On February 1-3, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is paying working visits to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, to discuss oil market and the issues concerning the situation in the Middle East, especially Syria. The top diplomat is to meet crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and Oman’s Deputy Prime Minister, Fahd bin Mahmoud al Said, and Foreign Minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are both an important market for Russian exports (including weapons, nuclear reactors, and railroads) and a source of investment into the Russian economy. Since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Moscow’s relations with the Gulf monarchies have improved dramatically. Russian President visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar in January 2007, and then the UAE in September of the same year. Gulf leaders have met with him in Russia on numerous occasions.
There are things to unite the parties. They oppose various aspects of US foreign policy. Neither Russia nor the Gulf states approve of Washington’s support for Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Neither has been comfortable with the democracy-promotion efforts served to impose US vision on others.
Furthermore, neither Russia nor the Gulf states (except for Qatar) were happy about the US suddenly distancing itself in 2011 from then Egyptian President Mubarak, its old time ally, President Obama’s support for Egypt’s elected President Morsi (whose Muslim Brotherhood connections sparked great concern among the Persian Gulf states) and reduced military aid to the subsequent Egyptian government led by Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi. Russia offered to sell weapons to Egypt, and Saudi Arabia agreed to pay for it. It became obvious that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states were gradually shifting away from Washington towards Moscow. The GCC countries did not join the United States and the EU in imposing economic sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.
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The relationship between the Russian Federation and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stretches back to December 1971, when the Soviet Union and the UAE established diplomatic relations.
In 1986, the Soviet embassy in Abu Dhabi was opened and the UAE embassy in Moscow became operational in 1987.
The UAE-Russia relations in general have been going from strength to strength in recent years. The UAE has issued Federal Decree No 91 of 2013 ratifying the cooperation agreement with Russia in the field of peaceful nuclear energy. Also in 2013, the UAE issued Decree No 67 that witnessed the inking of an agreement on the protection of investments and relevant protocol. Several other agreements in the fields of double taxation, aviation, and coordination among the chambers of commerce have also been signed between the two countries. Russia has always emphasized its desire to benefit from the UAE’s proven advantages of open economy and advanced facilities and infrastructure. The UAE can be a major distribution hub for Russian products to the whole world. Investors in the Emirates enjoy many commercial benefits resulting from the country’s tax free environment and ability to seamlessly transfer money. Such factors amply qualify the UAE to be a vital market for Russian investments and industries.
Last September Dubai Exports, the export promotion agency of the Department of Economic Development in Dubai, organized a five-day trade mission to Russia along with 36 UAE companies from diverse sectors. It also hosted business forums and bilateral meetings in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. They were attended by a large number of Russian businesses and senior officials, as well as representatives of investment agencies and local institutions. Participants explored prospects for cooperation in investment and trade between companies from the UAE and Russia in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, construction materials, cosmetics, food, detergents and consumer products.
Engineer Saed Al Awadi, chief executive officer of Dubai Exports, explained why the relations with Russia were important for the UAE, «Russia is one of the world's largest economies and a huge consumer market of 142 million people, which makes it an attractive target for UAE companies. Dubai is witnessing exports to Russian markets rising and a 31 per cent increase was seen in 2014 compared to the previous year».
The economic cooperation between the United Arab Emirates and Russia has not been damaged by Western sanctions. «The UAE complies with international laws introduced by the United Nations. This is how we regard such situations. I have not seen any sanctions from the UN for now», said UAE Economy Minister Sultan bin Saeed al Mansoori.
Addressing the fifth meeting of the UAE-Russia joint ministerial committee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abu Dhabi, Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said the UAE maintains historic, friendly and special relations with Russia. These ties are stable and based on the spirit of mutual understanding and respect and a common desire to take them to new heights, he noted.
The two sides reviewed a number of issues related to the latest regional developments, particularly the Syrian crisis. They also touched on current counter-terrorism efforts and the need for the international community to confront terrorist groups. President Putin applauded the UAE’s efforts in combatting this evil.
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The Sultanate of Oman stands tall fending off the attempts from outside to influence its foreign policy decisions. A US-allied Gulf Arab state, Oman sees itself as a conciliator in a volatile region. Being one of the founding members of the GCC, it likes to keep its identity distinct and its policies independent. The implementation of foreign policy based on non-intervention and non-alignment keeps instability at bay and lets Oman hold a double-edged sword.
For instance, it is the only member of Gulf Cooperation Council to preserve friendly relations with Iran. It also benefits the GCC with Oman acting as a mediator between the different parties. Egypt, Iran, and Oman enjoy friendly relations with one another; in fact, the latter two nations have entered into a naval pact that requires them to conduct military exercises together. The Sultanate also boasts special relationship with China.
The ongoing conflict in Yemen is another good example. Oman is the only GCC member who has not joined the Saudi coalition. It is also the only monarchy in the Arab League not do so.
The Sultanate is not mired in sectarian hatred. Oman, with Ibadi majority, views the escalation of sectarian strife between the Middle East’s Shiite and Sunni Muslims as a tragedy for the greater Islamic world.
Ideologically, it has no rivalries. It's neither Sunni, nor Shia, but Ibadi. «We cannot work on peace efforts at the same time we would be part of a military campaign. Those two things do not meet», Oman's Foreign Minister, Yusuf Bin Alawi, told Reuters. «Oman is not part of that campaign for simple reasons – Oman is a nation of peace».
Rather than joining Saudi Arabia in arming Sunni fundamentalists across the region to counter Iran’s extended influence, Oman has avoided taking sides in such conflicts, valuing instead a peaceful resolution. The Sultanate has leveraged its neutrality to develop trustworthy relationships with all sides in the Syrian and Yemeni crises, enabling it to serve as a legitimate and impartial mediator in ways that no other GCC member could.
Last October, Oman's Foreign Minister Yousef bin Alawi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met in Damascus to show that Oman could play the role of a mediator between Syria and Assad's adversaries, which include Washington and other Gulf states.
The meeting took place after Russia said Syria needed to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections. Oman has received parties from both sides of the war in recent weeks. Syria's Foreign Minister traveled to Oman to meet Alawi in August and the head of the main West-backed Syrian political opposition met with Alawi in Muscat earlier in October, 2015.
Last August, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a working visit to Qatar held a meeting with Oman’s Foreign Minister, who had arrived in Doha to attend a conference of foreign ministers of the member-countries of the GCC. Sergey Lavrov and Yusuf Bin Alawi discussed topical issues of Russian-Omani relations, emphasizing the importance of stepping up ties and drawing on considerable cooperation potential in various areas.
They also reviewed the current situation in the Middle East, including the conflict in Yemen, where Oman has been playing a useful role as an intermediary, and prospects for developments in the Gulf zone after the signing of the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program.
On September 26, 2015, Russia and Oman marked the 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations. On the occasion, foreign ministers exchanged greeting cables expressing their satisfaction for the high level of bilateral relations and constant coordination in international issues of mutual interest. The parties noted that over the past 30 years, the relations between the two countries have been constantly progressing and that is evident in the many bilateral cooperation agreements signed between the two countries, especially in culture and education fields. The joint communique establishing the diplomatic relations was signed on September 26th, 1985.
In 2009 Russia and Oman signed an important agreement on nuclear energy cooperation that could see the two countries building reactors and conducting research together. Hopefully, Mr Lavrov’s visit will promote the conclusion of other agreement to boost the relationship.
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With lucrative economic benefits looming to boost the promotion of Russia-Oman, Russia-the UAE ties, the security issue are doomed to steal the show. The US has announced its decision to deploy regular army components in Syria and Iraq, and Turkey is evidently preparing an invasion to create a «safe-zone» on Syrian soil. The Geneva talks on Syria are hitting snags on the way. The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran negatively affects the situation in the Middle East. A US-led intervention in Libya appears to be imminent. Russia and its GCC partners have to address complicated agenda of many points inching closer to each other in the times of hard choices to make.
The ongoing visit to hold talks with the leaders of Sunni states proves that all the talks about Russia’s military operation in Syria making it «an enemy of Sunni Muslims» hold no water.