Relations between Russia and Saudi
Arabia, which have never been cloudless, are quite tense today,
something that seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future,
says a RIA Novosti commentary from Moscow.
This is not just because of their conflicting approaches to
resolving the crisis in Syria. The reason is that Moscow and
Riyadh are on opposite sides of the barricades in the
transformation of the Middle East that is currently under way.
Nevertheless, in some ways these countries are very dependent on
each other and could become partners at some time in the future.
Unfortunately, that could be quite a long time from now.
It is almost forgotten now that the Soviet Union was the first
non-Arab state to diplomatically recognise Saudi Arabia, in
February, 1926 (even before its formal independence).
Moscow viewed Saudi independence as one more sign of the
inevitable collapse of the colonial empires. However, diplomatic
relations were broken off in 1938 at the initiative of Riyadh, and
relations between the two states remained unfriendly, if not
hostile, for a long time.
During the Cold War, Moscow placed its Middle East stake on
secular political regimes, such as Egypt (before its realignment
in 1974), Syria and Iraq.
Being a monarchical and theocratic state, Saudi Arabia
automatically fell off the list of potential Soviet allies or
partners. In the meantime, Riyadh regarded the Communist regime as
anti-Islamic and incompatible with Saudi values.
Of course, both approaches were purely ideological. But there were
also a number of serious clashes between Moscow and Riyadh,
especially due to the Soviet support of the Communist regime in
South Yemen. The secularization and political modernization (on
the basis of socialism) of the Arab Peninsula threatened to
undermine Saudi stability.
Finally, these processes could lead to the collapse of Saudi
Arabia as a unitary state. This forced Riyadh to strengthen its
relationship with the West, particular with the US (the only power
that could provide the Saudi government real political and
military support in case of serious tensions with Moscow).
At the same time, Russia has its own claims against Saudi Arabia.
In the 1980s, Riyadh backed the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the
Saudis reached agreement with Washington to drive down the price
of oil, reducing the Soviet Union's oil export revenue.
This atmosphere left little grounds for cooperation. However,
after Mikhail Gorbachev revised Soviet foreign policy, Moscow
began to look at the Middle East from a different perspective. In
1990-1991 it abandoned its unpredictable ally, Saddam Hussein, and
did not oppose the Desert Storm. In 1990, diplomatic relations
between Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia were restored.
Perhaps it might have been a successful restart.
But further developments showed that relations between Moscow and
Riyadh faced other challenges. These appeared very soon when in
the 1990s Saudi Arabia (along with a number of other countries)
began to transfer money to radical Muslim organisations in Russia
and other post-Soviet countries.
It would certainly be inaccurate to say that Riyadh intentionally
backed separatists in the North Caucasus to weaken the Russian
state and to cause domestic problems for Russia.
However, it is evident that at least a part of these financial
resources fed the extremists and encouraged them to continue their
bloody work. Saudi militants also fought on the side of the
separatists in the Chechen wars. It was definitely an irritant in
Nevertheless, after the end of counterterrorist operation in
Chechnya, there was some slight progress. In November 2003, the
Saudi delegation headed by the future King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz
Al Saud visited Russia and held negotiations with President
As a result cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia received
fresh impetus that finally led to ratification of a number of
agreements in the oil and gas sector, science and technology. In
February 2007, Putin was the first Russian leader who visited
Up until the Arab revolutions began, it seemed that the steady
improvement in relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia was
In fact, disregarding the political and ideological contradictions
of the past, cooperation between Moscow and Riyadh is still
promising. Both states could cooperate in the global energy
market, regulating oil prices to the benefit of both.
Russia was ready to sell to Saudi Arabia its advanced weapons and
military equipment, reducing its dependence on US supplies. Also
Russia could present opportunities for Saudi investments. But at
present, none of these are likely to be realized soon.
Since the beginning of the Middle East uprisings, in particular
after the war in Libya broke out, Moscow suspected (with good
reason) that Saudi Arabia was financing and arming the
Later, Moscow was dismayed by the Saudi decision to suppress the
opposition in Bahrain. It looked like the classical
double-standard game: support the Libyan opposition and shoot
Bilateral relations became even worse when Riyadh strongly backed
the Syrian opposition. Unlike Libya, Syria is a key Russian ally
in the region. Therefore Moscow reacted accordingly and finally
changed its politics towards Saudi Arabia.
At the moment, it is too early assessing if it will be a temporary
cooling in relations or a long-term shift. Much depends on new
developments in Syria and their impact on regional security, but
As it seems from Moscow, Saudi Arabia is a key player in a US game
aimed at creation of a united Sunni front against Iran (an old
idea that Washington first tried to put into practice in 1980s).
If the Bashar al-Assad government falls, it will mean that Tehran
loses its last Middle East ally.
The "Syria now, Iran next" strategy is absolutely unacceptable for
Russia, because in the event of war, the chaos in Iran would soon
open the floodgates of instability to the Southern Caucasus and
So by defending Syria and opposing any powers, including Saudi
Arabia, that intend to overthrow the official government in
Damascus, Moscow is protecting its national interests.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the current crisis in
Russian-Saudi relations is the gravest since the 1990s. As the
Middle East puzzle gets more and more complicated, it leaves less
space for diplomatic manoeuvre.
It is evident if Assad falls, the Sunni-Shiite opposition (led by
Riyadh and Tehran) will be one of the main factors shaping the new
face of the region. In this highly explosive situation, anything
can happen. And the strained Russia-Saudi Arabia relationship will
be very dependent on future Middle East developments.
Alexey Pilko is
associate professor at Moscow State University, Faculty of World