Saudi-Russian cooperation: To Be or Not to Be?
Recent high-level meetings between Saudi and Russian officials — two governments not traditionally on friendly terms — have generated media speculation about the emergence of a new Saudi-Russian alliance or partnership. Such speculation, however, is premature. Just because two governments talk to each other does not mean that they are, or will become, friends and allies.
The meeting in Moscow between Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov caused speculation that Saudi-Russian relations were improving at the expense of Saudi-US relations. While Saudi Arabia and Russia do share some common interests, reporting from the meeting suggests that differences remain.
Moscow and Riyadh share the common aim of thwarting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. But statements made by Jubeir revealed differences of opinion over how to do so. Lavrov sees the Assad regime in Damascus as a partner against ISIS; Jubeir, by contrast, stated: “We think that Bashar Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
Further, Jubeir dashed Russian hopes for a coalition between the Assad regime and certain opposition groups to fight ISIS. “As for a coalition in which Saudi Arabia would participate with the government of Syria,” he said, “we need to exclude that. It is not part of our plans.”
The two foreign ministers did discuss possible Saudi arms purchases from Russia and this may well occur. But discussions about Riyadh buying weaponry from Moscow have been going on for many years without yielding concrete results. And even if such purchases are made, Saudi Arabia is likely to remain primarily allied with the United States. The United Arab Emirates, after all, has purchased significant quantities of Russian weapons over many years but this has not made it a Russian ally.
Another common interest shared by Russia and Saudi Arabia is the current low price of oil, which has reduced export revenues both governments rely on so heavily. It is doubtful, though, that they can cooperate to change this situation. Lowering production, as the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has done in the past, could help raise prices.
While the Saudis and other OPEC exporters have long indicated that Russia must rein in its production, Moscow has not been willing to do so. Russian sources connected to the petroleum industry argue that Russia’s cold climate necessitates that equipment continue operating in order to prevent damage that would result from shutting down. Riyadh and the rest of OPEC, though, are not willing to bear all the costs that reining in their production entails while Russia bears none. Besides, raising petroleum prices now would only lead to increased US production of shale oil, which competes with both Saudi and Russian oil.
Finally, while Riyadh is aware that increasing Saudi-Russian cooperation demonstrates Saudi displeasure with and independence from Washington, Moscow is not going to forgo its close ties with Tehran for the sake of improved relations with Riyadh.
What all this suggests is that although there may be a genuine desire for increased cooperation in both Riyadh and Moscow, differing interests make this difficult. Because differences are so great and so longstanding, it is reasonable to ask why the Kremlin and the kingdom have engaged in recent high-level contacts.
One possibility is that while both sides recognise that their differences severely restrain the relationship, there are forces at work that each side hopes may impel the other to eventually make concessions.
Moscow may calculate that the Saudi-backed opposition in Syria will soon be defeated by both the Assad regime and ISIS and that Riyadh will then determine it is better off with Assad than with ISIS ruling Syria. And regarding oil, Moscow may reason that even if it does not curtail Russian production, Saudi Arabia and OPEC will curtail theirs anyway — as they have in the past. Similarly, with Saudi-US relations deteriorating over the Iran nuclear agreement, Moscow may assume that Riyadh will need Russia as leverage, despite Moscow’s ties to Tehran.
Riyadh may calculate that the Assad regime will soon be overthrown and that Moscow will prefer the Saudi-backed opposition to ISIS.
Regarding oil, Riyadh may reason that Western economic sanctions against Russia, combined with flagging global demand, will sooner or later lead to reduced Russian petroleum exports whether Moscow likes it or not. And if Russia wants to sell arms and nuclear reactors to the kingdom, it will have to limit its sales of these items to Tehran.
It is possible that one of these sets of calculations will prove accurate but both cannot be. It is more likely, though, that neither set of calculations will be fully borne out. In this case, while Saudi-Russian talks are likely to continue, actual cooperation in unlikely to develop to the extent that many observers are predicting.