Given Saudi Arabia’s deteriorating relationship with the U.S, economic troubles within the Kingdom, and the emergence of Iran as a new regional power, the ultimate beneficiary may be Russia.
From left, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Saudi Arabia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Arabia Adel al-Jubeir and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Vienna, Oct. 23, 2015. Photo: Pool Photo via AP
Saudi Arabia’s long-standing relationship with the United States is facing a serious test. The Kingdom has also made bad gambles by trying to restore Yemeni's Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s presidency and fighting the Houthis, as well as by supporting radical militant groups in Syria and Iraq. Riyadh was likewise unable to derail the Iran nuclear deal that allowed Tehran to expand its regional influence and challenge Saudi dominance.
In contrast, Moscow is gaining a new pivotal role in the Middle East through the Syrian military operation that allows establishing of a new regional security setting. The agreement with the Syrian government to maintain a military base in Latakia means that Russia has returned to the region for years to come and has to be reckoned with. The new modus operandi likewise strengthens the Kremlin’s power across the entire Arab world.
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The state of Saudi-U.S. relations
Saudi Arabia has initiated a more independent foreign policy since the ascension of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The King is aiming to separate the Kingdom’s foreign policy from that of the U.S.; however, he still wants to receive Washington’s support. Riyadh perceives the alliance with Washington as a tradition that is perpetuated by geopolitical and economic interdependence, as well as a lengthy history of cooperation.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a 70-year security relationship. Both countries have fought the Soviets and Saddam Hussein and have cooperated on a range of security issues across the region.
The tradition of relying on the United States’ support motivated the Saudis to declare on Feb. 4 a willingness to send troops into Syria. However, the Saudis have discovered that the Obama administration is not ready to risk clashing directly with the Russians.
The Kingdom vehemently opposed the Iran deal but still could not stop the Obama administration from completing it. The Saudis were also furious that Washington has sought to cooperate with Iran and some of its allies, including Lebanese security services close to Hezbollah, in confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
Tehran is currently allied with the Syrian and Iraqi governments. In addition, Iran controls large segments of the Lebanese political scene. Its economy is also set to grow as the nuclear deal has supplied the country with access to $150 billion in sanctions relief and its previously blocked banking accounts. The reformist movement that is right now leading in Iranian politics further accelerates transformations within the country and paves the way for an enhanced partnership with Washington in the future.
Saudi Arabia’s regional issues
The recent clash with Lebanon is one of the signs that Riyadh is going to use all available means to limit any cooperation between Tehran and Washington.
The Obama administration is not happy with the Saudi plan to punish Lebanon for not joining its anti-Tehran demarche. The Kingdom suspended its $4 billion pledge in aid (including $3 billion for the military) on Feb. 19 and instigated conservative circles of the Gulf monarchies to impose restrictions on Lebanese citizens. The Saudi goal is to highlight for other nations of the region the hefty price for not supporting the Saudi side in the Riyadh-Tehran clash.
Meanwhile, Riyadh perceives its punishment of Lebanon as a continuation of a proxy war against Iran, Washington views it as an additional sign of divergence with the Kingdom on key regional issues and the methods for solving them. Even though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and several senior diplomats have privately warned Saudi Arabia to not seek destabilization of the Lebanese economy, it’s unlikely that it will have the desirable effect.
The regional clash with Iran is a big concern for the Kingdom as Saudi Arabia’s inability to win militarily in Yemen pinpoints its lack of hard power. A visit of a delegation from the Houthi movement in Saudi Arabia, the first of its kind since the war has began, only indicates the Kingdom’s inability to restore the Hadi presidency despite colossal military expenditures. In addition, it further underlines growing Iranian influence in the region and exacerbates the Riyadh-Tehran regional clash.
Saudi Arabia is also experiencing severe economic difficulties. One of the latest signs of hardships was the announcement for the IPO of Aramco, a major oil company and a national pride for the Saudis. Based on Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority (SAMA) data, the country had a deficit of 21.6 percent of GDP in 2015 and the IMF is also anticipating a deficit of 20 percent in 2016.
Riyadh has no choices left but to rekindle previous relations with Moscow in order to balance its crippled relations with Washington and sustain its geopolitical struggle with Iran.
The Russian and Saudi oil ministers have already met together on Feb. 16 and agreed to freeze oil output at the January level. The decision marked the first deal between OPEC and non-OPEC members in 15 years and points to a shift in interactions between the two capitals.
The oil deal also signaled to Moscow that it is possible to deal with the Kingdom in other sectors as well. Meanwhile, while it may seem that Russia and Saudi Arabia have put aside their differences only for the time being in order to balance their struggling economies, it is likely that it actually marks a new beginning for both.
This year has already been marked by closer cooperation on Syria between both countries. Based on the Kremlin’s website database, Vladimir Putin actively coordinates developments with King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and has called him twice already since the beginning of the year. One call in particular followed after Putin’s conversation with Bashar Assad.
It is becoming more evident that Russia’s bulldog-like approach will not let Syria collapse. Moscow will eventually try to restore the most important parts of Syria’s pre-conflict borders, perhaps under the federal structure, as Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov pointed out.
Russia also will be pushing Assad for more compromises. It is not in Russia’s interests to continue its current military involvement in Syria for a lengthy period and Riyadh understands that as well.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.