Relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which have never been cloudless, are quite tensе today, something that seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
This is not just because of their conflicting approaches to resolving the crisis in Syria. The reason is that Moscow and Riyadh are on opposite sides of the barricades in the transformation of the Middle East that is currently under way. Nevertheless, in some ways these countries are very dependent on each other and could become partners at some time in the future. Unfortunately, that could be quite a long time from now.
It is almost forgotten now that the Soviet Union was the first non-Arab state to diplomatically recognize Saudi Arabia, in February, 1926 (even before its formal independence). Moscow viewed Saudi independence as one more sign of the inevitable collapse of the colonial empires. However, diplomatic relations were broken off in 1938 at the initiative of Riyadh, and relations between the two states remained unfriendly, if not hostile, for a long time. During the Cold War, Moscow placed its Middle East stake on secular political regimes, such as Egypt (before its realignment in 1974), Syria and Iraq. Being a monarchical and theocratic state, Saudi Arabia automatically fell off the list of potential Soviet allies or partners. In the meantime, Riyadh regarded the Communist regime as anti-Islamic and incompatible with Saudi values.
Of course, both approaches were purely ideological. But there were also a number of serious clashes between Moscow and Riyadh, especially due to the Soviet support of the Communist regime in South Yemen. The secularization and political modernization (on the basis of socialism) of the Arab Peninsula threatened to undermine Saudi stability. Finally, these processes could lead to the collapse of Saudi Arabia as a unitary state. This forced Riyadh to strengthen its relationship with the West, particular with the United States (the only power that could provide the Saudi government real political and military support in case of serious tensions with Moscow).
At the same time, Russia has its own claims against Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s Riyadh backed the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Saudis reached agreement with Washington to drive down the price of oil, reducing the Soviet Union’s oil export revenue.
This atmosphere left little grounds for cooperation. However, after Mikhail Gorbachev revised Soviet foreign policy, Moscow began to look at the Middle East from a different perspective. In 1990–1991 it abandoned its unpredictable ally, Saddam Hussein, and did not oppose the Desert Storm. In 1990, diplomatic relations between Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia were restored.
Perhaps it might have been a successful restart. But further developments showed that relations between Moscow and Riyadh faced other challenges. These appeared very soon when in the 1990s Saudi Arabia (along with a number of other countries) began to transfer money to radical Muslim organizations in Russia and other post-Soviet countries. It would certainly be inaccurate to say that Riyadh intentionally backed separatists in the North Caucasus to weaken the Russian state and to cause domestic problems for Russia. However, it is evident that at least a part of these financial resources fed the extremists and encouraged them to continue their bloody work. Saudi militants also fought on the side of the separatists in the Chechen wars. It was definitely an irritant in bilateral relations.
Nevertheless, after the end of counterterrorist operation in Chechnya, there was some slight progress. In November 2003, the Saudi delegation headed by the future King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud visited Russia and held negotiations with President Vladimir Putin. As a result cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia received fresh impetus that finally led to ratification of a number of agreements in the oil and gas sector, science and technology. In February 2007, Putin was the first Russian leader who visited Saudi Arabia. Up until the Arab revolutions began, it seemed that the steady improvement in relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia was continuing.
In fact, disregarding the political and ideological contradictions of the past, cooperation between Moscow and Riyadh is still promising. Both states could cooperate in the global energy market, regulating oil prices to the benefit of both. Russia was ready to sell to Saudi Arabia its advanced weapons and military equipment, reducing its dependence on U.S. supplies. Also Russia could present opportunities for Saudi investments. But at present, none of these are likely to be realized soon.
Since the beginning of the Middle East uprisings, in particular after the war in Libya broke out, Moscow suspected (with good reason) that Saudi Arabia was financing and arming the anti-Gaddafi forces. Later, Moscow was dismayed by the Saudi decision to suppress the opposition in Bahrain. It looked like the classical double-standard game: support the Libyan opposition and shoot Bahraini protesters. Bilateral relations became even worse when Riyadh strongly backed the Syrian opposition. Unlike Libya, Syria is a key Russian ally in the region. Therefore Moscow reacted accordingly and finally changed its politics towards Saudi Arabia.
At the moment it is too early assessing if it will be a temporary cooling in relations or a long-term shift. Much depends on new developments in Syria and their impact on regional security, but not everything. As it seems from Moscow, Saudi Arabia is a key player in a U.S. game aimed at creation of a united Sunni front against Iran (an old idea that Washington first tried to put into practice in 1980s). If the Bashar al-Assad government falls, it will mean that Tehran loses its last Middle East ally.
The “Syria now, Iran next” strategy is absolutely unacceptable for Russia, because in the event of war, the chaos in Iran would soon open the floodgates of instability to the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia. So by defending Syria and opposing any powers, including Saudi Arabia, that intend to overthrow the official government in Damascus, Moscow is protecting its national interests.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the current crisis in Russian–Saudi relations is the gravest since the 1990s. As the Middle East puzzle gets more and more complicated, it leaves less space for diplomatic maneuver. It is evident if Assad falls, the Sunni-Shiite opposition (led by Riyadh and Tehran) will be one of the main factors shaping the new face of the region. In this highly explosive situation, anything can happen. And the strained Russia–Saudi Arabia relationship will be very dependent on future Middle East developments.
Alexey Pilko, Associate Professor at Moscow State University, Faculty of World Politics