Al Jazeera reports that on March 26, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the status quo of Syria, Yemen, and Palestine. Additionally, Qatar discussed a defense deal with Russia, and Qatari state-owned companies met with their Russian counterparts to further cooperation and economic ties.
In June 2017, several countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the U.A.E., cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting extremist political movements in the region. Saudi Arabia and its allies also demand that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera and reduce its diplomatic relationship with Iran. Although Russia has maintained neutrality in the crisis, Qatar has sought closer ties with Russia following its diplomatic and economic isolation in the Gulf, according to Radio Free Europe.
“We count on our Russian friends, with whom we have a cooperative relationship, knowing that Russia plays a significant role in the problems of the Arab world,” Al Thani stated at the start of the talks.
According to Al Jazeera, Al Thani and Putin discussed several aspects of the Syrian crisis, including Qatar’s support for the Syrian rebels and Qatar’s possible role in reconstructing Syria. As the U.S. has given an ambiguous response to the Syrian conflict, Qatar is now attempting to diversify its foreign allies, reinforce its connections with Russia, and improve its relations with Russia’s partners in the Middle East, Iran and Turkey, according to Al-Monitor.
Qatar’s isolation from Saudi Arabia has already begun to shift its diplomacy in Syria, Al-Monitor reports. Qatar and Turkey pressured the rebel groups under their influence to abandon their resistance in eastern Ghouta, which the Syrian government has besieged for months in its campaign to eliminate the last rebel stronghold near Damascus, and continue on towards Idlib. On the other hand, the Saudi Arabian-backed rebel group has held its ground in eastern Ghouta. Qatar may use its growing connections with Russia to further its role as a mediator in the Syrian conflict.
The two countries also deepened their economic ties. Reuters reports that Qatar Airways plans to buy a 25 percent stake in Russia’s Vnukovo Airport. According to Al Jazeera, Al Thani advanced negotiations on a proposed sale of 400 Russian anti-aircraft missile systems to Qatar, and Qatar Petroleum discussed contracts with Russia’s state-owned oil company, Rosneft.
For Moscow, Qatar’s visit is an opportunity to strengthen its presence in the region, Al Jazeera reports. The trip was preceded by a three-day visit by Saudi Arabian King Salman in September 2017, a phone call between Putin and Abu Dhabi Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in early March, and a call between Putin and King Salman in February.