“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.
However, something of a consensus emerged long ago that far from being natural allies, Saudi Arabia and Russia are likely to remain natural competitors for a simple reason: oil. The two countries are among the biggest oil exporters in the world and have found themselves competing for markets, especially in China and other East Asian countries. While Saudi Arabia is possibly the lowest-cost producer in the world, Russia is a high-cost country. That has meant that the two countries often have divergent views on the optimal price level. Russia is also not a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which Saudi Arabia is by far the most influential member.
Saudi Arabia’s decision last year to protect its market share and not reduce production in attempts to stabilize oil prices, which had dropped by over 50 percent since June 2014, has added to the tensions between the two countries. Although some analysts have suggested that the Saudi decision was politically motivated and was aimed at “punishing” Iran and Russia for their support of the Assad regime in Syria, there is little evidence to support that view. The Saudis are just as dependent on oil as Russia and Iran, if not more so. The Saudi budget deficit for 2015 is expected to be the biggest on record—well in excess of $100 billion—and there are indications that low oil prices have forced Saudi policymakers to delay or even cancel some major oil-related projects.
That is not to say that the Saudis and Russians have no mutual interests whatsoever. When the Saudis approached international oil companies in 2003 in a bid to increase their natural gas production to meet their ever-increasing domestic energy needs, Russian oil companies were not excluded. In fact, reports indicate that Russia’s biggest private oil company, Lukoil, is the last international company to decide to stop searching for natural gas in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter, largely due to the precipitous drop in oil prices and poor prospects. For its part, Saudi Arabia has committed to investing as much as $10 billion in Russia to shore up the ailing Russia economy.
Although the U.S. remains Saudi Arabia’s main supplier of weapons, the Saudis find the idea of diversifying their weapons sources appealing. In addition to European fighters and Chinese missiles, the Saudis have held talks with the Russians over the possibility of purchasing some weapons systems, including Iskander missiles, but nothing has come of these talks so far. On the other hand, the Russians have proven ready and willing to assist Saudi Arabia with its nascent nuclear energy program, for which it has committed as much $80 billion.
Although Russia's relations with Iran have traditionally been tenuous—Russia even supported Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s—relations improved after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Russia helped Iran construct the nuclear reactor at Bushehr after it was abandoned by Germany and has agreed to sell it S-300 air defense missile systems. Helping Saudi Arabia's biggest regional adversary, Iran, with its controversial nuclear energy program further strained Saudi-Russian relations.
However, it is Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Arabia’s support for elements of the armed opposition that has been the main source of tension between the two countries. The recent dramatic escalation of Russia’s military role in the conflict could potentially set relations back to a time when the two countries maintained an adversarial relationship. What must be especially disconcerting to supporters of closer relations on both sides is that Putin’s gambit in Syria comes at a time when both Saudi Arabia and Russia seem to have adopted militaristic foreign policies in large part due to the perception that they are each ideally positioned to fill the security vacuum left by the United States. While Russia is no stranger to military interventions, Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen is unprecedented. Nevertheless, it is also popular among Saudis, many of whom have long called for Saudi Arabia to lessen its dependence on the U.S. in security matters and to assume ultimate responsibility for protecting its national security interests.
Nevertheless, some Saudi writers and analysts have begrudgingly expressed respect for Putin’s “resolve” and clear policies, drawing a sharp distinction with what they perceive to be President Barack Obama’s ambiguous commitment to the stability of the Middle East in general and to the security of Saudi Arabia more specifically.
The international community first had a glimpse of the divergence between Saudi Arabia and Egypt over Syria at the Sharm el Sheikh Arab summit in March. Egyptian President Sisi allowed a letter by Putin in which he focused on Syria to be read aloud to the attendees, to which Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal delivered an immediate, scathing rebuttal. It was clear from his remarks that he was holding Russia partly responsible for the violence in Syria because of its support of Assad.
Russia’s recent military involvement in Syria has been met by dismay not only by Saudi officials but also Saudis at large. The Saudi Ambassador to the UN publicly questioned Russia’s claim that it is fighting terrorism in Syria. The previously mentioned retort by the current Saudi Foreign Minister implied that Saudi Arabia would support, and possibly lead, an effort to oust Assad militarily.
However, given that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is yet to achieve its objective of restoring President Hadi’s government in Sanaa, it seems unlikely that the Saudis would become militarily involved in Syria in the near future. It is one thing for Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis and their allies across the border in Yemen. It is something very different to project its military power into Syria where Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are actively supporting Assad.
Not only has Russia decided to align itself with Saudi Arabia’s biggest foes the region—Assad, Iran and Hezbollah—there are serious doubts about Russia’s true intentions in Syria. Some of its early targets suggest that it may be much more interested in assisting Assad defeat the armed opposition, including possibly some groups trained by the U.S., than in defeating ISIS. The Saudis have has also expressed concern that Russia’s direct involvement in the conflict may prove to be a boon for ISIS and other militant groups’ recruitment.
About fifty relatively prominent Saudi scholars issued a statement earlier this month, calling on Muslims to participate in the “jihad” in Syria. This is despite the fact the Saudi government has criminalized fighting in foreign wars last year. While the Saudis are trying to curb their militants from traveling to wage jihad abroad, they are equally weary of them staying home where they have already carried out suicide attacks against three mosques this year. Hundreds of militant suspects have been arrested since the beginning of the year.
President Putin met once again with Saudi Minister of Defense Mohamed Bin Salman in Sochi on October 11. Although the two countries’ foreign ministers gave statements following the meeting that suggested that Saudi Arabia and Russia understand each other’s concerns about Syria, it remains to be seen whether they are able to reach any compromise. Both have taken firm positions on the conflict and both seem committed to supporting their respective allies. Russia took a calculated risk by deciding to become directly involved militarily. Saudi Arabia will feel pressure to “do something”. What measures Saudi Arabia takes in Syria could potentially not only change the trajectory of the conflict but also reshape the political order in the Middle East.
Fahad Nazer is a Senior Political Analyst at JTG Inc. and a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, Yale Global Online and Al Monitor, among others.