Russia, Qatar explore partnership potential

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Article Summary
Qatar and Russia both stand to benefit in the Middle East from closer relations: Russia needs Arab street cred and Qatar needs all the friends it can get.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week in Moscow, and though the event didn't produce any major breakthroughs, its political importance shouldn't be underestimated.

Part of Qatar's motivation for friendship is the price it's had to pay for its falling out, subsequent embargo and basically total breach in relations with its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council — mainly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

For Moscow, this visit demonstrated its even-handed approach to both sides in the regional conflict — as Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud visited Russia in the fall — and, Russia hopes, strengthened its standing with Arab countries.

Qatar aims to continue its course to diversify foreign relations adopted after the onset of the crisis. The embargo gives Doha reason to deepen its contacts with Moscow, both because of Washington's ambivalent position during Qatar's breach with its neighbors, and because of Qatar's general intent to normalize relations with Iran and also strengthen the strategic alliance with Turkey — Russia's two partners in the Syrian resolution process. Those circumstances also made Qatar revise its own positions on the Syrian conflict, some of which Tamim and Putin discussed.

Undoubtedly, the emir's visit is crucial for Moscow, considering the renewed, full-fledged fighting in Syria and the pressure the West is exerting on Moscow since the March 4 poisoning in Britain of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent.

The Arab world finds Russia's position on Syria suspect. Instead of Russia delivering on its promises to take the resolution process to a new level, Syria is suffering from escalated fighting accompanied by accusations toward President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its allies — including Russia — of killing numerous civilians in eastern Ghouta. 

So Tamim's visit, taking place while the military operation in the Damascus suburbs is still raging, might help to somewhat counter the perception that Arab and Islamic countries doubt Russia and are no longer cooperating with Moscow because of it. Moreover, the emir's trip to Russia could demonstrate that Qatar, consistently confronting Assad's regime and supporting the opposition since the onset of the Syrian conflict, still trusts Russia as a guarantor of conflict resolution and relies on the peace process revival.

At the same time, however, the eastern Ghouta events are very likely to hurt Moscow's relations with some countries of the region — for instance, Saudi Arabia. Before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the United States last week, he said he includes Russia's sometime-allies Turkey and Iran in the "evil triangle" along with Qatar. Doha, for its part, may try to seize the initiative from Saudi Arabia and start to play an active role in the Syrian resolution process, including by developing of a closer dialogue with Moscow.

It appears Qatar and Turkey have already influenced Ahrar al-Sham and Failaq al-Rahman, the opposition factions in eastern Ghouta that were receiving military support from Doha. As a result of this influence, the groups agreed to stop their resistance, leave eastern Ghouta and move to rebel-controlled areas of the greater Idlib area. However, the largest militant group in the area, Jaish al-Islam, which controls the city of Douma and is affiliated with Saudi Arabia, refuses to withdraw from the suburbs of Damascus and intends to continue its resistance. These facts can also demonstrate the controversies between Doha and Riyadh about the Syrian problem, showing the difference between their approaches to the situation there. In these circumstances, Doha is likely to propose further regulation of the Syrian conflict and provide its own services as a mediator.

It's still hard to know for certain how much Tamim's visit might have advanced the negotiations on Doha's proposed purchase of Russian weapons, mostly S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. This deal has certain complications. Qatar wants to form a compatible tandem of systems made of American Patriot air-defense and THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense systems. Thus, even if Doha is ready to purchase the S-400 systems, the contract will be smaller than previously anticipated. According to specialists connected with the Russian military-industrial complex, even if the contract is signed, delivery of the S-400s to Qatar should not be expected soon. In the first place, the emirate currently has financial limitations due to other expensive military contracts; second, the Russian side has numerous agreements to deliver these systems and its production capacity is full. Moreover, in current conditions the shipments of S-400s to Qatar could strain relations with the country's antagonists — the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, Qatar is also interested in replacing its outdated Roland and Rapier surface-to-air missiles, possibly with Russian Pantsir and Tor weapons. Qatar is also likely to purchase Russian combat helicopters — for instance, the Ka-52 — to complement the Western ones it's already using.

There were also some tangible deals made during the emir's visit. Qatar Airways and Vnukovo International Airport discussed the airline's interest in purchasing a 25% share of the airport's stock. The airport is Russia's third-largest in terms of passenger traffic. Qatar Investment Authority, a sovereign wealth fund, since 2016 has owned 25% of Northern Capital Air Gate company, a concessionaire at Pulkovo airport, the No. 4 airline in passenger traffic in Russia.

In another deal, Igor Sechin, director of Rosneft Oil Co., and Faisal al-Suwaidi, president of research and development of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, signed a science and education cooperation agreement.

Kirill Semenov is an independent analyst with a yearslong record of professional study of political and military situations in the Middle East with a strong focus on conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya. He is also a non-resident expert of the Russian International Affairs Council.

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