While most analyses of the expanding Russian presence in the
Middle East focus on the country’s role as patron and protector to Bashar
al-Assad in Syria, another relationship – between Russia and the Persian Gulf
emirate of Qatar – is quietly becoming the conduit for a growing slate of trade
and investment ties, with significant implications for the region and beyond.
Breaking with the typical course of Kremlin foreign policy, economic interests are overcoming geopolitical divides to drive Doha and Moscow together. In another inversion of the usual trend, Qatar is setting the pace with its investments in Russia. As Qatari Ambassador to Moscow Fahad bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah put it to Bloomberg in an interview earlier this month: “We see Russia’s economy to be stable, and the potential for growth is huge.”
A complicated history
The two countries have a historically turbulent relationship. Russian servicemen were allegedly behind the 2004 assassination in Qatar of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the former acting president of the breakaway Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Relations were officially downgraded in 2011 following an attack on Russian Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko at Doha International Airport.
Things began to improve, however, after Qatar’s new Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani took power in 2013. Two official Moscow visits by the emir in 2016 and 2018, as well as regular telephone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have helped foster a far warmer climate between the two countries. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov visited Qatar on March 4, ignoring the ongoing blockade led by Saudi Arabia by flying directly from Doha on to Riyadh.
Qatar and Russia are still major competitors in the global gas market, and have serious differences over Assad’s Syrian regime. However, the leaderships of both countries are characterized by a resolutely pragmatic worldview, which ultimately brings them together. Indeed, their improving relations have been driven by a shared sense of their own interests, and a view of politics as a continuation of business as usual.
This can be clearly seen in their attitudes to the Middle East’s thorniest geopolitical questions. Doha’s desire to cement bilateral ties is strongly linked to Russia’s rise as a regional power. For its part, Moscow is angling to position itself as an impartial broker in the region and is keen to maintain stable relations with all local players. Russia has largely abstained from picking sides during the Gulf Cooperation Council’s blockade of Qatar, even if certain officials have expressed a willingness to increase food supplies.
This pragmatic handling of Middle Eastern affairs fits well with Qatar’s own approach. Doha remains a member of the GCC, and despite being ostracized, it hopes to resolve the blockade and restore relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At the same time, it wants to enjoy working relations with Iran and Turkey, particularly in light of their support for the emirate in the early days of the blockade. None of these factors have made it any less opposed to Tehran’s and Ankara’s actions in Syria.
At a broader level, Qatar sees Russia as more than a new player in the neighborhood. In fact, Doha has long seen the Russian market as an undervalued destination with strong long-term growth potential. Even in the middle of the most acute disputes over Syria, Qatar has nurtured its business ties with Russia. The Qatar Investment Authority, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, acquired a $500 million stake in the Russian state-owned VTB Bank in 2013; last year, the fund emerged as a major shareholder in energy giant Rosneft after the collapse of a $9 billion deal to sell a stake to China’s troubled CEFC Energy Co.
While the blockade initially disrupted Qatar’s investment outlooks, QIA has weathered the initial pressure and is once again keen to boost its overseas portfolio. While the United States is QIA’s main target at present, Qatar continues to see investment in Russia as a means to acquire both political and economic dividends.
Although the Russian economy remains weak and uncompetitive, sectors such as retail, mining and infrastructure offer stable and appealing returns. These same sectors just happen to also be of substantial importance to the domestic political agenda of the Russian leadership. Outside of these strategic sections of the economy, Qatari interests also control 25% of the operator of St. Petersburg’s Pulkova Airport, and hold a similar stake in Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport.
Taken all together, QIA’s various investments in the country are valued at more than $2.5 billion. If Al-Attiyah’s statements offer any indication, that number will soon grow. The irony of this state of affairs should not be lost on global energy markets. Whereas the United States is vocally counting on Qatari gas to compete with Russian gas in the European market, the Qataris themselves are one of the foremost investors in the Russian energy sector.
Even if the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar were to be lifted tomorrow, the underlying tensions between the GCC and Doha will endure – and will mean that the emirate will continue to bolster relations with other actors. Russia, as it happens, stands foremost among them.