The Kremlin seems to be reinvigorating its diplomacy in the Middle East. The latest move is an attempt to engage the Gulf monarchy of Bahrain.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to Bahrain's King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa prior to their talks in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Photo: AP

On Feb. 8, Russia’s Olympic city of Sochi played host to a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. These talks with the Bahraini monarch confirm Russia’s increasingly active role in the Middle East. What could all this mean?

Bahrain, a dependent kingdom

Bahrain is among the most prosperous countries in the world. Thanks to impressive oil and natural gas reserves, this monarchy on the shores of the Persian Gulf occupies 12th place in the world when it comes to gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

However, things are not so attractive in geopolitical terms. In general, we can conclude that Bahrain is the weakest link among the Arabian Gulf monarchies.

The reason for this is that 60 percent of the indigenous population is composed of Shiite Bahrainis, while the monarchy is Sunni. The indigenous population itself accounts for less than half of all people living permanently in Bahrain, with 45 percent of the residents being immigrants from South Asia.

Accordingly, the riots that broke out in 2011 were brutally suppressed by the regime with the military assistance of its ally Saudi Arabia. Thus, the foreign policy of the Bahraini regime is very heavily dependent on Riyadh these days.

We should recall that in January, Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Iran following the lead of its main ally. When today, we hear that Bahraini leaders are declaring their readiness to send troops to Syria, it should be understood that these statements are made in connection with Bahrain’s obligations to the Saudis.

Moscow and Manama exploring avenues of potential cooperation

We should especially note that the Bahraini monarch’s visit to Sochi was first and foremost of political nature. It is unlikely that the King of Bahrain, as the Russian president joked, came to ski at the Russian resort.

Of course, as the official communiqué of the meeting of Feb. 8 stated, “All areas of our cooperation were discussed.”

Moreover, in spite of sharply differing positions of Moscow and Manama, this cooperation is rather diverse, including a two-way format for political dialogue, as well as inter-parliamentary contacts. As Putin said when greeting Hamad Al Khalifa, “Bahrain is an important partner in the entire Middle East.” 

The two leaders also had much to discuss on the economic agenda. Bilateral ties between Russia and Bahrain already exist in such spheres as energy, industry, transport and infrastructure. Gazprom has also shown interest in the Bahraini market. During the talks, the two sides reached an agreement on the creation of an Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation.

The interest of Bahraini businessmen in Russia is reflected in the fact that Bahrain’s sovereign fund has already invested $250 million into the Russian Direct Investment Fund. In addition, currently being implemented is a three-year program of cultural cooperation, and a two-year cooperation program in the tourism sector.

In general, as the Bahraini monarch stated at the meeting, “We are working with Russia under the leadership of President Putin. This is the general attitude of all countries of our region.”

Also read: "Why Middle East turbulence doesn't boost oil prices anymore"

Middle East activities 

The visit of the King of Bahrain to Sochi may well be linked to the recent high-level talks held between Russia and Qatar, Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Oman, and diplomatic contacts with Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, this confirms the point Maxim Shilov made at the Russian International Affairs Council suggesting that Russian activities in Syria have now forced all the nations of the Middle East to interact with Moscow. 

On the other hand, Kremlin’s growing diplomatic activity in the Middle East has its own explanations as well. First of all, for the Russian side, it is very important to convey its own vision of the situation in the broader Middle East to as many Muslim countries as possible.

As Igor Ivanov, president of the Russian International Affairs Council and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, noted in a recent article published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “The new security system in the region should be inclusive in nature, and all states must participate.” 

Secondly, the recent harsh statements coming from Riyadh and some of its supporters in the Arab world, including Bahrain, give reason to talk about the fact that the Saudi-led coalition of 34 Sunni nations is preparing to openly intervene in Syria, right up to ground operations.

All this creates possible prospects for an eventual military-technical collision between Russia and the “Sunni coalition.” Here Moscow’s diplomatic activity is also justified, especially if we take into consideration the talks with the Americans during the last few days on a possible ceasefire to be implemented in Syria sometime next week.

Finally, the energy factor also plays a role when it comes to Moscow’s activities in the Middle East. Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain – all petroleum exporting countries – have suffered serious losses from the current situation, which has led to a sharp decline in prices for the “black gold.”

Of course, these countries are fully supporting Saudi Arabia, but the leading Arab country's aggressive play “to depress prices” hardly corresponds to the national interests of the small Gulf monarchies.

It is clear that the Russian government wants to take advantage of this nuance during its frequent talks with oil-producing Arab countries. It is very likely that in the not too distant future, we will clearly see whether Moscow was able to achieve its various goals in the Middle East.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.