Saudi-Russian relations: between Assad and Sisi

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

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The relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia have witnessed remarkable developments since the visit of King Abdullah (then Crown Prince) to Moscow in November 2003. That visit followed by the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Saudi Arabia in February 2007.

Both visits opened up great prospects for cooperation between the two countries. But the evolution of the situation in Syria froze those relations in the “refrigerator” of the Arab Spring.

Saudi Arabia does not want Islamic extremist groups or terrorist control of the situation, which is a key objective in common with Russia.

Naser al-Tamimi

However, the recent visit of the prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Secretary General of the National Security Council and head of the Saudi Intelligence Agency, put the spotlight on that relationship again.

The media highlighted the generous Saudi offer to stop Russia’s support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. At first glance Saudi-Russian relations look to be a great mix of contradictions, but there are a lot of indicators to demonstrate that there are many convergence of interests between the two countries, which could push those relationships to come closer.

Beyond Assad

Although Saudi Arabia is seeking the fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and an end to Iran’s influence in Syria, Riyadh is however open to Russian demands and do not consider the conflict as a zero-sum relationship with Moscow. On the contrary, there is common ground between the both countries, to maintain the survival of the state institutions, including the army and security services, as both do not wish to repeat the experience of Iraq.

Saudi Arabia does not want Islamic extremist groups or terrorist control of the situation, which is a key objective in common with Russia.

Stability in Egypt

King Abdullah came out strongly to support the new regime in Egypt. The Saudi King called on Arabs to stand together against “attempts to destabilize” Egypt. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its people and government stood and stands by today with its brothers in Egypt against terrorism,” he said.

It is clear that Russia and Saudi Arabia prefer stability in Egypt, and both are betting on the Egyptian military prevailing in the current standoff, and are already acting on that assumption. Here, Riyadh believes that Russian’s political and economic (shipments of wheat) support is vital for the new regime in Cairo, as it will provide it with the flexibility to stand up to the Western pressure, especially the American one.

Turkey’s political agenda

Although Turkey has strong political and economic ties with Saudi Arabia and Russia, both countries have their doubts about Turkey’s real agenda in the region.

Saudi Arabia is not comfortable with Turkey championed the so-called political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. While Moscow sees the Turkish behavior as directly threatening Russian interests in both the Middle East and Caucasus.

It is becoming a clear view to both countries that Ankara is working to promote the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, and perhaps the Ankara’s position towards the recent events in Egypt reinforce the fears of Turkey intentions.

Reasonable oil prices

It is in the interest of both countries, Russia and Saudi Arabia, that the prices of oil remain high to balance their budget. Saudi Arabia, the largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, requires an average crude price of $98 a barrel this year to break even, up from $94 last year, the Arab Petroleum Investments Corp., Apicorp, said recently in a report.

Russia will probably require an average Brent oil price of $117.8 a barrel this year to balance its budget, according to Deutsche Bank AG.

Iran’s nuclear program is yet another issue. Exactly like Saudi Arabia, Russia does not want to see Iran become a nuclear power. Yet Moscow and Riyadh want to keep their options open as a hedge policy towards Iran.

There are many possibilities for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program; one of them a political deal between the West and Iran that could jeopardize both countries interests.

Russia and Saudi Arabia share a common set of interests based on common threats such as terrorism and extremism.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s donation of $100 million for supporting the international counter-terrorism center is an important indicator that Saudi Arabia views with great concern the growing influence of terrorist groups.

Saudi Arabia itself has suffered a series of terrorist attacks, and here Riyadh fears that with the deteriorating situation in Yemen, and even in Syria and Egypt, al-Qaeda would be able to exploit the situation to carry out terrorist operations against the countries of the region. Those Saudi concerns have great resonance in Moscow because the Russian state itself is threatened by terrorist attacks from al-Qaeda.

New Afghanistan

Next year, it is expected the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. Riyadh here want to achieve a number of goals, Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for al-Qaeda, weaken the organizations that are trying to attack the neighboring countries such as India, China and even Russia, as the kingdom has growing strategic interests with both China and India.

To achieve these goals, Riyadh is interested in supporting stability in Pakistan. Those Saudi goals are consistent with the Russian policy towards Afghanistan.

There are also other strategic issues which could push Moscow and Riyadh closer. Irina Zvyagelskaya, a senior fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences summaries Russia’s interests in the Middle East as “the prevention of instability that might come close to the Russian borders, protection of Russian business interests, and in terms of its military-industrial complex, supply of arms to countries in the region.”

Dropping population

While Russia’s overall population is dropping, the number of Muslims in the country is on the rise. Russia’s population has declined from 148 million in 1990 to 142.5 million in 2010, and is expected to fall to 137 million by 2020.

In contrast, the population of indigenous Muslims, mainly hailing from the Russian Caucasus, in Russia has risen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Their number has risen from 13.6 million in 1990 to 16.7 million in 2010 and it is expected to hit about 19 million or about 14% of Russia’s total population by 2020, according to official Russian data.

Thus, the accelerated process of Islamization in the region that threatens to spill over towards the borders of Russian interests and toward the territory of Russia. In order to achieve those goals, it makes sense that Moscow seeks to boost relations with Riyadh and the countries of the region.

Of course, the above points do not mean in any way that there is a coming alliance between Riyadh and Moscow, but it is certain that the two sides no longer trust American intentions in the region. Consequently, both countries are hedging towards any political developments that may threaten their strategic interests.

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst and the author of the forthcoming book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He is also Al Arabiya’s regular contributor with particular research interest in energy politics and political economy of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Middle East-Asia relations. The writer can be reached on Twitter: @nasertamimi

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