Russia and Saudi Arabia have serious points of conflict but the record shows their relations were actually already good
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
News of the meetings between Saudi Arabia and Russia at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, and rumors that Saudi Arabia may be thinking of buying arms from Russia, have caused something of a sensation.
Many appear to think that there has been some sort of reversal of Saudi policy following the recent accession of King Salman to the Saudi throne and that Russia and Saudi Arabia are now undergoing some sort of rapprochement. There is even talk of a petroleum alliance.
Others fear that Russia is shifting away from its support for President Assad in Syria, and that this is what is behind these recent moves.
In my opinion both these claims and these fears are based on a misunderstanding of the Russian and Saudi relationship.
During the Cold War Russia and Saudi Arabia were enemies. After the 1930s they broke off diplomatic relations with each other and these were only restored as the USSR disintegrated.
The situation today is however completely different. Russia today is not Saudi Arabia’s ideological adversary. It is Western liberal opinion that is far more hostile to Saudi Arabia than Russia’s.
At a personal level Putin and the Saudis get on well with each other. This is what Putin said about Russia’s relations with Saudi Arabia and his personal feelings towards King Abdullah (the recently deceased Saudi King) in his annual TV marathon in April last year:
"We are on very good terms with Saudi Arabia. We may, for example, differ in terms of our views on Syria, but we practically have identical positions on the development of the situation in Egypt. There are many other things where we see eye-to-eye. I have great respect for the custodian of the two Muslim shrines, the King of Saudi Arabia. He is a very clever and balanced man."
It is wrong to think of the Saudis and the Russians as locked in conflict with each other. One should not fall into the U.S. habit of thinking that because two countries disagree with each other that makes them enemies. There is no evidence either the Russians or the Saudis think that way.
The Russians and the Saudis disagree completely about Syria. In Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran, Russia tilts towards Iran.
Neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia however actually threaten each other. Neither seeks the overthrow of the other’s government.
The biggest point of contention between Russia and Saudi Arabia has not been Syria, Iran or Saudi oil policy. It has been covert Saudi backing for the jihadi rebels in Russia’s Caucasus.
During a meeting in July 2013 between Putin and Prince Bandar bin Sultan --- the Saudi prince who at that time headed Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service --- Prince Bandar allegedly admitted to Putin Saudi support for the Caucasian jihadi rebels who have been fighting Russia since the 1990s. Supposedly Prince Bandar offered to rein them in, in return for Putin withdrawing Russia’s support from Syria’s President Assad. According to detailed reports of the meeting leaked by the Lebanese press, Putin said no.
Since that meeting Prince Bandar has been ousted from his post -- something that happened in April 2014 while Abdullah was still king and giving every appearance of being firmly in control. Jihadi activity in the Caucasus meanwhile has continued to fall away.
The jihadis failed to disrupt the winter Olympics in Sochi as they had threatened to do. Doku Umarov --- their leader --- has been killed.
It is difficult to avoid the impression of a jihadi movement in decline --- though one still capable of odd spikes of extreme violence --- either because it has been comprehensively defeated by the Russian military or because the Saudis have given up on it. Either way it is unlikely to be the cause of contention between Saudi Arabia and Russia that it once was.
As to the atmospherics of the relationship, there is no question that the Saudis prefer Putin’s clarity and forthrightness to the convoluted solipsisms they get from Obama -- something which incidentally is true of the whole of the rest of the world outside the West.
Above all neither the Russians nor the Saudis lecture each other as the U.S. constantly does. It is this U.S. habit of sermonising and grandstanding --- so often contradicted by the policies the U.S. actually follows --- that most vexes everyone who has to deal with the U.S., including the Russians and the Saudis.
Far from being unusual, the ability to maintain cordial relations while being in conflict on some issues, is standard practice between countries, the U.S. being the exception that proves the rule.
To take Russian policy as an example, Russia’s closest ally is China. However Russia also maintains very good relations with Vietnam and India and sells them both arms. Both Vietnam and India are sometimes in conflict with China. The fact that Russia has good relations with Vietnam and India does not however impact negatively on its relations with China.
Russia also has good relations with Turkey, to which it is now building a gas pipeline and with which it is the biggest trade partner. This despite the conflicting positions Russia and Turkey take over the Syrian crisis and over the Armenian-Azeri conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
It is precisely because relations between the Russians and the Saudis are generally good that I have always been skeptical about claims that the Saudis deliberately engineered the oil price fall last autumn --- supposedly at the behest of the U.S. --- in order to force Russia to change its policies over Syria and Ukraine.
The Saudi oil minister has always denied this, as have others among the Saudi princes.
If the Saudis deliberately engineered a crash in oil prices in order to force Russia to change its policies over Syria and Ukraine, surely the Saudis would declare the fact rather than deny it? What would be the sense in denying it?
It is much more likely that the oil price crash was a natural event caused in the first instance by the strengthening of monetary policy in the U.S., which the Saudis have since capitalised on --- as they have repeatedly said --- in order to strangle the U.S. shale industry so as to improve their market share.
Saudi Arabia is and will remain a U.S. ally. However it is not a vassal state. It is a country with its own policies, controversial or misguided as those may sometimes be.
Saudi Arabia has no interest in the Ukrainian conflict. It perceives no threat to itself from Russia.
Its relations with Russia’s ally China are excellent.
There is no reason therefore why Saudi Arabia should not also seek to have good relations with Russia, whatever differences may exist between them.
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
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