Keeping an eye on Moscow and Riyadh

Why Israel needs to watch the warming ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia very carefully.

SAUDI KING SALMAN and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a welcoming ceremony at the Kremlin on October 5. (photo credit: REUTERS)
SAUDI KING SALMAN and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a welcoming ceremony at the Kremlin on October 5.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
True diplomatic revolutions don’t come very often, but they often herald regional wars and tectonic adjustments in the balance of power as aftershocks. So the sudden rapprochement between Russia and Saudi Arabia needs to be watched closely, not least by Israel.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz visited Russia from October 4 to October 7. And the deals that came out of his trip were highly significant.
On October 5, as President Vladimir Putin hosted Salman at the Kremlin, Russian officials announced that the Saudis signed preliminary agreements to buy Moscow’s excellent S-400 air defense systems. The Saudis are also expected to buy Kornet anti-tank guided missile systems and multiple rocket launchers as part of the same deal, al-Jazeera reported.
Russia"s Putin receives Saudi King Salman for talks in Kremlin. (Reuters)
These agreements are “expected to play a pivotal role in the growth and development of the military and military systems industry in Saudi Arabia,” Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), the kingdom’s military industries firm said.
The consequences of this development are going to be enormous. But they have two very simple reasons: Mutual fear of the unpredictability of US policy and both countries’ pressing need to stabilize and maintain the recovering price of oil.
One of the most important Saudi policymakers for the past 40 years, Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, head of his country’s military intelligence for 24 years and former Saudi ambassador to the US made this clear in an interview with Russia’s NTV television on October 2.
“The oil market affects both Russia and Saudi Arabia; hence our effort to try to put stability into the oil market to bring Russia and Saudi Arabia together,” he said.
Oil is the key to everything. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration skillfully embraced Saudi Arabia in a close relationship whereby the Saudis agreed to undo most of the enormous price oil price hikes of 1973-74 in return for strong US support against Iran. The plunging global oil price proved ruinous to the energy economy of the Soviet Union and contributed directly to the collapse of the Soviet state, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and end of communist world power. These causalities were well understood at the time in both Washington and Riyadh.
But that was then and this is now. The fracking revolution of the past decade has accomplished the previously unimaginable: It has restored the United States to its historic position as the largest and most crucial “swing” producer of crude petroleum in the world, a position the great Texas fields ceded to Saudi Arabia in 1967, not coincidentally the year of the Six Day War. For the rest of the century no one dreamed the United States would ever regain that fallen crown of world economic energy power.
But reclaim it they did, thanks to one man, George Phydias Mitchell (not the better known US senator), billionaire veteran wildcatter, who developed hydraulic fracking technology in the face of “clean” energy romantics, horrified environmentalists and self-styled energy pundits such as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.
Over the past 10 years, US oil and natural gas production soared again as the new technology unleashed cheap, suddenly accessible energy reserves from the limitless shale deposits of North America on a scale never before imagined. So abundant was the production bonanza that in 2015 Congress reversed the ban on oil exports it had enacted after the 1973-74 OPEC crisis.
The message was clear: US energy producers were not satisfied with abundance and energy independence; they were determined to regain the global position of energy dominance they had enjoyed for 100 years from the time of old John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Trust to the late 1960s.
But Russia and the Saudis both need a stable and healthy global oil price to survive, let alone prosper. And the economic sanctions against Russia reinforced this year by the US Congress over the wishes of President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a clear message to Moscow: They were interpreted by the Russians as meaning US policymakers were inimically hostile to Russia and would not rest until its modest but real economic recovery was smothered.
Putin understands the oil business probably better than any other current world leader and arguably as well as Tillerson himself, who served with outstanding success as President and CEO of Exxon, the biggest successor company to Rockefeller’s legendary Standard.
So Putin remembers very well what the Saudi commitment to low oil prices did to the Soviet economy in the 1980s. He is therefore determined not to let Washington pull off the same trick against his Russia today.
Putin’s concern led to the other profound agreement announced in Moscow. Salman agreed to pour multiple billions of petrodollars into developing Russia’s investment-starved economy. Thus Saudi Arabia, one of America’s most crucial allies in the Middle East, openly agreed to ignore and effectively undo the effect of the additional punitive sanctions that Congress has just recently slapped on Russia with overwhelming majorities in both chambers of Congress.
How will that affect Israel? Saudi Arabia has quietly enjoyed excellent relations with the Jewish state against their mutual enemy Iran over the past 13 years and more (I document some of the forces that launched that remarkable relationship in my 2008 book “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East”).
Saudi relations with the United States have actually improved dramatically since President Trump took office. Riyadh has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into new arms deals with the US both to protect itself against Iran and keep its Air Force at full strength and fully armed in its current full-scale support of the Sanaa government in the Yemeni Civil War.
However, the damage that the feckless President Barack Obama and his well-meaning but naïve second secretary of state John Kerry did to the US-Saudi “special relationship” and Trump’s global shoot-from-the-hip speaking style have not helped heal it.
Most of all, the Saudis, like the Israelis, were seared by Obama and Kerry’s determination to sign the 2015 Five plus One nuclear agreement with Iran.
Riyadh, like Tel Aviv, does not believe for a second that Iran will cease its efforts to develop its own nuclear arsenal or that the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) inspection regime can credibly prevent it from doing so. Even more immediately, Riyadh fears the destabilizing impact that up to $120 billion in now unfrozen Iranian financial assets can have on the entire region.
It is deeply revealing therefore that an important Saudi political figure, Zakhir Harisi, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Saudi Consultative Assembly or Majlis Ash-Shura told the Russian Sputnik News Agency in September that the Saudi leaders admired Russia for its reliability and consistency in its regional policies.
“Russians are different from others as they keep their promises, and Saudi Arabia believes that Russia’s presence is important for achieving balance of power in the region,” Harisi said.
It was very clear from the context about whom Harisi was referring to as the “others” whose word could not be trusted. He meant the Americans.
The areas for potential Saudi-Russian cooperation are vast and go far beyond cooperation on oil pricing, as Prince Turki made clear in his interview with NTV.
We have shared interests also in the Middle East. We see Russia’s growing influence in the Syrian situation… If we go around a small geographic area in the Middle East, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and the situation with the Kurds in northern Iraq, I think that here too the king and President Putin will find common ground to cooperate on,” he said.
Nevertheless, there are parameters beyond which the Saudi-Russian rapprochement is unlikely to go, as the Moscow meeting made clear.
There was no hint that Russia would end its advanced anti-aircraft missile system and nuclear technology sales to Iran. Those sales were a direct response to the US support for the destabilizing Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014. Until the United States clearly ends its support for President Petro Poroshenko’s regime, the Russian commitment to Iran will remain ironclad.
Also, the Saudis had to acknowledge that Russia continues to provide rock-solid support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, just as Riyadh remains determined to topple him, though with increasingly less likelihood of doing so.
Nor are the Saudis about to end their enormous arms purchases from the United States. Neither Russia nor the Europeans can credibly replace America as Riyadh’s arsenal.
But when it comes to setting global oil prices, the Saudis and the Russians see eye to eye. And their prime target there is not the Iranians, but the flood of US fracking production.
For many years, Israel has enjoyed a situation where it enjoyed far better relations with Russia than Saudi Arabia did. That may be about to change: Israeli policymakers will have to adapt to an even more complicated world.
Martin Sieff is professor of Transnational Threats at BAU International University in Washington, DC and a senior Fellow of the Global Policy institute. He is the former Chief Foreign Correspondent of The Washington Times and has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for International Reporting. His website is Follow Martin on Twitter @Martin-Sieff