Saudi Arabia’s bear hug
The kingdom is strengthening its ties with Russia as it nervously watches US political developments
Russian president Vladimir Putin was afforded the sort of red-carpet welcome in Riyadh on his October visit to Saudi Arabia that was once reserved for US heads of state. This was deliberate. Both sides wanted the occasion to symbolise the start of a relationship that far exceeds cooperation in the management of global oil prices.
Putin arrived in the kingdom at a moment when the current US administration’s strategy—if the term can even be justified in this case—in the Middle East seemed more inexplicable than ever, as President Trump gave mixed messages to Turkey about the fate of Syrian Kurds. With the US having disappointed the Saudi leadership in failing to respond to the Abqaiq attacks, and Trump declaring that the US wants to turn its back on the Middle East, the kingdom is looking for new alliances.
“There is certainly an element of Saudi Arabia signalling that it has options and partners,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “It is showing that it is more assertive and can and will go elsewhere if political conditions in the US persist.”
Saudi Arabia and Russia, as two of the world’s leading energy producers, have worked closely together to coordinate the Opec+ production cuts to try to bolster oil prices. Several joint economic and industrial investment projects were signed when King Salman visited Russia in 2017, and more were agreed during Putin’s visit to Riyadh.
Now, on a foundation of energy and economic cooperation, the two countries are striving for something more. Putin told his hosts that Russian-Saudi coordination was “an indispensable element for ensuring security” in the Mena region, adding that “without your country it is hardly possible to achieve a long-term settlement of any problem in this region”.
Saudi Arabia hopes the broader relationship will give it a more influential role in the Middle East. The kingdom “needs to engage with Russia on wider geopolitical issues in the region, including Syria and Iran”, says Steffen Hertog, a politics professor and Saudi Arabia expert at the London School of Economics.” It also wants to prevent Russia being too close to either Turkey or Iran.”
At present, Saudi Arabia is firmly allied to the US, not least in the field of military and security cooperation. While it would be surprising if Russian arms sales to Saudi Arabia were not eventually among the fruits of the Putin visit, at this stage the kingdom is unlikely to risk a blow-up with the US and accept any major deals such as the offer of Russian S-400 missiles. “The strategic reliance on US advice and equipment is deeply embedded in the Saudi military establishment and would probably take decades to reverse,” says Hertog. “But the kingdom clearly wants to diversify.”
Another incentive for Saudi Arabia to seek new alliances is the uncertainty over current US political direction. Trump, while appearing at first to be the kingdom’s strongest advocate, has turned out to be unreliable and unpredictable.
But, if he is defeated next year and the Democrats take power, there is also much about which the Saudi leadership may be anxious about. A Democrat victory “would administer a deep shock to the relationship”, says Hertog. “I do not think security cooperation would halt altogether, but US support for Riyadh’s regional policy would reduce significantly. A Democrat president would be under strong domestic pressure to squeeze Riyadh over human rights issues and its role in Yemen.”
Extricating itself from Yemen is high on the Saudi’s administration’s agenda. And given its close ties to Iran, Russian help in mediating an end to the war there is likely to be one of the first things that Saudi Arabia will seek from its new friends in Moscow.