in the Middle East? What was the message of his trip and what is the Russian President looking for in the Persian Gulf?
A: Russia has become very active in the Middle East. The question is what the Middle East has for Russia and what Russia has to offer. Psychologically, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of hegemony cost a lot for Russia. Even failure in Afghanistan can be seen as another factor in Moscow’s activation in the Middle East. Russia is a superpower militarily, and this makes it an international player. The veto power at the UN Security Council is also one of the other issues that further enhances Russia’s role in the international system. However, in a normal situation, Russia is not strategically able to compete with the United States as the US has 10 times more military spending than Russia. Compare America’s GDP and military budget with Russia. If Russia wants to spend the same amount of money that the US allocates to its military budget, it will have to spend half of the country GDP on military spending, which is not reasonable. Therefore, we see that Russia is making weapons and bombs that are terrible or weird.
Russia has lost Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia in order to become stronger in the region, but the Middle East offers a good opportunity to Russia, but there are some obstacles. It is a good opportunity for Russia because the US no longer is there. In this regard, America is looking for a place where there is a potential enemy, which is China. During the Obama administration, the US moved to the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea becomes a matter of dispute, opening the way for Russia (to enter the ME). However, Russia has nothing but weapons to enter this region and engage with the Persian Gulf Arab states. If we also look at the Russian economy and the Arab countries’ economy, they are similar.
Russia exports both gas and oil, and 80% of its state revenues depend on exports. Russia cannot be considered an industrial country, although they are powerful in the military, aerospace, oil, and nuclear technology industries.
90% of world trade is conducted through the oceans, so Russia enters the Middle East. It can sell them weapons, but they already have purchased weapons. The world trade is based on the consumer market, but Russia has little market share. So Russia is more likely to sell weapons to Arab countries because the US may someday halt arms exports to these countries, and these countries could diversify their weapons through Russia. The construction of nuclear power plants, cooperation on silos and large ports are other opportunities that Moscow could benefit from in its relations with Arab countries.
Nevertheless, these happen only once in the sense that they are only investment warrants. Such investments cannot turn Russia into a major economic power and increase its trade volume so much.
What the Middle East gives Russia is not enough to turn it into an economic power and increase its volume of economic output. How much is the total world arms trade per year? The figure is high but Moscow’s share is small. Russia can earn $30 billion or $50 billion from the Persian Gulf arms trade! So Russia just wants to say it is still active in the world of politics, and the United States has given it that privilege. How much of Russia’s $1600 billion GDP can be achieved from arms sales?
Q: So did the attack on Aramco benefit Putin?
A: Russia enters the region; America is not there. What should Moscow do? It must definitely keep its forces there and keep up with the costs, but it does not have good feedback for Moscow. In Syria, for example, the Russians have spent money. The way for Russia’s presence was opened as of then. However, in the end, Russia’s attempt to play a superpower role is not like the Cold War era. So this situation only gives Russia a chance to expand power. Russia’s quest to be a superpower is not like the Cold War era, and if the world becomes bipolar, Russia will not be the second pole, but certainly the US is the first. Russia opposes a bipolar world and is thinking of forming a multipolar world, and in no way wants China to become a second pole.
Q: Does that mean Russia will hit China in the back?
A: Yes, because it does not want the world to become bipolar. In the present world Russia is no longer in the second place. So if it is not Russia, it shouldn’t be China either. China has its own dangers for Russia.
Why am I saying this? Some view the world as bipolar, saying that the US and China are two main poles, and China is also ahead of the US in foreign trade and is linked to more countries. However, this is not taken into account that this foreign trade volume covers a population of over one billion, while US foreign trade is only for 350 million people. On the other hand, if we consider the GDP as the cornerstone, America’s GDP which is $20 trillion, has to be divided into 350 million people, which amounts to $54,000 per person.
Regarding China, which is the world’s second-largest power, if we divide the $14 trillion GDP to 1.35 billion people, then their share is five times less than that of the United States. On the other hand, the Chinese government needs to increase trade to manage this high population, produce agricultural products, provide public education, provide public health, build roads, etc. So where should these funds come from? So it should be said that our classification is wrong to say that China is in the second place, although it may be theoretically correct. As a result, factors such as vastness and population play an important role in our calculations.
In line with the main argument, Russia’s presence in the Middle East does not make revenues for the country. Even if Russia wants to be present in the region, it has to pay, in the current situation it is not able to afford it, and therefore it has tried to replace its soft power with its hard power. To this end, they have formed the Peace Foundation (Russkiy Mir) and are working to develop it. China, on the other hand, has another foundation called Confucius, and is seeking to expand it.
They want to say that hard power is notorious and not effective. Meanwhile, when Russia occupied the Crimea, it used hard power to intimidate Europe and the Europeans imposed sanctions in response. In my opinion, this situation provided a good opportunity for Iran to persuade Europe to invest in gas, which unfortunately Iran did not use the chance. As Iran got closer to Russia, it got further away from Europe.
Q: One of the interesting things about Putin’s journey is his strange behaviour in selection of gifts that has always been focused by the media. And this time there was much fuss about it. These kinds of gifts are only given by the Russian President! What is your assessment of Putin’s gifts to regional leaders? Does he want to send a message with these gifts? We saw, for example, that he gave as a gift to the Leader of Islamic Revolution a Qur’an on his trip to Tehran, but he gave a hawk to the Saudi king, and donated a bird to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi during his trip to the UAE.
A: In the Arabian Peninsula, there are sacred places like Mecca and Medina and the Saudi King is known as responsible to take care of these holy shrines, that is, Mecca is in their control. After all, they are Sunnis and Shiites make up just 10 percent of the Muslim world, and unfortunately the most dispersed community in the world is the Muslim world. We see some of them are committing horrendous crimes, and for example, in a recent incident in Afghanistan several worshipers were killed in Nangarhar.
Unfortunately, Muslims kill each other. Russia has a symbolic view on gifts. The Russian leader gives a Qur’an to say that the Islamic world belongs to Iran. On the other hand, we see that Putin gives the King of Saudi Arabia a hawk because this bird is a symbol of domination. Putin’s move induces a dichotomy. Of course, this may be our interpretation and Putin does not have such a point of view.
Some Arabs come to Iran to get licensee to hunt their beloved bird, which is one of their traditional sports. Like polo for which a horse is needed. But when Russia enters the Muslim world, it is not good for the Muslim world. It is not good for a person to come from the Christian world and claim that he can reconcile Muslim countries. So what is the role of the OIC with 59 members? So, by examining this case, we can see that Putin wants to assert his dominance in this regard.
Q: Given your interpretation of his gifts and his foreignness in the Muslim world, then his trip to Saudi Arabia was not made to mediate? As I have understood, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are in Russia’s favour, and Putin is profiting.
A: No. Putin has a friendly relationship with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. We had a conference in London on Iran’s borders in 2005. British man spoke at that conference and used the word “Gulf”. I told him why doesn’t he use the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf? In response, he said “if we use the Persian Gulf, Arabs get upset, and if we say the Arabian Gulf, Iranians get upset. So we use Gulf.”
This is exactly like Putin’s behavior! I think Imran Khan was a great option for this because he has good relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, but what does Russia want? He cannot reconcile Muslim countries at all. For mediation, we must not let the foreigners intervene. We must choose a country from our own region. A Muslim country and a neighbour, not a Christian like Putin!
(This is the first part of the interview. You can read the second part here.)