Changes in Russia-Saudi Relations Nothing More than Tactical Maneuvering

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Alireza Noori
Ph.D. Candidate, Saint Petersburg State University & Expert on Russian Affairs

Lack of “strategy” is one of the most important features that characterize Russia’s policy in the Middle East. Examples of this issue have been seen in discontinuous and mostly passive positions that the country has been taking on regional developments from the war in Iraq to political developments in Libya, the Arab Spring, and Iran's nuclear issue. At the same time, Moscow has been trying to take a multi-vectoral and pragmatic approach to versatile conditions in the Middle East in order to maintain a certain level of relations “with all parties” to guarantee some of its interests and gradually boost its influence.

An example of this approach has been evident in Russia’s interactions with Saudi Arabia. These interactions are not extensive and lack of satisfaction is obvious on both sides, examples of which include Moscow’s dissatisfaction with the role played by Riyadh in reducing global oil prices on the basis of political motivations; Saudi Arabia’s direct and indirect role in spreading Islamic extremism across the region; and differences between Russia and Saudi Arabia over the ongoing regional developments, including the situation in Syria. Nonetheless, pragmatic politicians in Kremlin have been always trying to avoid increasing tension with Riyadh and have also indicated their willingness to expand relations between their country and Saudi Arabia.

The signs of this tactical approach have been evident in recent developments that have taken place in the two countries’ relations, including conclusion of a nuclear deal between the two sides, signing of a memorandum of understanding for economic cooperation, the two countries’ willingness to boost military cooperation, and their readiness to increase diplomatic exchanges, which was especially highlighted through a recent visit to Russia by Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince. Although there is a long way between signing the aforesaid agreements and their implementation, such developments can be considered a sign of “progress” in the two countries’ relations. Moscow has various reasons for the adoption of a pragmatic approach to Riyadh. Under current circumstances and in view of the complexity and versatility of developments in the Middle East, and also in the light of its relations with the West, Saudi Arabia is trying to use all available foreign policy tools in order to boost its bargaining power and make achievement of its foreign policy goals possible. Moscow has been also welcoming further expansion of relations with Saudi Arabia exactly for a set of similar reasons.

Kremlin knows that Saudi Arabia is a country with great influence in the region and the Islamic world, and expansion of interactions with Riyadh would mean to open a new “gateway” to developing relations with other Arab countries of the region as well. On the other hand, tension with Riyadh would limit such relations and will even pose serious challenges to Russia. Officials in Kremlin are well aware that the power of Saudi Arabia is not limited to symmetrical confrontation, but Riyadh is capable of causing serious problems for Moscow when it comes to asymmetrical confrontation. Examples of Saudi Arabia’s asymmetrical power include its influence over millions of Muslims in Russia, South Caucasus and Central Asia, and its ability to provide extremist groups in the Middle East with necessary funds and ideological backing, and direct them toward Russia’s borders. Therefore, Moscow believes that maintaining a certain level of relations with Riyadh is a more efficient mechanism which will enable Moscow to take advantage of the existing opportunities and control threats.

Russia is also aware that claiming a share in the future Middle East would be very difficult and costly in the absence of good relations with Saudi Arabia. Tactical expansion of relations with Riyadh and following a multi-vectoral policy toward the Middle East region will not only increase Russia’s bargaining power in the face of the West, but also boost its ability to take part in the regional political game along with other Middle Eastern powers, including Iran, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. By doing this, Moscow would be able to reap benefits through relations with any of these players.

Therefore, under conditions that in practice, Moscow lacks considerable resources to influence developments in the region, expansion of interactions with the traditional regional ally of the West will not only make up for that shortcoming, but also give new impetus to foreign policy of Russia and allow it to “show” a new trump card in the face of the West. Of course, the impact of this card cannot be very considerable under the present circumstances, but further development of relations can turn it into a very effective card.

Economic benefits of interaction with Saudi Arabia are also of interest to Moscow. Selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a country whose weapons market has been monopolized by the West for many long years, can mark a turning point for the expansion of Russia’s arms exports and also give Kremlin some leverage over Riyadh. Meanwhile, nuclear cooperation between the two countries can be analyzed within this framework. Having Saudi Arabia as a new customer for Russian nuclear technology will be a breakthrough for Moscow. From the viewpoint of nonproliferation, Russia can get hold of all aspects and goals of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program by engaging in nuclear cooperation with this country, just like what Russia has already done with Iran.

Moscow, however, is well aware of the limitations it faces in relations with Riyadh, the most important of which pertain to strategic relations between Riyadh and Washington. Despite some differences, relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States are still really strong. Moscow knows that Saudi Arabia does not look upon Russia as a strategic partner and the recent willingness of Riyadh to get closer to Moscow has been merely out of pure “tactical” reasons. One of those reasons is to have Russia’s cooperation, or at least impartiality, in order to pave the way for further advancement of the regional policy of Riyadh, especially when it comes to containment of Iran and achieving Saudi Arabia’s goals in Syria and Yemen.

Despite the above facts, Saudi Arabia will not succeed in its effort to make a drastic change in Russia’s positions on developments in the Middle East, at least, with regard to the three aforesaid cases. This is true because Riyadh is just one regional variable with a certain level of influence while variables influencing Moscow’s policy toward those three cases are international in nature and a function of the power equation between Russia and the West. Riyadh’s “money diplomacy” will not be effective with respect to Moscow either, because in the first place, Russia is a rich country and, secondly, Moscow has already proven in the course of the crisis in Ukraine that it is ready to spend a lot for the realization of its foreign policy goals, especially geopolitical ones. Moscow’s approach to Tehran and Damascus is influenced by geopolitical issues and Moscow is not ready to easily lose ground in these cases. On the other hand, Moscow is aware of the significance of Iran and Syria in future political developments of the Middle East and also knows that it cannot build its foreign policy on the basis of trust in regional allies of the West, especially Saudi Arabia.

Key Words: Russia-Saudi Relations, Tactical Maneuvering, Changes, Middle East, Economic-Military Cooperation, South Caucasus, Central Asia, Muslims, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Nuclear Cooperation, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

*Russia and the Challenge of Iran's Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement:

*Incentives and Impediments to Iran-Russia Military Cooperation:

*Regional and International Assumptions and Realities in Iran-Russia Relations:

*Photo Credit: The Moscow Times

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