When the Saudi royal family booked out much of Moscow’s premium hotel estate earlier this month the media exploded with stories about a Russia-Saudi rapprochement.
Russia managed to sell, it was reported, around $3.5 billion in arms. That sounded a great deal. A grand new romance had apparently erupted.
Many thought similar in 2009, when Russia and Saudi Arabia signed a deal for $2 billion worth of the exact same missile system that is supposedly part of this new package, the S-400. The S-400 missile systems never turned up, and the deal collapsed once the TV cameras had been turned off. It is entirely plausible the same may happen here.
Even if the sales do materialise, they will look quaint compared to what the Saudis buy from Russia’s rival – the United States.
During the Obama administration some $110 billion of arms sales went through. The day after the international press went wild for Putin’s recent offering, the Department of Defence quietly approved another $15 billion of sales. That was four times the size of what had taken a “historic” visit from the Saudi king to the Kremlin to achieve. It was all in a day’s work for the Saudi-US relationship.
Of course a visit is better than no visit, just as arms deals are better than no arms deals. The fundamentals of a long-term power shift, though, are simply not there.
Take for example the now long-standing attempts to raise the global oil price, with Saudi marshalling OPEC on Putin’s behalf. These are for certain a natural point of temporary alignment. Any suggestion that the Saudis will go beyond this tactical friendship is short-sighted though. The moment the oil price rises, the OPEC arrangement will evaporate.
The Saudi-American alliance, which lies at the root of the global economy, is so massive it is difficult to imagine it not existing. In the Middle East the alliance plays a role beyond economics. It crystallises how the West supports Sunni leaders, peoples, and jihadists. Meanwhile Russia supports Shia leaders, peoples, fighters, and their own jihadists.
The idea that Russia or the West are fighting jihad in the Middle East is therefore laughable. They are ultimately fighting each other, using jihadists and others as proxies. As they have nearly always done, and will continue to do. Saudi Arabia swapping sides in this conflict is highly unlikely. Russia abandoning Iran is just as unlikely. Saudi Arabia and Iran making friends is pretty much impossible.
So when the Guardian described the recent visit as “a shift in global power structures,” or the Washington Post used the phrase “Putin and Saudi King turn the page on decades of tensions,” these were vast over-statements. For them to be true the entire balance of power, and everything which we know about who supports who and why, would have been turned upside down in the Middle East. Slow down – this simply has not happened.
Of course country by country, town by town, there is far more going on than Sunni versus Shia rivalry, but to American and Russian diplomats, generals and spies, this is largely irrelevant. What matters is Sunni versus Shia, and by that in today’s modern world, we effectively mean the state of Iran versus the state of Saudi Arabia. To some extent this is orientalist nonsense – but on the other hand it is how the West and Russia operate.
Much as they have flirted with China while still fluttering their eyelids primarily at Washington, Riyadh is flirting with Russia simply to generate a little jealousy. It has been a rare moment of diplomatic proficiency.
Gauging how angry they really are with Washington is hard, but our general feeling should be that it is not as much as they are making out. Too much is now made of the fact that Barack Obama pushed through the Iranian nuclear deal. This was certainly upsetting for Saudi Arabia, but that upset is fading as reality sets in.
Far more worrying now is the military, political and reputational catastrophe in Yemen where Putin is fundamentally opposed to their interests, and where the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, continue to back the Saudi position. Naturally Russia aligns, as they have done in Saudi Arabia, with the Houthis, and Iran.
When Trump departs, ironically probably over his ties to Russia, it will most likely be a Republican government that stays in, a party which is anti-Iranian to its roots. Can the same ever be said of Putin? If anything, the man is pro-Iranian to his roots.
Iran, not Saudi Arabia, has been and will continue to be a reliable trading partner for Russia. Unlike Europe, they will always be there to trade with despite whatever further sanctions down the road there may be.
Iran has also played a critical role in backing President Bashar Al-Assad, indeed far more so than Russia. Putin knows and appreciates this. It is Iran that offers the counterbalance to the Sunni jihadists that Putin fears, thanks to his exposed under-belly in Chechnya and Uzbekistan. He knows Iranian-backed Hezbollah can sap the strength out of these fighters in Syria before they return to rankle him at home. Saudi Arabia by contrast has traditionally sponsored many of these organisations.
Riyadh also knows how Washington works – just about. Navigating the labyrinthine power structures of Moscow will be a major challenge, especially for a country generally known for its diplomatic naiveté. Lobbying Moscow is nearly impossible for the Saudis to pull off. It is impossible for most countries to pull off. The way Russian power structures are set up does not allow for much diplomatic sophistication.
You take a deal with Russia – and if the situation changes, they will sell you out at a moment’s notice. This suits the Saudis just fine. They are winking at their new friends in the Kremlin, but their one true love will always be Washington.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.