Middle East // Analysis

16 october 2015

Why a Russian-Saudi Deal on Syria is Highly Unlikely?

Julien Nocetti Research Fellow at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI)

The recent series of top-level talks between the Russian and Saudi leaderships, as well as the huge promises of Saudi investments in Russia have been interpreted by some as a path leading to a narrower convergence on Syria. However, this argument may well contain some wishful thinking, and leave out the key factors of the bilateral relationship.

The fact that top-level Saudi officials visited Vladimir Putin in Sochi on October, 11, 2015 revealed the Kingdom’s rising concerns about Iran’s increasing influence in the Middle East is absolutely right. The fact that the Saudis are exasperated by Washington’s inertia in the Middle East also proves that.

But such optimism downplays the balance of power within the Kingdom's complex governance. The Saudi authorities are not necessarily in unison on the main foreign policy issues. Some decision-makers can be tempted to stick to hard approach to Russia, while others will favour dialogue with Moscow. The religious factor does play a role in the bilateral interaction: last week, fifty five Saudi Wahhabi clerics signed a call for jihad against Russia for its military intervention in Syria. The statement is not an official document, but it is undoubtedly widely supported in the Kingdom. The point is that the Saudis know very little about Russia: their foreign policy views are mostly based on the late Soviet Union's militarist policy in the Middle East – to the failure of which they contributed in the 1980s.

Along with Turkey and Afghanistan, Iran is an essential element in Russia's Northern Tier “security arc” on its immediate southern flank.

Arms versus Assad

Second, it also overestimates the economic deals promised Moscow by Riyadh, such as a 10 billion dollars investment from the Saudi sovereign fund in the Russian economy, plus military sales worth dozens million dollars. Emphasising these potential deals ultimately occults the “foreign policy bargaining” dimension behind the Saudi motivations. Indeed, looking back at the last decade, in 2008, the Saudis made clear that the Kingdom would grant lucrative arms contracts to Russia (most notably the Russian mobile surface-to-air missile system S-400) on the condition that it curbs military cooperation with Iran. The “S-400 diplomacy” between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran then proved to be a bargaining tool in the hands of Riyadh. More recently, in 2013 and 2014, Prince Bandar (who was then the Saudi intelligence chief) paid several visits to Vladimir Putin and reiterated proposals of colossal billion-worth arms contracts for Russia in exchange for Moscow's ending support for Bashar Al-Assad's regime. The oil issue appears as yet another “carrot” wielded by Riyadh in relations with Moscow: promises of more specific consultations on oil quotas and prices regularly come back to the bilateral agenda when the Saudi leaders want to obtain something from the Kremlin.

US-centric foreign policies

Negative perceptions shape Moscow's views around Riyadh's “spoiling game” in the Middle East and on oil policy. On the contrary, for Saudi Arabia Russia appears to be a simple player in the balancing game of Middle Eastern powers. Riyadh deliberately turns towards Russia to begin open negotiations on arms supplies whenever it does not obtain complete satisfaction from the United States in terms of energy policy or ongoing pressure on Israel – for example, when it comes to restarting the peace process – or it is aware that Saudi-US links are cooling – which is the case today owing to Washington's procrastination in the Middle East. Such negotiations are rarely fruitful. In reality, the real aim is not to obtain new arms from Russia. It is a matter of making the US communicate the message that Arab concerns must be taken into consideration, and that Washington's energy security depends on the monarchy's stability.

So, taking into account the US-centrism of both Russian and Saudi foreign policies, we may wonder if Russia-Saudi relations are no less significant per se right than their indirect impact on relations between Moscow and Washington.

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The partnership between Saudi Arabia and the US has lasted for seven decades. Even if Riyadh hopes to diversify its foreign policy contacts, which seems to be currently the case, the two countries are interested in this alliance. Their intentions are not to be doubted. Moscow would never be able to fill the gap left by the US; nor does it aspire to do so.

In addition, the rivalry over energy underlies Russia-Saudi relations. An alliance between the two countries would only be feasible after Russia's accession to OPEC. Yet Riyadh “holds the keys” to the cartel and it is difficult to imagine Moscow accepting the role of Saudi Arabia’s junior partner in an area that enabled Russia’s return to the forefront of the international stage. Finally, Iran's geopolitical role is the key to the “mental map” of Russian strategists. Along with Turkey and Afghanistan, Iran is an essential element in Russia's Northern Tier “security arc” on its immediate southern flank. Even if we are witnessing deterioration in Russia-Iran relations, the possibility of Russian leaders going so far as to break with Tehran is limited, all the more so current Russia's diplomacy on Syria unambiguously stands on a “Shiite arc”.

Diplomatic maneuvering

Ultimately, for Moscow talking to the Saudis is a matter of acquiring political leverage in the Middle East. Russia's diplomatic manoeuvring this summer around the Syrian issue was mostly aimed at neutralising regional actors. Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates each accepted in their own way Russia's security-oriented vision. Conversely Saudi Arabia (and Turkey) unsurprisingly expressed a firm refusal to ally with the Iranians and to save Al-Assad. For Riyadh, the main strategic objective remains in the fall of Al-Assad’s regime. This is irreconcilable with Russian interests in Syria since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in March 2011. The Kremlin knows that no power other than Al-Assad and his regime would ever guarantee the preservation of its positions in Syria and on the Eastern Mediterranean.

Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates each accepted in their own way Russia's security-oriented vision. Conversely Saudi Arabia (and Turkey) unsurprisingly expressed a firm refusal to ally with the Iranians and to save Al-Assad.

These antagonist interests will unlikely prevent the continuation of bilateral top-level talks. Saudi Arabia sees how tarnished has become the Obama Administration's Middle Eastern diplomacy. The American reluctance to act on Syria adds to Riyadh's despair after the signature of the nuclear deal with Iran earlier in 2015. And if Russia embodies “counter-revolution” – which might well suit to King Salman, keen to avoid any mass uprising in his country –, the Russian presence in the Middle East appears too tied to the “Shiite arc” to be altered in any way by Riyadh.

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Julien Nocetti, “Why a Russian-Saudi Deal on Syria is Highly Unlikely?,” Russian International Affairs Council, 16 October 2015, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=6726

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