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October 11, 2019

Putin Presses Gulf Advantage with Saudi Visit

Saudi Arabia is again showing Washington what a great ally it is by hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin on a visit to Riyadh in the coming days.

The U.S. government’s years of plying Saudi and the other Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states with weapons, with political support, and with a blind eye towards their horrific human rights abuses, has been rewarded with this - the Gulf monarchs playing both sides, and getting increasingly closer to the Kremlin.

Washington’s long reluctance to criticize Saudi’s terrible human rights record has backfired, encouraging the Gulf to increase its repression. Successive administrations have chosen to avoid confrontation with Riyadh over rights, sending an appalling signal to the dictators in the region and elsewhere.  In a two-hour meeting with the Saudi King on 2014 President Barack Obama didn’t discuss human rights; it was one of the issues they just “didn’t get to,” said a White House spokesperson at the time.

President Donald Trump told Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman a few months ago that he was doing “spectacular job.” And to be fair, the young prince is doing a spectacular job in jailing women’s rights activists and other dissidents. And then there’s last year's murder of journalist and U.S. permanent legal resident Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

A few weeks after the killing - a premeditated extrajudicial execution ordered by the Saudi government, says a UN report, for which the crown prince should be investigated - MBS was high-fiving Putin at a G20 meeting in Argentina. The Russian government declined to criticize the Saudi authorities over the killing, and over the last year has made steady progress in offering itself as a new, reliable friend. The GCC countries, meanwhile, look increasingly unreliable allies for Washington.

In 2017 Saudi’s King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to visit Russia, when Putin hosted him for talks at the Kremlin. The trip led to Saudi buying Russian anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles and rocket launchers.

Bahrain’s King Hamad visited Russia twice in 2016, as his government struck arms deals with Russia arms exporter Rosoboronexport.

That year too the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced it was to buy missiles and Sukhoi fighters from Russia, as well as to jointly develop a light combat fighter jet. In 2018  Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the UAE, signed a Declaration of Strategic Partnership with Putin on a visit to Russia. In June Russia opened its first big tech centre in the middle east, in Dubai. Projects include developing facial recognition technology, a serious worry for human rights activists, as the UAE already has an abysmal record of targeting its civil society.

And last year Bahrain’s local press excitedly reported that its first astronaut will join those from the UAE in being trained by Russia. It also reports that Putin will also visit the tiny island kingdom “in the near future,” presumably during the October trip.

The Kremlin is impressively managing to play both sides of the current GCC infighting (between Qatar on one hand and the others - Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other). In March this year, Qatar said it was studying a deal to  buy Russia’s S-400 missile air defense system, adding that the deal “was none of Riyadh’s business.”

At the end of June Russia and Saudi agreed to extend by six to nine months a deal to restrict  oil output to combat a fall in oil prices.

The U.S. military is heavily invested in the Gulf, with tens of thousands of American personnel scattered across various naval and air bases. Bahrain is home to America’s Fifth Fleet, and is - with Kuwait - officially designated by the US government as a Major Non-NATO ally. And with tensions between Tehran and Washington escalating, the Trump administration announced in July it would send another 500 troops to Saudi Arabia.

But however desperate Washington is to be friends with the Gulf dictators it clearly can’t rely on their loyalty. The GCC has made Washington look weak, as U.S. officials have failed to figure out how to use their leverage. Over the last fours years, Saudi has become the world’s biggest arms importer, with about 70 percent of that market from the U.S., but it has humiliated its partners in the Pentagon with its conduct of the war in Yemen, and its increasingly intense partnership with Putin.

Washington is stuck in an unworkable, abusive relationship with the GCC dictators, who use its weapons to commit human rights violations, ignore even the muted criticism of their right records, and refuse to reform.

The sands are shifting fast, with some experts predicting a rethink in Russia’s security architecture in the Gulf, with increasing Kremlin influence.

The argument that the U.S. needs to withhold criticism from the Gulf states in case that drives them into the arms of Russia is clearly outdated and false - they’re voluntarily running full tilt towards Putin anyway, and if that isn’t causing the palpitations in Washington it should, the latest large-scale survey of youth attitudes in the GCC are cause for extra stress.

The  2018 Annual Arab Youth Survey measured the views thousands of Arab men and women aged 18-24. It found that despite Russia's strong alliance with Iran and its part in the Syrian war,  young Arabs in the Gulf only see Washington as a stronger ally than Moscow by a few percentage points (45 percent to 38 percent). 

Perhaps if Washington began to speak out more clearly, and take action, against their repressive rulers young Arabs would respect the U.S. more. Putin’s visit and growing Kremlin influence in the subregion is an indictment of U.S. policy towards the Gulf over many years. It’s not too late to change it, starting with some long overdue statements on human rights, and spelling out consequences for the future relationship if drastic improvements are made. Continuing silence on these issues makes the U.S. look ineffective and weak, and opens more opportunities for the Kremlin.