In a year of surprises in the Middle East, the visit to Moscow by the Saudi Arabian King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud is arguably the biggest surprise of all. This visit speaks of a realignment of regional priorities and is the latest evidence of a tentative Saudi shift away from the United States. Reports suggesting that Saudi Arabia is set to buy Russia’s cutting-edge S400 air defence system are significant, as this would constitute the Kingdom’s first purchase of a non-Western weapon system in a decade.
The key question is whether Saudi’s tilt toward Moscow is a carefully considered move designed to expand the remit of Riyadh’s foreign policy choices or the result of repeated setbacks and defeats in the Middle East arena.
At a broader level, the visit reaffirms Moscow’s forceful re-entry into the Middle East more than a quarter century after the demise of the Soviet Union. By extension, it speaks to a loss of US influence and the tentative emergence of a new regional balance of power.
The re-emergence of multi-polarity in the Middle East holds both peril and promise. On the one hand, it is a positive development in so far as it reduces the risk of major inter-state wars or aggression by major world powers against Middle Eastern states. On the other hand, the dynamics flowing from a realignment of regional power politics reduce the prospect of democratic breakthroughs in some of the region’s most stubborn autocracies, in particular Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh and Moscow: unnatural partners?
It is common knowledge that Saudi Arabia has been a loyal US ally for seven decades. Alongside its iron-clad alliance with Israel, the partnership with Saudi Arabia is central to America’s policy and strategic positioning in the Middle East. Absent a close partnership with Saudi Arabia, the US risks losing decisive influence over the region’s energy policy (notably the unhindered flow of oil), in addition to access to some of the region’s best intelligence.
From a Saudi point of view, the partnership with the US has been useful in terms of both regional and domestic policies. At the regional level, it has held the Kingdom’s enemies at bay in so far as the US essentially guarantees Saudi’s ultimate security. This came into sharp relief when the US-led coalition deterred Saddam Hussein from even considering an incursion into Saudi territory, following his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
At the domestic level, the Al-Saud dynasty compensates for its legitimacy deficit by over-relying on a foreign power for guarantees of relative stability and, ultimately, its survival. The partnership with the US effectively shields the Kingdom from accountability in terms of its abysmal record of internal repression and its equally dismal broader human rights record. The alliance works in tandem with Saudi Arabia’s strong defence relationship with Britain, as demonstrated by the Al-Yamamah arms deal, which to date still counts as the UK’s largest ever.
Notwithstanding its close defence partnership with Western powers, Saudi Arabia has in the past tried to cultivate defence relationships with non-Western states as well. For example, in the late 1980s, it purchased a conventional variant of China’s DF-3A nuclear missile. The Saudis allegedly bought up to 60 of these missiles, which they only publicly displayed in 2014 as part of deterrent measures against Iran, which maintains one of the most extensive indigenous ballistic missile programmes in the world.
Two decades later Saudi Arabia signed another significant arms deal with China, this time purchasing the DF-21 ballistic missiles. In view of this history, Saudi’s purchase of Russian defence systems is not unprecedented. Moreover, the Russian arms sale is balanced with Saudi’s proposed $15 billion purchase of the US THAAD anti-ballistic missile defence system.
Re-entry of Russia
The real significance of Saudi Arabia’s latest diplomatic move lies less in the arms sales than the symbolism of King Salman’s meeting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Hitherto, Russia had been perceived as developing a strong partnership with Iran, often at the expense of Saudi Arabia, particularly in the Syrian arena.
There are two important strategic implications flowing from this meeting. First and foremost, it signifies a loss of Saudi confidence in the United States, in particular the perceived inability of the US to shape the Middle East in a manner that meets the Kingdom’s national security needs. This loss of confidence is all the more dramatic, if not surprising, in view of US President Donald Trump’s effusive support for the Saudis and the consequent realignment of US policy, particularly in Yemen, where the US is actively furthering Saudi war aims.
Second, Russia is now definitively back in the Middle East as a major power. It already has strong ties to sworn regional enemies Iran and Israel. By developing ties with Saudi Arabia, which is Iran’s enemy and Israel’s potential friend, Russia will insert itself fully into the minutiae of the region’s politics and stands to reap strategic dividends by exploiting regional rivalries.
In fact, Russia is set to develop influence at a depth and breadth which even the mighty Soviet Union failed to achieve in the Middle East. This speaks volumes about skilful Russian diplomacy and deft strategic moves, notably Russia’s remarkably successful intervention in the Syrian conflict.
At the highest strategic level, greater Russian involvement in the Middle East is a welcome development in so far as it reintroduces multi-polarity as the reference point for regional alignments and consequent actions. It has the potential to reduce the scope of major conflict or unilateral aggression by removing the monopoly on overwhelming force, which the US has enjoyed since Operation Desert Storm in early 1991.
However, at lower political levels, particularly in terms of the internal politics of the region’s nation-states, growing Russian influence is detrimental to democracy and the opening up of socio-cultural spaces. The best example is Saudi Arabia; cushioned by both the US and Russia, the House of Saud now has less incentive than ever to initiate genuine social and political reform.