One cannot help but notice the intensification of diplomatic contacts at the highest levels between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Deputy Crown Prince, Minister of Defense and the son of the king, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recently visited Russia twice to meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. There were also several phone discussions between the Russian leader and King Salman, primarily about the situation in Syria and Yemen. The Russian Foreign Minister carried out a number of discussions with his Saudi counterpart, meeting him last time in Vienna during talks about the Syrian conflict. Moreover, Riyadh has promised to invest 10 billion dollars in Russia’s economy, along with buying Russia’s military equipment and developing extensive cooperation in the fields of peaceful nuclear energy and space exploration.
There’s been a lot of speculations about the rapid rapprochement of the two countries and the alleged willingness of Moscow to abandon its partnership with Iran and along with the support it has been providing to Bashar al-Assad in exchange for Saudi petrodollars. However, such “analytical reports” are largely incorrect or exaggerated. To see this, one must take into account a number of key factors that determine the character of bilateral relations between Russia and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
The meeting of Saudi Prince Mohammed with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, held in October of this year in Sochi, has put on display Riyadh’s concern over Tehran’s growing influence in the Middle East and the development of a Russian-Iranian strategic partnership in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq . It is also clear that the Saudi ruling elites are irritated with Washington’s reluctance to play a more active role in the Middle East. But this does not mean that the KSA is prepared to change its allegiances, by aligning with Moscow instead of Washington. Although, of course, the Al-Saud family understands that Russia, along with Iran, Syria, Iraq, and the Lebanese “Hezbollah”, are pushing the US out of the region, while gaining more and more influence over the development of the situation in the Middle East. In these circumstances, Saudi Arabia can no longer ignore the growing influence of Russia, especially in light of Moscow’s ties with Tehran, its primal military and political ally in the region. But Saudi Arabia has been trying to prevent the Russian Federation from destroying the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIL), Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam far too proactively to simply accept some positive signals from Russia’s leadership.
The support that the Wahhabi kingdom has been providing to the above mentioned groups puts it in a tight corner. The leading elites of Saudi Arabia are nowhere near a political consensus on the key foreign policy issues. Some advocate the continuation of the hard-line approach towards Russia, while with others, there’s a comprehensive bilateral dialogue they see is needed to get positive results. It should be noted that the religious factor is playing an enormous role in Saudi policies. A month ago the Wahhabi religious authorities of the country have signed a call for jihad against Russia because of its intervention in Syria. The document has no official status, but it enjoys broad support in Saudi Arabia. This can be easily explained by the fact that regular Saudi citizens do not know a lot about Russia and their attitude towards Moscow is shaped by old stereotypes about the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The Saudi elites surely still remember that back in 1985, Riyadh did everything it possibly could to accelerate the destruction of the Soviet economy by provoking a sharp decline in oil prices. To some extent, one can argue that the results of these actions provoked the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Therefore, only the naive optimists and greedy “generals” of the Russian economy will overstate the significance of Saudi promises, since the KSA has allegedly been ready to invest 10 billion dollars in the Russian economy, along with buying weapons on hundreds of million dollars, for a while now. Yet, Russian weapons are incompatible with the US weapon systems dominating Saudi Arabia’s arsenals. Lucrative contracts that are being presented to Moscow are nothing more than a mere ploy for bargaining that lies in the heart of Saudi aspirations. It’s not hard to recall previous instances when Riyadh tried to deceive Russia into surrendering it’s positions. Back in 2008, Saudi Arabia promised Moscow that it would sign a handful of contracts regarding the purchases of tanks, helicopters and mobile anti-air (AA) missile systems (S-400s) if Russia reduced its military cooperation with Iran along with supporting new sanctions against Tehran. Moscow grabbed the bait… and received nothing. Over the period of 2013-2014. Prince Bandar, the head of Saudi intelligence services at the time, made several visits to Russia, promising Vladimir Putin multi-billion dollar deals on the purchase of Russian weapons in exchange for abandoning Damascus. But this time Russia was wise enough not to believe him. Riyadh also regularly tries to manipulate Russia by discussing oil prices even though it was Saudi Arabia itself that intentionally brought down oil prices back in 2014, dealing a serious blow to Russia’s economy.
Saudi Arabia’s aggressive actions in the Middle East and its oil pricing policy damaging Russia’s economy leads to outright skepticism and distrust in Russia’s position towards Saudi Arabia. The Kremlin has understood that in the eyes of the Al-Saud family, Russia is just a player in the regional political games that has to be dealt with in one way or another. Saudi Arabia initiates negotiations on deliveries of Russian weapons only in specific cases:
- when the kingdom is unable to push the United States around with its energy policy;
- when the kingdom wants to spoil relations between Moscow and Tehran;
- when the kingdom wants to apply pressure on Israel and;
- when the kingdom notices that its relations with the US are rapidly deteriorating.
But time and time again these talks lead to nothing, because the Saudis have never been serious about Russian weapons in the first place. But at the same time Riyadh wants Washington to take into account the problems Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies face. After all, Riyadh is convinced that America depends on the internal stability of the kingdom.
One must always remember that the Saudi-American partnership has lasted for over 70 years. And despite all the ongoing diplomatic maneuvers of Riyadh, including flirting with Russia, the US and Saudi Arabia are tied by a close military and political alliance, while the political goals of the latter largely remain unchanged. Moscow will never be able to replace Washington, and, frankly speaking, it’s not going to. Moscow needs negotiations with Riyadh mainly for the acquisition of additional leverage in the Middle East. And they produce results. Only Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have not given up on the goal of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. And this goal completely contradicts the interests of Russia, because only the sitting government in Damascus is able to ensure the preservation of Moscow’s position in the Middle East. Apparently, Riyadh had already forgotten that is has provoked the war in Syria, given rise to ISIL, and encouraged and directly financed a wave of “color revolutions” across the Arab World.
It is clear that the KSA would like to see a new Russian policy in the Middle East. But they want this policy to be shaped on their own terms, without taking into account the national interests of Russia and its allies in the region. Therefore, at this stage, Russia’s bilateral relations with Iran will clearly stand in the way of the development of relations between Moscow and Riyadh.
If Saudi Arabia does sincerely want to have Moscow as a full partner, it must abandon its arrogant approach towards it, while taking into account that this strengthening world power has its own interests in the region, which are to be respected. As the events of recent months have shown, not a single regional problem, whether it is Syria, Iraq, the fight against ISIL or Yemen, can be solved without Russia. And the US will be of no help, especially at the start of the presidential race in Washington. Otherwise, Riyadh is seriously risking a taste of it own medicine, namely the “Arab Spring” phenomenon reaching the rotten structure of its own Saudi society.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.