From March 8 – 12, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov toured the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Qatar to discuss regional and international issues.

The tour began with the UAE, where Lavrov met the Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan; the country’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

UAE authorities made exceptions for the Russian delegation where it was received in the Abu Dhabi emirate, although it is mostly closed for visits due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The delegation was also freed from an obligatory 10-day quarantine. However, Lavrov and the delegation had to take PCR tests before meeting the crown prince.

At a news conference, following the meeting, Russian and UAE ministers praised bilateral relation developments, confirmed “the overlapping or similar approaches” to the crises in the Middle East and promised to continue “close coordination” in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

The UAE foreign minister surprised journalists by saying US sanctions were the main obstacle for restoring dialogue with Syria. He also spoke in favor of Syria’s return to the Arab League and its reconciliation with regional Arab countries, which was considered a compliment to Russia, that has consistently urged the lifting of sanctions on Syria and for its return “to the Arab family.”

On Israel, Lavrov once again welcomed its normalization with Arab states, including with the UAE. However, he stressed that “a fair settlement of the Palestinian problem must not be relegated to the background.”

Lavrov then turned to Iran and encouraged Arab countries to talk with Tehran, saying “promotion, trust and transparency in military construction” will strengthen the region’s security.

Lavrov’s efforts to push Arab countries to better relations with Iran may have a deeper meaning than a simple desire to contribute to regional security, taking into account a recent statement by US President Joe Biden who said he was willing to return to the Iran nuclear deal.

Steps in this direction demand Washington’s coordination with its Arab allies and being that the UAE is the only regional player having contacts with Iran, Russia can ask for the UAE’s help in softening other stakeholders’ stance.

Lavrov also had an unplanned meeting with Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has been trying to form a Cabinet since the deadly 2020 Beirut explosions.

So far, France was the main mediator between Lebanese sides without much success. The situation in the country has been deteriorating, and Hariri seems to be in need of any help he can find. Lavrov stressed many times that Moscow has good relations with all Lebanese sides, besides, Russia can also put in a good word for Hariri with Iran and the Arab countries, as their position counts in the issue of forming Lebanon’s government.

Visit to Riyadh

Lavrov’s visit to Riyadh was the shortest. He spent less than a day in the Saudi capital and had two meetings — with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.

Lavrov became the first foreign top diplomat, to arrive in Saudi Arabia after the US put responsibility for journalist Jemal Khashoggi’s murder directly on bin Salman.

It is unlikely that Lavrov’s visit had anything to do with the US announcement because his visit to the kingdom was planned in advance, however, Russia “morally supports” Saudi Arabia for the second time in the case — in 2018 Putin was meeting with bin Salman at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires right after media leaks claimed the prince was directly involved in Khashoggi’s killing.

Speaking at a news conference, following the meeting with his Saudi counterpart, Lavrov noted that despite the coronavirus pandemic the trade turnover between Russia and Saudi Arabia grew to almost $1.7 billion.

He also said the two ministers discussed the organization of holding the third stage of clinical trials of the Sputnik V vaccine in Saudi Arabia as well as its production in the country and reconfirmed willingness to continue cooperation and coordinate efforts on the global oil markets, including within the OPEC+ format.

As for prospects, Lavrov said there was “considerable potential for implementing forward-looking projects in space exploration and nuclear energy.”

Speaking about regional affairs, Lavrov said Russia was ready “to provide the necessary assistance” to reach “long-term normalization in the region,” meaning possible improvement of ties with Iran but the Saudi foreign minister made it clear that the kingdom’s position on Iran remained unchanged, accusing it of pushing Yemeni rebels to attacks Saudi Arabia.

Lavrov refrained from blaming either side in Yemen, saying “all have to adhere to the international law.”

Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud took a restrained position on the Syrian settlement, though he said that Syria has to return “to the Arab embrace and achieve stability and security.”

Lavrov’s comment on Syria was short as well, neither of the ministers mentioned the visit of the Russian presidential envoy for Syria to Riyadh the day before, who was said to be seeking Saudi’s support in dealing with the Syrian opposition.

The ministers voiced support to forming “permanent pan-Libyan government bodies,” and several minutes later it became known the Libyan parliament with representatives of both sides, approved a new Cabinet headed by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh.

Lavrov once again urged a resolution on the Palestinian issue on the existing foundation of international law, recalling that it includes the Arab Peace Initiative suggested by Saudi King Abdullah.

“The long-term stabilization of the entire Middle East will be substantially complicated without the resolution of all issues on the principles that were agreed upon within its framework,” Lavrov said.

Birth of ‘Doha format’

Lavrov’s visit to Qatar was marked with the establishment of the new trilateral format on Syria — Russia, Qatar, and Turkey. The format will be “complementary” to the Astana format and will deal with the humanitarian aspects, as the foreign ministers of the three countries explained at a news conference in Doha.

Later it became known that Russia also invited Qatar to take part in the Moscow meeting on Afghanistan, adding to Qatar’s growing reputation as “Arab Switzerland” — a neutral platform for talks on controversial issues.

Apart from the trilateral meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, Lavrov was also was received by Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and held talks with Minister of State for Defense Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the main emphasis at the meetings was placed on the need to achieve as soon as possible political solutions to conflicts in Syria and Libya, a reliable and long-term settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the promotion of the process of inter-Afghan national reconciliation.

It also said Russia and Qatar were united in the opinion to take “practical steps” that would form a constructive, unifying agenda in the Persian Gulf and contribute to the creation of a system for ensuring collective security, stability, and sustainable development.

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