King Salman bin Abdulaziz arrived in Moscow on October 5 for an official visit, the first ever for a Saudi monarch. It had not been an easy decision but Washington’s puzzling lack of action had left him no choice.
It was time to start talking to Russia, now fast becoming a decisive player in the Middle East in the political and military arena to the extent that it would have to be part of any solution. Prominent on the king’s agenda was the need to convince his hosts of the danger Iran constituted for all the countries of the region, including the Gulf states.
He was very clear on that point during his conversation with President Putin. Also on the agenda – reaching a better coordination on determining oil prices in response to sudden political or economic changes as were seen in recent years. Furthermore, establishing economic ties with Russia is part of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman plan (Saudi Vision 2030) to diversify his country’s economy and lessen its dependence on oil. For President Putin, solidly entrenched in Syria while developing his political, military and economic cooperation with Egypt, which is toeing the Russian line regarding Syria and helped him extend his influence in Libya, Salman’s surprise visit was just icing on the cake.
Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Sunni world and the keeper of the two holiest sites of Islam. The Soviet Union had been driven away from the Middle East following the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the growing disenchantment of most Arab states, and finally its own disintegration, but now Russia is back in force.
This is a challenge for Riyadh, which has depended on US support for 72 years – since Ibn Saud’s legendary meeting with president Roosevelt in February 22, 1945, on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. The American president was on his way back home from the Yalta summit.
America pledged to support Saudi Arabia militarily and politically in return for a steady oil supply and embracing its policy on the region.
Diplomatic relations established in 1926 between the Soviet Union and Ibn Saud, then king of Hejaz, were severed in 1938.
The Saudis were afraid of the spread of communism and did not approve of the secular nature of the Soviet Union which furthermore oppressed its Muslim populations.
The two countries often found themselves on opposite sides. While America fought to defeat Soviet intervention in Afghanistan starting in 1980, Saudi Arabia helped by providing massive financial aid to the anti-Russian insurgents.
The Afghan fiasco contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union; however Saudi “assistance” included promoting Wahhabism and its extreme form of Islam in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, leading ultimately to the emergence of the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Moscow and Riyadh reestablished diplomatic relations in 1991. By 2011 they were again on collision course, this time about Syria. While the kingdom was helping Sunni Islamic militias fighting the regime, Russia tried to bring about a deal which would leave Bashar Assad in place.
When president Obama failed to act after one redline after the other – such as the use of chemical weapons – was crossed, Putin felt free to intervene openly. Russia and Syria signed a military assistance agreement that ensured the survival of Assad’s regime – and let Moscow establish a naval basis in Tartous and an air force base north of Latakia in the Alawi canton. Russia now had achieved its longtime ambition of having a permanent foothold on the Mediterranean.
But there was a price: Russia agreed to cooperate with Iran, which had come to Assad’s rescue from the beginning. In October 2012 Tehran ordered Hezbollah militiamen to fight the rebels; later it established the so-called popular Shia militias aiding the Syrian regular army. Russia found itself helping these motley forces by launching air attacks from its Syrian bases and firing missiles from its naval vessels in the Black Sea and in the Mediterranean. Its airplanes could also take off from Iranian bases for their bombing missions.
None of this could have happened without the gradual disengagement of America from the Middle East during the Obama years. Russia and Iran hastened to fill the vacuum, each for its own ends.
Tehran sees in Assad’s survival the continuation of its penetration of the country, the reinforcement of its Hezbollah ally and a direct threat to Israel. Russia needs Assad to maintain its foothold on the Mediterranean. Can their cooperation, based on a common interest, last? Israel has warned the Russians that it will not let Iran establish a military presence near its border on the Golan and that it will act if it feels threatened. Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, has said that his country has to take Israeli interests into account. Washington is yet to say anything on the subject, though it is expected that its relations with Tehran will deteriorate because of Donald Trump’s position on the 2015 nuclear deal. It is not clear how Russia would react if the US-Iran conflict escalated.
At this point Saudi Arabia concluded that it was time to hedge its bets. It remains close to America and stands by its commitment to buy $110 billion of arms and other military equipment; however, the Sunni coalition against Iran, which was to have been set up after Trump’s trip to Riyadh last May, never got off the ground. Qatar, which has close links to Iran and supports the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and extremist militias in Syria and Libya, would not have been a willing participant, and America, which maintains its largest air force base in the small emirate is not flexing its muscles to make it join. Egypt, while paying lip service to the projected coalition is conflicted because of its growing ties with Russia.
In short, Saudi Arabia felt it had to go it alone and turned to Moscow, which received King Salman with all the pomp and protocol it could muster. No fewer than 15 agreements were signed on issues ranging from security to space, energy, trade and communications. A billion dollar investment fund was set up in Russia. Riyadh undertook to buy the Russian S-400 anti-missile system, Kornet antitank missiles, missile launchers and Kalashnikov assault rifles – with the proviso that they could be manufactured in Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, Washington authorized the sale of its THAAD missile defense system to the kingdom, perhaps as a last-ditch effort to prevent its ally from acquiring the Russian system, which would entail close military and technological communications between Russian and Saudi forces.
None of the aforementioned agreements is final. Rather they are mere declarations of intent; their implementation may well depend on Russia’s answers to Riyadh on the Iranian threat.
The civil war in Syria is still raging. Though Islamic State is virtually extinct, the threat of an independent Kurdistan can still fan the flames; Turkey is poised to intervene. In the words of an Egyptian commentator, when the (American) eagle flies away, the (Russian) bear lumbers in. Will Washington wake up at last and take a more proactive role in the region? The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.