Russia and Saudi Arabia – the new Gulf partnership?

Moscow’s diplomatic blitzkrieg in Saudi Arabia marks a new era in bilateral relations with one of the Middle East’s key players, and possibly a major shift in regional alliances.

By Yuri Barmin

Russia-Saudi relations have been improving since February 2014, when Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal (pictured) took the reigns of Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Syria from Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Photo: Reuters

Recent weeks have seen an escalation of violence in the Middle East, with ISIS advancing into Iraq and effortlessly taking over large swathes of territory there. The growing instability in the region has highlighted the enormous shifts taking place within established political alliances.

At a time when the White House is considering sending military aid to Baghdad, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is visiting Saudi Arabia – a longtime U.S. ally in the region and key stakeholder in the Iraqi crisis.

Russia has been looking to play a bigger role in the Middle East, but Moscow’s inability to win over the Gulf – the key to influencing the Middle East – has continuously prevented it from replacing the United States as a reliable partner to the regional powers. Against this backdrop, Lavrov’s visit to Saudi Arabia has presented Moscow with an opportunity to prove to the Gulf countries that it is in fact the Kremlin, and not the White House, that nowadays holds sway over a troubled Syria and disobedient Iran.

Russia and Saudi Arabia: transforming chilled relations

In the last decade, relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia have been chilled, at best. Animosity between Moscow and Riyadh was dictated by strong disagreements over the Kremlin’s response to the Chechen separatist movement in the early 2000s, and Riyadh’s alleged role in it. However, now their biggest difference lies on their positions with regard to the Syrian civil war and Iran’s nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have constantly criticized Russia’s unconditional support for Damascus and Tehran.

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However, Russia-Saudi relations have been improving since February 2014, when Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal took the reigns of Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Syria from Prince Bandar bin Sultan – the head of Saudi intelligence who backed the funding of Syrian opposition.

In geostrategic sense, this meant that Saudi Arabia was re-thinking its uneasy alliance with the United States and opting for a more subtle policy towards Syria – a timely decision given the current crisis in Iraq and recent allegations of Saudi money in Syria falling into ISIS hands.

Riyadh’s decision was followed by a flurry of meetings between senior Russian and Saudi officials, including one in Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Foreign Minister Al-Faisal earlier in June. In this context, Lavrov’s visit to Jeddah, one of Saudi Arabia’s primary resort towns, marks a new era in bilateral relationship and possibly a major shift in regional alliances.

Iraq and Syria in the spotlight

In Jeddah, Minister Lavrov and his Saudi counterpart discussed a range of issues from bolstering economic ties to improving nuclear cooperation, but the spotlight was thrust uponthe growing instability in Iraq and ongoing civil war in Syria.

The two issues are interlinked and, without a doubt, their resolution requires extensive action on both fronts. Russia and Saudi Arabia, however, have differing opinions on core issues driving events in Syria and Iraq.

Although Lavrov asserted at a press conference on Saturday that Russia and Saudi Arabia are of the same opinion, “that terrorism is the main problem now [and that] all efforts must be directed to preventing terrorists from prevailing in the region,” Riyadh sees sectarian divides in both Iraq and Syria as the motivating force behind the conflicts.

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For Riyadh, the Shia factor in both countries is a reason to consider Iran’s possible involvement. Saudi Arabia has explicitly blamed the current crisis in Iraq on sectarian and exclusionary policies enforced by Prime Minister Maliki’s Shia government for the last 8 years.

In Syria, the Saudis see the Alawites, a minority Shia offshoot with Bashar al-Assad as its leader, as Tehran’s proxy.

At the meeting, both parties agreed that territorial integrity of both Iraq and Syria is central to stability in the entire Middle East: “It is crucial to avoid another wave of dissolution within states in the region. Such risks remain and are even on the rise lately because of actions being undertaken by militants from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” Lavrov said.

The potential break-up of Syria and Iraq may happen along sectarian lines, which would lead to the establishment of separate Shia, Kurdish and Sunni states dominated by ISIS extremists.

This would set a dangerous precedent that would certainly lead to an increase in sectarian unrest in Saudi Arabia, as its ethnic composition is far from homogenous.

On June 20, President Putin spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and expressed support for the Iraqi government and its action against ISIS. As a democratically elected prime minister, Maliki is also backed by Iran and the United States. The three countries support his military action against ISIS, and this is where tensions with Saudi Arabia have arisen. For Riyadh such a line-up is unfavorable and it sees the potential for reconciliation in the formation of a unity government that would invite representatives of all local sects.

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Has Russia found a key to the Gulf?

Lavrov’s visit to Jeddah was symbolic in that it took place in the run up to Ramadan, which clearly gives Russia a status of an important regional player and promotes it to a position of a mediator. As a go-between Moscow could exercise its good ties with Iran and, hence with Iraqi Shia, to influence them into replacing the current Prime Minister with more moderate Ayad Allawi. The Kremlin in its turn shall not fail to showcase this emerging alliance with Riyadh as the end of US diplomatic hegemony in the region.

At the meeting in Jeddah on Saturday the parties achieved another major agreement, which seems to have been ignored by the media. Lavrov and Faisal stressed that there is a need to get back to the Geneva I agreement facilitating peaceful transition of power in Syria.

With Assad having been re-elected for another presidential term this essentially means that he is there to stay. Paired with the replacement of Prince Bandar, who was in favor of arming the rebels, in February means that Riyadh has accepted that its policy aiming at ousting Assad did not work.

This decision may be interpreted as Saudis now seeing the Syrian president as a key player in eliminating ISIS and maintaining regional stability.

Being a contact point between Riyadh and Damascus presents another opportunity for Russia to make political gains in the Middle East and form a long-sought-after alliance with the Gulf.

Courtesy Russia Direct