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As Obama’s Middle East policy fails, new opportunities open for Russia and Saudi Arabia

Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: the Kremlin press office

With the West and Iran focusing on rapprochement, some Middle East states revise their foreign policy lines. For instance, Saudi Arabia has faced perhaps the most serious challenge in the history of the about 100-year-long statehood. Saudi perceived U.S. actions toward Iran as betrayal. Meanwhile, they realize that such an apolitical thing as “betrayal” in the current extremely cynical situation of the international relations fits the behavior of many Western powers. Saudi Arabia and USA did not face the current crisis of relations in a day. Many challenges – some of fundamental nature – emerged yet in the conditional “golden era” of their relations in 1990-2000. However, having a common geopolitical enemy – Iran – these countries managed to smooth things over other issues without serious consequences for their strategic partnership. Now, there is no balance in the assessments and approaches of Washington and Riyadh when it comes to Iran. Barack Obama’s Administration has finally implemented its Middle East policy of balancing the relations with Iran, but it is yet to resist the pressure of the Republican majority in the Congress. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has not changed its strong geopolitical confrontation with Iran. The most efficient element of that confrontation were the international and one-sided sanctions against Tehran.

With sanctions being rescinded, Iran gets freedom of actions in the Middle East and its nuke program is not fully phased out, though USA insisted on it up to 2013. What frightens Saudi most of all is Washington’s decision to reach certain agreements with Tehran amid the current situation in the Middle East that is extremely unfavorable for Riyadh. The United States focused on rapprochement with Iran at the height of the regional expansion of the latter. Saudi Arabia sees an evident threat in that. Iran has taken control over the Shia forces in the region and expanded its influence over the capital cities of the Middle East countries where the Shia factor is evident.  In addition, the United States has left Saudi Arabia alone with its problems amid this creeping expansion of Iran in the Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana.  

Riyadh has what to think over and draw conclusions. One of the transitional results of such thoughts was retaliation. Saudi Arabia turned to Russia and China – the key geostrategic opponents of the United States. Riyadh’s aspirations to achieve a new level of relationships with Moscow aimed to damage the interests of Washington. One can see here foreign policy “symmetry” in the actions of the large Arabian monarchy. While the West is opposing Russia’s policy of “annexation” and the new status of Crimea, Saudi Arabia assumes the current realities and launches the process of rapprochement with Russia. Meantime, the West has announced an overall diplomatic and military-political mobilization against Moscow. Actually, the Saudi demonstrate their discontent at the United States on the example of Iran and Crimea. 

A solid governmental delegation of the Saudi Arabia led by the son of King Salman left for Saint Petersburg at the very beginning of the final round of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.  After the meeting with the Russian leader, on June 18, Mohammed bin Salman, the new deputy crown prince, defense minister of Saudi Arabia announced that his country looks to make big investments in Russia and shows high interest in the advanced missiles systems made in Russia. Besides, he said, the world’s two big oil exporters are establishing a close dialogue. It is noteworthy that the current Russian-Saudi rapprochement is in effect unlike previous similar undertakings of Saudi Arabia when they were just playing with Russia. For instance, in 2007 they sought to persuade Moscow to abandon the idea of a big arms deal for supply of S300 systems to Tehran. In February 2007, President of Russia Vladimir Putin visited Saudi Arabia. Then, the Command of the General Intelligence Service of the Kingdom already had information that Russia and Iran were preparing a deal for supply of S300 systems, though the deal was announced only in December 2007. Riyadh then promised Moscow to make huge arms procurements, such as T-90 tanks, Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, armored vehicles, air defense systems etc. However, the deal was failed, as in fact, the potential Saudi client had no desire to buy anything from Russia. Saudi played against Iran, but on the side of the United States. The situation is different now, as Al-Saud Family plays a more complex game where Americans are no longer strategic allies, but momentary partners with the expected results.

There is quite favorable situation for Russia and Saudi Arabia to achieve a new level of partnership where declarations gradually result in practical steps. Furthermore, the Saudi leadership has undergone certain changes that will have a positive impact on the two countries’ relations. In January 2015, when King Abdullah died, Prince Salman replaced him. Abdullah belonged to the Shammar clan that commands the National Guard of Saudi Arabia. The present monarch is the leader of Sudairi clan. That group in power is considered the “security chiefs” of the Kingdom and has been traditionally balanced by another influential clan – Sunayan.  Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister that has passed away recently was a member of that clan.

Sunayan was controlling over the foreign policy where the influence of its pro-Western representatives is still significant. However, clan Sudairi is dominating in the country now, as among others the country is in a state of regional war.  Saudi Arabia strikes the positions of Shiite rebels-Hussites in Yemen, protects its southern borders from them and from the terror assaults by the Islamic State.  The military led by Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who had a talk with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, and the security services from the clan Sudairi have dominating positions in the country.  Although representatives of the dominating clan have been traditionally considered as “hawks,” including in the Kingdom’s foreign policy line toward Russia, the current developments in the Middle East have changed the things. In addition, some “hawks” passed away from other clans too.  For instance, the deceased Saud al-Faisal made many insinuations against Russia during the last years of his 40-year-long (!) tenure. On June 25 2013, he demanded Russia to stop “feverish arming of the Assad regime” claiming that Moscow endlessly supplies money and arms to Damascus that contributes to “genocide of the Syrian people.”  One of the last episodes of the kind was al-Faisal’s anti-Russian statements at the Arab League Summit in Sharm el-Sheik on March 28-29. The Russian president’s address read out at the Summit aroused a storm of protest by the elderly prince. In response to Vladimir Putin’s call for search of peaceful solutions to the Middle-East conflicts, he made allegations against Russia claiming that Moscow applied “double standards” in the international policy and even called it “part of the problems” in the Middle East (1).

Experts say that in conditions of the current balance of power in Saudi Arabia its leadership wages more aggressive policy, makes prompt and longsighted decisions. They say that the key acting persons of the Kingdom – members of the clan Sudairi will not avoid confrontation if it is of vital importance for the statehood of the monarchy. The U.S. Administration may become a potential target of such Saudi confrontation. Few pin hopes with it now, at the end of Obama’s second term, in the Middle East (Iran is not an exception, but a confirmation of that tendency!). Al Saud Family is looking forward for a new Republican president to come in power in the United States and is neglecting Obama’s Administration.

Moscow and Riyadh should use this one and a half year purposefully. Common perception of the failure of Obama’s Middle-East policy is an important ideological component of the emerging partnership of Russia and Saudi Arabia. Oil, weapons and potential contracts on construction of NPP underlining the status of Russia and Saudi Arabia in the global “division of labor” are not the only stimulating factors here. The two countries may cooperate on an every-day basis in the Greater Middle East and outside it.  The latest SCO and BRICS Summit in UFA, Russia, gives certain geopolitical hints. Nothing impedes Saudi Arabia’s admission to SCO and/or BRICS now.  Russia and China could speed up the process of Saudi Arabia’s accession to the SCO, which is necessary to “tie-in” Riyadh and Tehran on the example of India and Pakistan.

Moscow and Beijing will have to take genuine political efforts to bring the two geopolitical rivals under the SCO shelter. However, the final goal of Russia and China is more than attractive. The United States will again fail its Middle East line and will do it so evidently that the next White House administration will have to think twice before trying to expand its hegemony in the world.

(1) At the previous stages, Russia and Saudi Arabia returned to diplomatic tricks every time when their approaches on the Syrian crisis differed fundamentally.  For instance, in summer 2012, Riyadh responded sharply to the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry representative for human rights, democracy and supremacy of the law Konstantin Dolgov about persecutions of the Shia minorities in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

Mikhail Aghajanyan, EADaily analyst in the Middle East

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