Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

Moscow and Riyadh’s Budding Alliance

By Daniel Wagner
September 10, 2014

As Russia turns away from the West, Moscow is increasingly embracing strategic partnerships with Asian and Middle Eastern states. The formation of new alliances between Russia and various Arab states has much potential to impact the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape at a time when regional alliances are undergoing realignment. Following World War II, Moscow had limited success in terms of influencing events in the region, restricted largely due to the Soviet Union’s political ideology and in part by the security umbrella that the United States provided various Middle Eastern states. Given the cauldron of ongoing Arab Awakening conflicts, evolving energy supply relationships, and shifting political alliances, that calculus is now in transition.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Saudi Arabia. Despite bilateral relations having been tense in recent years (largely a result of Riyadh’s alleged role in supporting Chechen separatists, Saudi Arabia’s opposition to Iran, and opposing stakes in the Syrian crisis), Moscow has capitalized on Riyadh’s frustration with Washington, made public in 2013 when Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi’s intelligence chief, spoke of a “major shift” away from the U.S. Since then, Russian-Saudi relations have improved steadily, as a result of a mutual desire to jointly shape the contours of the new Middle East when both find common ground.

Mutual Concerns and Overlapping Interests

The conflict in Syria, Iraq’s rapidly developing security crisis, and general malaise in the region are an impetus for Moscow and Riyadh to identify ways to fill the void left by the decline of U.S. hegemony. This comes at a convenient time for Moscow, which needs little incentive to flex its muscles internationally.

While perhaps swimming against the tide, Moscow and Riyadh share an interest in the survival of Iraq and Syria’s territorial integrity. Fear of how a new order could impact the regional balance of power and a host of internal issues within Russia and Saudi Arabia drive this mutual interest. If the nation-states of Syria and/or Iraq were to officially partition, Riyadh fears that sectarian unrest would become more prevalent in the kingdom. Given Russia’s influence in both Damascus and Tehran, Riyadh hopes that Moscow can help prevent that from happening. This works conveniently for Putin, who sees the emerging partnership with Riyadh not only as evidence of severely diminished U.S. influence in the region, but of Russia’s ability to project power well beyond traditional boundaries and make inroads across the Muslim world.

The chill in Russia’s relations with the West has created economic and political challenges for Putin, who, like the average Russian on the street, sees the new landscape as imposed on Russia by forces seeking to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) while challenging Russian sovereignty. Saudi Arabia’s rulers see the kingdom as increasingly threatened by external forces gradually tightening a noose around its status quo. Therefore, both countries share a perception of being imposed upon by forces that are unwelcome and largely outside their control.

Moscow and Riyadh share a common interest in opposing the rise of certain militant Islamist groups, such as Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra. Evidently, at least 200 Chechens have joined ranks with Islamist rebels in Syria and the Kremlin naturally fears the security implications of battle-hardened jihadists returning to southwestern Russia. In May 2014, the Saudi authorities discovered a jihadist cell in the kingdom that allegedly held ties to IS. Thus, Russia and Saudi Arabia’s geographic proximity to Iraq and Syria, as well as their own domestic problems with militant Islamist extremists, constitutes a mutual concern and incentive to enhance cooperation on regional security challenges.

The two states share roles as premier energy producers that further their mutual interest in maintaining regional security and stability. Controlling a quarter of global crude oil production, Saudi Arabia and Russia are the first and third largest oil producing countries, respectively. The two also produce a combined 18 percent of the world’s natural gas supply. Therefore it is not only in their interest, but very much in energy consumers‟ interest that their ability to maintain the flow of oil and gas remains uninterrupted.

Overcoming a History of Poor Relations

However, given their bilateral history, it will take some time for Riyadh to become entirely comfortable with its budding alliance with Moscow. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Riyadh viewed Moscow’s partnerships with secular Arab nationalist regimes and a Marxist one in South Yemen as a grave threat to Saudi Arabia’s strategic posture and to the ruling family’s political and religious legitimacy, as well as its control over vast amounts of wealth. Saudi Arabia used its religious influence to foment anti-Soviet attitudes in the Arab/Islamic world. During the 1980s, the Saudi government played a pivotal role, along with the U.S. and Pakistan, in supporting the Mujaheedin fighters that resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In turn, the Soviets viewed Saudi Arabia as a reactionary state that served as an outpost for American imperialism.

Saudi Arabia’s pivot toward China, which purchases more oil from Saudi Arabia than anywhere else and is the second top destination for the kingdom’s crude oil exports, has occurred rapidly. However, Riyadh does not have the same history of tension with Beijing that it has had with Moscow and though the Saudi authorities may wish to embrace Putin, they do not wish to simultaneously overtly alienate the West, particularly as recent events in Ukraine would likely cause greater tension between Washington and Riyadh if the Saudis were to make a public shift toward Moscow. Thus, the Saudi royal family will likely consider the many potential implications of a budding alliance with Russia and act carefully.

While both the U.S. and Russia have no qualms about embracing authoritarian regimes, Washington’s rhetoric about human rights is poorly received in Riyadh. It suits the Saudis well that “political correctness” is not a concern for Putin. By the same token, giving a bear hug to Putin may in the end serve Saudi Arabia well in terms of developing or enhancing relations with new or existing authoritarian regimes, such as that of Egypt’s President Sisi, which has joined Riyadh in exploring a deeper partnership with Russia.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, Russia stands to gain much from a deeper partnership with Saudi Arabia. However, Putin is no doubt concerned about whether the Saudis have a coherent plan for fostering stability in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, other conflicting geopolitical and economic factors will limit Russia’s incentive to pursue deeper ties the Saudis, including Moscow’s concerns about Syria becoming a conduit for natural gas sourced from the GCC, rather than Russia.

In spite of their history and concerns, Moscow and Riyadh have ample reason to continue their cautious courtship. The timing could not be better, given the emasculation of U.S. influence in the Middle East, and the plethora of armed conflicts that plague the region. Russia and Saudi Arabia clearly have more to gain than lose from creating a long-term partnership that serves to advance the growing number of their mutual interests.  

Daniel Wagner is the CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a Connecticut-based cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book “Managing Country Risk”.