Saudi Arabia is in transition and seeks to diversify its external relationships
The forthcoming visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Russia(October 4-7) carries great symbolism. Such poignancy is for several reasons – not merely because this is the first-ever visit by a Saudi monarch to Russia. The Soviet Union was the first country in 1926 to establish diplomatic relations with the Kingdom (which was known at that time as the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd) but under heavy western influence, the Saudi side froze the relationship a decade later, and it remained so till the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Historically, Russia’s encounter with Islam has been tumultuous – often violent but overall assimilative. In certain ways, it draws comparison with long passages of India’s history, the difference being Russia’s imperial history, while India was never an expansionist power and only experienced waves after waves of Muslim conquests.
No doubt, it was a geopolitical masterstroke of the West to pit Islam against communism. The West’s real objective in keeping the Soviet Union out of the Middle East was to control the region’s oil reserves and the world oil market. The use of dollar as the currency for trading in oil was fundamental to the status of dollar as the ‘world currency’, which in turn gave the underpinning for America’s global hegemony through the past seven decades. Some historians attribute the low price of oil as one of the reasons for the weakening of the Soviet economy in the eighties.
Ironically, oil is again at the core of Russia’s relations with Saudi Arabia – except that the two countries now have shared interests in the world oil market (which also happens to be at odds with the US interests following the emergence of its shale industry.) Saudi Arabia and Russia countries are two top oil-exporting countries and income from oil exports constitutes a crucial segment of their national income. In effect, therefore, they are stakeholders in a stable oil market with sustainable, moderately high oil prices. (Expert opinion is that oil price at $50-60 barrels per day will raise the Saudi-Russian comfort level.)
To be sure, energy cooperation will be a major ‘talking point’ for the Kremlin during King Salman’s visit. Saudi Arabia has shown interest in making investments in Russia’s Arctic fields and also aspires to develop its own gas industry. Another big-ticket item has been Russia’s possible membership of OPEC. Besides, Russia hopes to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, which is traditionally dominated by western countries, and also develop its business interests in the Saudi market in project exports. Nuclear cooperation and railways are potential areas.
However, inevitably, Salman’s visit will be assessed in geopolitical terms. The drift in the Saudi-US alliance, Saudi-Iranian rivalry, endgame in the Syrian conflict, the stalemate in the war in Yemen – all this provides the backdrop. Again, Saudi Arabia is in transition and it seeks to diversify its external relationships. While the ousted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif was the favorite of the US to succeed King Salman, the present Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has paid great attention personally to befriend Russia.
Does the blossoming of relations with Saudi Arabia mean that Russia is ‘downgrading’ its ties with Iran? Far from it. Russia is not going to emulate the western strategy of ‘divide and rule’. The Russian diplomacy will aim at synergizing the relations with Saudi Arabia (and the Gulf countries) on the one hand and Iran on the other. Let it not be overlooked that the proposed North-South Corridor, the multi-mode transport network connecting Russia with the Persian Gulf market, passes through Iran. It will not come as surprise if at some point in a conceivable future Russia takes a hand to promote reconciliation amongst the countries of the Persian Gulf.
Such an inclusive regional strategy on Russia’s part has enabled it in the recent years to build up extensive networking in the Middle East and strengthen and consolidate its standing and influence. Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain – Russia enjoys good relations with all of them regardless of possible areas of divergence in regional policies. This stands in contrast with the US approach to foster ‘bloc mentality’ among the countries of the region and to exploit the contradictions in regional politics.
Of course, Russian national interests are also well served in such an inclusive approach. Quite obviously, Russia’s cooperation with Turkey and the GCC states virtually forecloses the US strategic objective to create an arc of its ABM system to the south of Central Europe, which the Obama administration keenly pursued. Certainly, the NATO’s prospects to be the region’s provider of security, which was another American objective, have dramatically diminished. On top of it, if petrodollar recycling gets eroded incrementally, it could seriously weaken the western economic and financial system. But, having said that, Russia has no illusions, either, that a situation where the Middle Eastern states exercise ‘strategic autonomy’ is round the corner – Saudi Arabia included.
In the near-term, though, from Russian viewpoint, the Saudi cooperation will help negotiate a durable settlement in Syria. The creation of the de-escalation zones in Syria is leading to conditions that augur well for political dialogue. An intra-Syrian dialogue must also go alongside a broader regional understanding among the external powers.
It is possible that Saudi Arabia expects Russian help to bring the debilitating war in Yemen to an end. Equally, the Saudi-Russian rapprochement which carries the imprimatur of the Custodian of Holy Places will be widely noticed in the (Sunni) Muslim regions of the North Caucasus. And it can only enhances Russia’s national security. Clearly, Russian diplomacy is gearing up for reconciliation with the (Sunni) Muslim Middle East after the defeat of the ISIS and al-Qaeda in a bloody and extremely violent confrontation (where Russia’s key allies were the Shi’ite militia from Iran and Hezbollah.) This is of a piece with the ebb and flow of Russia’s centuries-old common history with the Muslim world.
Source: Indian Punchline