Are Saudi-Russian Relations Fraying?

Russia and Saudi Arabia are tense rivals over oil, Syria and so much more. Can this uneasy relationship survive current tensions?

“You will see.” That was Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s response to a reporter who asked him who would military remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria if he refused to leave on his own accord.

Although Jubeir’s terse rejoinder might have been off-the-cuff—he was getting into his car following his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York—the clip of the short interview went viral on Saudi social media. The majority of people who shared it seemed to approve of the defiant tone of the message. While it is premature to assume that Saudi Arabia and Russia, which is now supporting Assad militarily in his four-year war against a wide array of armed rebels and militant Islamists, are on a collision course, there is little doubt that their divergent views on the root causes of the carnage in Syria have strained relations. Although the Saudis have made a concerted effort to broaden the scope of their relations with Russia over the past decade, it remains to be seen whether the two countries will be able to overcome their sharp disagreement over Syria and a long history of antagonism.

Much has been written and said about Saudi Arabia’s new foreign policy posture. The Saudis have adopted a more assertive approach, a stark departure from their traditional policy, which favored accommodation over confrontation. This shift is in large measure a reaction to the tumult ushered in by the “Arab Spring” as well as the wide perception that the United States under the Obama administration has decided to disengage from the Middle East. This new Saudi thinking has manifested itself in dramatic fashion, in the military coalition that Saudi Arabia is leading in Yemen to oust the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has not completely abandoned its signature—quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. It has, indeed, launched an unprecedented military campaign in Yemen, meant to signal to Iran that it will not be allowed to encroach on Saudi Arabia’s traditional sphere of influence in the Arabian Peninsula. But King Salman and his deputies also embarked on an intensive diplomatic outreach campaign almost immediately after he assumed the throne in January. While meetings with the leaders of Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, France and the U.S. made headlines in Saudi Arabia and beyond, it is Saudi Arabia’s outreach to Russia that has arguably received the most attention. It has also garnered wide support in Saudi Arabia.

The announcement in June that Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohamed Bin Salman would be making an official visit to Russia was welcomed by many Saudi analysts and writers. Some lavished Russia with praise, describing it as one of the few remaining great powers. Most also noted that the Soviet Union was among the first countries in the world to officially recognize Saudi Arabia after it was founded in 1932. In addition to meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Prince Mohamed signed six agreements with Moscow to bolster cooperation in various fields including nuclear energy. That, however, was not the first high-level visit. In 2007, Putin became the first Russian leader to visit Saudi Arabia; then-Crown Prince Abdullah visited Russia in 2003.

Nevertheless, due to the Soviet Union’s communist past and its invasion and occupation of Muslim-majority Afghanistan—which Saudi Arabia helped to end by funding some of the mujahidin who fought the Soviets—Saudi Arabia and Russia have deepened their relations gradually and cautiously. Saudi Arabia was firmly in the U.S. camp during the Cold War. The Soviet Union, on the other hand supported a number of revolutionary Arab regimes which maintained adversarial relations with Saudi Arabia, including Nasser’s Egypt and South Yemen, the only Marxist regime that has ever existed in the Arab world.

Another source of friction between the two countries was the fact that for many years, Russian officials and media accused Saudi Arabia and Saudi-based charitable organizations of supporting Islamist separatists in Chechnya and of spreading an ultraconservative variant of Islam known as Salafism in the Caucasus. For their part, some Saudi clerics included Chechens among the ranks of beleaguered Muslims around the world who are under siege by “oppressive” regimes, along with Palestinians, Bosnians and Kashmiris. However, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the Saudi government took measures to regulate its Islamic charities to insure that the funds they collect and distribute do not go towards the financing of terrorist groups.

In recent years, the Saudi government has even expressed some support for Russia’s policy in Chechnya. In 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed President of Chechnya by Putin, visited Saudi Arabia and met with King Abdullah. For its part, the Russian media softened its tone and has largely refrained from accusing Saudi Arabia of spreading radical variants of Islam in Russia or across the former Soviet republics.