Russian-Saudi Relations: From Competition to Cooperation

The visit of King Salman to Russia is by all means historical. In one hand, it is the first visit ever of a Saudi King to Russia. In second hand it led to economic and military agreements, including buying Russian weapons by Saudi Arabia and breaking the American monopoly in this field. Finally, it represents the shift in the relations between the two countries from being built by rivalry and its historical legacy, to be made on mutual interests.

Since he became a King to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of 2015, King Salman looked to be taking a new approach to the Saudi international relations. This new method was triggered by the internal, regional and global developments characterized by the increase in the terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia, the region, and globally. Besides that, there is the economic crisis in Saudi Arabia when its policy to decrease the oil price started to fire back at home. Finally, the Saudi engagements in wars in Syria and Yemen led to grieve losses.

The Saudis seem to learn from these developments that they have to open up internationally to deal with them, and not to depend on the unilateral American efforts given the instability in the American policies towards both Saudi Arabia and the region. In this regard, the Americans got 460 billion from Saudi Arabia during President Trump last March visit to Riyadh but followed that by Americans courts resolutions demanding Saudi Arabia to pay trillions of dollars to the American citizen for its alleged responsibility regarding the 11th of September 2001 attacks in the US. Besides that, there is the American failure to move the Palestinian Israeli peace process forward and the American “warlike" language back against Iran which Saudi Arabia will not like because Saudi Arabia wants a change in the Iranian policies rather than hitting Iran.

The signals for the new Saudi approach are both internal and external. Internally by the Vision 2030  to diversify the Saudi income resources beyond depending only on oil, changing the education curricula by taking out all those parts that might be interpreted as calling for violence and terror. Finally, opening the public space for women participation.

Externally, Saudi Arabia opened up its relations with its neighborly Iraq, changed its position towards Bashar Al Asad in Syria, and supported agreements in the last year between the oil-producing countries to decrease the oil production and to preserve its price.

The results of King Salman visit to Russia can be read in this background. Besides that Saudi Arabia started to understand the crucial role of Russia to solve the conflict with Iran, and accordingly in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. As well the Saudis got to know how important is the agreement with Russia to keep the stability in the oil market. That is all in addition to the common interests of both to fight the Salafi Jihadist groups' terrorism inside both of them, regionally and globally. To mention also the potential for the Russian Saudi economic cooperation mainly in the fields of oil and energy industries, and the importance of Russia to diversify the Saudi weapons.

After the visit, the two countries looked to become in better shape regarding their cooperation to solve the regional conflicts (Palestine, Syria, and Yemen), to fight terrorism regionally and globally and inside both. They also look to be developing joint investments in both countries by the 14 economic cooperation agreements that were signed.

Upon these achievements, the prospects that Russia will mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran looks to be one of the promising potentials. Three countries share the same interest regarding the stability of the oil market, the solution of the regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen and others; also they share a common agenda to fight terrorism. The disturbing factor for such process will be the Americans and the extent to how much the Saudis will support a more American aggressive policy towards Iran.

Scenarios for the Russian-Saudi future relations

The continuous confrontational legacy of the Saudi-Russian relations prevented the two countries till the last few years from developing joint initiatives on the issues of agreement between them, and also prevented them from developing what might be a bilateral agenda between both.

On the common agenda Saudi Arabia and Russia agree on the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of two states along 1967 borders, and that is despite the Russian support to Israel with hundreds of thousands of immigrants that increased its population opposite to the Palestinians, and despite the active economic, security and military, and the political cooperation that exists between Russia and Israel.

Both Saudi Arabia and Russia support the Arab Peace Initiative and the need for an international peace conference to solve the conflict. Saudi Arabia also showed no objection to the Russian relations with Hamas. The two countries also agree on the support of the al-Sisi regime in Egypt, and they meet together in the OIC and the G20. Last but not least the two countries agree (from different points of departure), on the need to create the Middle East that is free of weapons of mass destruction.

These issues of agreement can be the basis of Saudi Russian cooperative relations. If achieved this will be the first scenario for the future Saudi Russian relations, where the two countries will agree to continue disagreeing on some issues, without this to be a hurdle that will prevent them from cooperating on the universal themes between both. The result of such “positive scenario" will be that the two countries will stop the zero-sum game of their relations, and for Saudi Arabia, it will start also diversifying its international relations beyond the unilateral dependency on the USA. As different scholars participating in the Arab Russian relations conference held in Doha in May 2015, such as Majed Turki, Faisal Abu Salib and Nasser bin Ghaith and others.

This positive scenario faces some hurdles that are on the top of them the Saudi Russian remaining points of disagreement concerning their positions towards Iran and Syria. Still, of course, to say also that change on the Saudi positions regarding Syria and Iran will not necessarily mean a switch on the Saudi attitudes towards the Russian conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine where there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia will continue to follow the American position on these issues.

Upon that the Saudi-Russian future relations might be subject to other scenarios that one of them is: Muddling ahead by continuing much of the same in the Saudi Russian relations, but this scenario looks to be over by the last visit of King Salman to Russia. This is the second scenario after the first one that was called as the positive scenario above.

The third scenario will  come from the Syrian crisis which was referred to partially above, and the possibilities of the development of an international consensus to calm it down( if not to solve it) with the Saudi, Iran and Russian participation, and in this case a big hurdle will be removed from the path of developing the Saudi-Russian relationship, and the Iranian Saudi relations as well, opening the way by then for the solution of different other problems in the region as an outcome of the Saudi- Russian and Iranian trilateral relationship. This scenario faces the hurdles that came after in January 2016 with the newly emerging problems in the Saudi-Iranian relations after Saudi Arabia executed the shi`te leader Nimer Al Nimer followed by attacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran than a cut of the diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The fourth scenario is in the opposite by Saudi Arabia joining a western efforts to be formulated in order to bring the Russian economy, and the Russian military capabilities down by the reduction of the oil prices, new arms race, and the support of proxy non state actors fighters against the Russian   troops in different places that they fight in, as tools that will make Russia collapse and stop its revisionist attempts to change the global system as they were called by Mohammed Hamshi( Hamshi, 2015). A scenario that is not yet decided on by the West, and the current global context and relations might not allow it to happen again, due to the absence of an ideological rift as it was the case when it was used to make the Soviet Union collapse. In another hand the pushing factors to such a scenario are related to Russia and how much it will go far challenging the American dominance worldwide. In any way the" fight" aiming to weaken the Russian economy is there already by decreasing the price of oil till recent years when Saudi Arabia found itself to coordinate the oil price with Russia in order to avoid this rate drastic fall, also there are already some American and European Sanctions imposed against Russia after it took over Crimea in 2015. The question if the West pressure on Russia will be limited to these measures or not, is subject to the kind of moves that Russia and the West will make in the future.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.