Moscow and Riyadh: Sending a message to Washington?
There has been a remarkable improvement in Saudi-Russian relations over the past three months.
In March, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at the Arab League summit in Cairo publicly denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. But in June, a high-level Saudi delegation led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz (who is also the Saudi defence minister) met with Putin in St Petersburg.
The two sides also signed an agreement for Russia to build nuclear reactors for the kingdom. Saudi-Russian cooperation in other fields, including the Saudi purchase of Russian air defence missile systems, was discussed.
All this comes at a time when Saudi-US relations have been strained due to the Obama administration’s strong pursuit of a nuclear accord with Iran, which the Saudis are just as wary of as the Israelis are. Indeed, many in Saudi Arabia fear that an Iranian nuclear accord will lead to an improvement in Iranian-American relations and Washington turning its back on Gulf Arabs right when Arab-Iranian (and Sunni-Shia) tensions are increasing.
If Riyadh can no longer depend on Washington, it should not be surprising that Riyadh would look elsewhere, including Moscow, for support.
There is an appealing symmetry to the notion that improving Iranian-US relations are resulting in improving Saudi-Russian ties. It is doubtful, though, that Saudi- Russian relations will become close enough to jeopardise the longstanding Saudi-US relationship.
There are several reasons for this.
First, the Obama administration is not seeking a nuclear accord with Tehran or even improved Iranian-US relations in order to abandon Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs, much less Israel. The administration’s logic is that an Iran constrained by a nuclear accord will be less of a threat to its Middle Eastern neighbours than an Iran that is not so constrained and which proceeds to acquire nuclear weapons.
Second, even if an Iranian nuclear accord is reached, Iranian-US relations cannot improve much if Iran behaves aggressively towards its Middle Eastern neighbours. Those in the Middle East who think that Washington would blithely pursue increased cooperation with Tehran under these circumstances are being unrealistic.
Third, while improved Iranian- US relations may result in improved Saudi-Russian ties, Moscow is not going to give up on its longstanding efforts to pursue good relations with Tehran. Indeed, Moscow’s recent announcement that it would reinstate the contract to sell S-300 air defence missile systems to Iran, a deal Dmitry Medvedev, then the president, cancelled in 2010, shows that Putin intends to compete with Washington for influence in Tehran. Nor is Moscow likely to end its support for the Assad regime in Damascus for the sake of improved Saudi-Russian relations.
Fourth, improved Saudi-Russian relations even at a time when Moscow’s ties to the United States and the West are deteriorating may actually serve American security (if not commercial) interests. The more trade and investment ties that Moscow has with Riyadh, the more that Moscow has an incentive to prevent conflict between the kingdom and Moscow’s other friends in the region, such as Iran.
Fifth, even if Moscow and Riyadh can cooperate economically in some areas, there is just no getting around the fact that they are basically competitors in the oil market. Riyadh has been willing to rein in Saudi oil production in order to support higher prices if other oil producers do so, but Moscow has shown time and again that it will not hold back Russian oil production in cooperation with Saudi Arabia or anybody else. Nor is there any getting around the fact that increased US shale oil production harms both Russian and Saudi interests but that there is little that they can do about that either separately or together.
Sixth, despite Moscow’s periodic friendly overtures towards Riyadh, a fundamentally negative view of Saudi Arabia prevails in Russia. The Saudi state is not viewed there as a conservative monarchy but as the primary source of support for radical Sunni jihadism in the Middle East and in the former Soviet Union.
This view tends to grow especially strong any time that Islamists launch any sort of operation inside Russia. Moscow, in short, tends to view Saudi Arabia in the same way that Washington (at least before US President Barack Obama) has viewed Iran.
For all these reasons, it is doubtful that Saudi-Russian relations can grow very strong. From Riyadh’s perspective, the main utility of projecting the appearance of improving Saudi-Russian relations may be to motivate Washington to pay more attention to the kingdom, something that Putin and his colleagues are undoubtedly well aware of.