In spite of numerous differences of opinion and a growing rivalry in the Middle East, Russia and Qatar might cooperate and work together to resolve common issues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, left, in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, on Jan. 18. Photo: AP

On Jan. 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the Emir of the State of Qatar Tammim bin Hamad Al Thani. Given the complicated relations between Moscow and Doha over Syria in particular and the situation in the Middle East in general, many observers were interested in the outcome of these talks.

A wealthy emirate with political ambitions

In 2016, Qatar will be celebrating the 45th anniversary of its independence. Ever since 1971, when this Persian Gulf state and hereditary emirate won its independence from the United Kingdom, Qatar has been exhibiting remarkable economic growth, mostly due to the development of its enormous natural resources. Experts estimate that Qatar owns approximately 13 percent of the world’s oil and natural gas supply.

When oil prices were high, Qatar took its place among the most prosperous countries in the world. Nowadays its purchasing power parity over gross domestic product (PPP vs. GDP) exceeds $145,000 a year. 14 percent of Qatar nationals are dollar millionaires.

Also read: "How did the Arab Spring change Russia's influence in the Middle East?"

Of course, there is a downside to the oil paradise – parasitic social attitudes. Similar to other Persian Gulf monarchies, the population of Qatar is getting rich off of natural resources, while 94 percent of the emirate's workforce is comprised of migrant workers.

Nevertheless, the monarchy that is sharing its profits with its subjects enjoys a strong social base and is very popular with the people. Qatar's wealth has been steadily growing, which led to the increase in the political ambitions of the ruling dynasty. However, as oil prices drop, the situation might change.

In addition, Qatar, with its regular military of 8,500 men, has recently become one of the actual leaders of the Arab world, and the Arab Spring helped Qatar strengthen its position.

An ambitious rival   

Before 2011, Qatar kept a low profile acting as a rich benefactor and sponsor for Palestinian Arabs, for example. The Arab Spring made a big difference. Qatar authorities worked hard to bring down Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. There is enough evidence to prove that Qatar’s special task forces directly participated in the storming of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Another instance that comes to mind is Doha's active support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, when Qatar lent a substantial amount of money to the previous head of this densely populated Arab country.

Alongside its Persian Gulf allies, the most prominent being Saudi Arabia, in 2011 Qatar was openly working on orchestrating a change of power in Syria by sponsoring various Sunni anti-government organizations. Qatar also has a hand in the civil wars in Yemen and Libya through its support of local Islamists. 

The positions of Moscow and Doha on Yemen and Libya could not be any more different. Doha's policy regarding the Arab countries is built around active cooperation with Saudi Arabia and major Western powers, especially the U.S., which established its military base in Qatar.

Naturally, this means that Qatar and Russia are rivals in the Middle East, which explains why many prominent Russian politicians and experts regularly utter anti-Qatar comments.

For example, influential United Russia deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov openly labeled Qatar as the main sponsor of international Islamic terrorism, and Evgeniy Satanovskiy, the president of the Institute of the Middle East, accused Qatar of perpetrating terrorist attacks on the territory of other Arab countries with the help of such Islamist organizations as Ahrar ash-Sham, the Muslim Brotherhood and even ISIS.

Moreover, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov recently pointed out that political differences with Qatar were the main obstacle that hampered the successful resolution of the Syrian crisis. 

When is cooperation possible between Russia and Qatar?

However, in spite of existing differences, Emir Tammim bin Hamad Al Thani's visit to Russia showed that Russia-Qatar cooperation is possible. Actually, the visit was initiated by the Qatar monarch. The success of the Syrian military facilitated by massive air strikes conducted by the Russian Air Force clearly influences the conservative circles of the Persian Gulf as well.

In any case, at his meeting with Putin, the Emir stated that, "His country had a vested interest in developing its relations with Russia and solving the issues that threaten the stability in some countries of the Middle Eastern region." As for Putin, he admitted that, "Qatar was an extremely important player in the Middle East."

Naturally, the Jan. 18 talks focused on the situation in Syria. The parties vowed to continue their cooperation under the International Syria Support Group. The Russian and Qatar leadership also discussed the situation in Yemen and Libya. Moscow and Doha will keep "working to ensure maximum efficiency in the fight against terrorism."

Also read: "Russia, the United States and the Syrian peace process: What’s next?"

It also comes as no surprise that rapidly dropping oil prices pushed the two countries to address the issues of economic cooperation. Russia and Qatar created an Intergovernment Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation and established direct contact between the Russian Direct Investment Fund and Qatar Investment Agency.

According to the Russian President, the two countries have plenty of opportunities for cooperation in the natural gas (for example, through the Gas Exporting Countries Forum) and energy sectors. A number of Russian companies, including Gazprom, Lukoil and Russian Railways, have expressed their interest in the Qatar market.

Apparently, the Emir's visit could not eliminate all geopolitical differences between Russia and Qatar. The two countries definitely have distinctly different interests in the wider Middle East, but the Jan. 18 negotiations showed that Russia-Qatar relations have a lot of potential for development.

As Alexey Martynov, the director of the International Institute of the Newest States, put it, "The significance of Russia for Middle Eastern politics... increased exponentially due to Russia's active involvement in fighting international terrorism represented by ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria]." We can only hope that the Qatar leadership shares this opinion.

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