Russian-Saudi Rapprochement? Iran and Economic Strain Will Make It Tough
King Salman of Saudi Arabia is expected to visit Moscow early next month to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a trip that would seem like the latest sign of an improving relationship between the kingdom and Russia. The two Cold War-era adversaries, whose relations have yo-yoed over the past 15 years, have recently been cooperating: They jointly cut oil production to bolster global prices; several oil and gas ventures are reportedly in the works; and there’s talk (again) of Riyadh making a major arms purchase from Russia. Most significantly, Saudi Arabia appears to have given up on supporting Syrian rebels seeking to topple the Assad regime and has gotten onboard with Russian-led efforts to resolve the conflict. But would the Saudi monarch’s visit to Moscow really signal a fundamental shift in the relationship?
Any emerging ties between Moscow and Riyadh remain fragile. Indeed, while Saudi Arabia may still prefer that Bashar al-Assad step down, it is much less concerned with his fate per se than with its own arch-rival, Iran, a Russian ally whose influence in the region Riyadh wants to minimize. How much Moscow will be willing and able to help on that front is unclear. Russia, meanwhile, is hoping for an influx of Saudi investment, but low oil prices, a budget deficit in Saudi Arabia and its military campaign in Yemen have left the kingdom with less cash to play with than before. Balancing the two countries’ geopolitical and economic interests will not be easy.
New Ride on an Old Rollercoaster
Recent history suggests that if Saudi Arabia and Russia are on a road toward rapprochement, it could be a winding one, or even a dead end. Even after the Cold War, relations between Moscow and the Saudi kingdom were largely unfriendly due to differences over issues including Chechnya, Iran, bilateral trade and investment, and oil-production policy. Saudi-Russian ties improved in 2003 after the visit of then-Crown Prince Abdallah to Moscow that year. Putin himself visited Riyadh with a huge delegation of Russian businessmen in 2007. But Russian unwillingness to join Saudi Arabia and OPEC in cutting back oil production to boost prices after the 2008 global financial crisis became an irritant once again. Ties soured further after the start of the Arab Spring in 2011 when Russia joined Iran in supporting Assad’s regime against its Saudi-backed Sunni opponents.
Tough Times in a Land of Plenty
While Moscow and Riyadh’s shared vulnerability to low oil prices gives them some common interests, there may be significant limits to their cooperation on the economic front.
First of all, the renewed Saudi-Russian interest in cooperating on oil production seems to be motivated by mutual desperation in the face of expanding American shale oil production. With U.S. production rising, a lack of cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia risks driving the price of oil down further to the detriment of both their export incomes. The problem, of course, is that while stabilizing oil prices helps Moscow and Riyadh in the short run, its longer-term effect is to encourage additional American shale production, which is becoming less costly thanks to technical innovation and could thus lead to more downward pressure on oil prices in the not too distant future. With Russian and Saudi government budgets both in deficit—1 percent of GDP for Russia and 7.7 percent of GDP for Saudi Arabia in 2017—this is a grim prospect.
Second, Saudi Arabia’s constrained economic circumstances will make it difficult either to raise bilateral trade from its modest levels—less than half a billion dollars in 2016—or to generate some of the gains Putin may be hoping for, like expanding Saudi investment in Russia and major Saudi purchases of Russian weapons, both of which Moscow and Riyadh have long discussed.
The Iran Problem
Recent reports that Saudi leaders have come to accept that the Assad regime is here to stay do not reflect any genuine reconciliation between Riyadh and Damascus, but rather a necessary clarification of Saudi priorities. The developments of the past few months have stretched Riyadh thin: The U.S. and Turkey are no longer interested in supporting Assad’s opponents and Saudi Arabia is bogged down in Yemen (where Russia has been maneuvering between opposing forces); given all this, Riyadh simply does not have the capacity to enable the Sunni rebels in Syria to hold on even to the diminished territory they control in the face of the Russian- and Iranian-backed offensive against them. Nonetheless, Riyadh remains deeply concerned about the strength of Iranian influence in Syria, and the region more broadly, and the only way it can hope to limit that influence is through Assad’s other ally, Russia.
But is this a realistic expectation, especially in light of the shifting power dynamic in Syria and Iraq? There have been reports in recent years of Russian officials telling counterparts in Israel and Gulf Arab states that if they are really concerned about Iran’s role in Syria, then they are better off with Russian forces there to constrain Tehran and should therefore support Moscow’s presence. So long as Islamic State was strong in Syria and Iraq, Moscow could even argue that Tehran was a necessary ally against this common threat. But with Islamic State now dramatically weaker, Iran and its allies (Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shi’a militias in particular) seem to be riding high in both Syria and Iraq.
It would not be surprising if Moscow and Tehran themselves engaged in a struggle for influence in Syria now that their common ally, Assad, is more secure, and their common foes, Islamic State and Assad’s other Sunni Arab opponents, have been severely weakened. That Moscow is working with the Kurds both in Syria and in Iraq while Tehran and Ankara are working against them indicates that friction is already emerging. Since Saudi-Iranian hostility is likely to remain—despite some tentative signs of a détente—Saudi hopes that Moscow will prevail over Tehran for influence in Damascus are quite rational.
But how much is Moscow willing to risk deterioration in its relations with Tehran for the sake of greater influence in Syria, much less better relations with Riyadh? Moscow, of course, would like to somehow achieve everything: predominant influence in Syria, improved relations with Riyadh and continued strong ties to Tehran. But whether Russia can actually do this is not at all clear.
Paradoxically, the Trump Administration’s hostility toward Iran may actually improve Moscow’s leverage. During the Obama years, Moscow feared that Washington’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Tehran would lead to a broader rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran that would mean less need for Iranian reliance on Russia. Moscow, then, had a strong incentive not to irritate Tehran for fear of encouraging just such an Iranian-American rapprochement. Fortunately for Moscow, Iranian involvement in the war in Syria and the advent of a new administration in Washington helped prevent this.
The Trump Administration’s hostility toward Iran tends to increase Iranian dependence on Moscow—perhaps even to the point where Tehran is in not in a position to retaliate if Moscow undertakes actions that the Iranian government is unhappy about. Even increased Russian influence in Syria or improved Saudi-Russian ties certainly will not lead the Ayatollahs to warm up to Trump. Still, Tehran will undoubtedly compete with Moscow fiercely for predominance in Syria, while at the same time professing its desire to cooperate with it against the common American threat.
Proof of the Pudding
How all of this will play out is impossible to predict. One thing, though, does seem highly likely: If Riyadh’s willingness to improve relations with Moscow is based on the belief that only Russia can effectively limit Iranian influence in Syria and elsewhere, then the emergence of strong evidence that Russia cannot or will not do so could lead to yet another downturn in Saudi-Russian relations. The first casualty may be Saudi willingness to buy Russian arms—something Riyadh has indicated it might do for years if Moscow distances itself from Tehran, but which Moscow has been unwilling to do.
During King Salman’s expected visit to Moscow, the Russian side will undoubtedly want to discuss the details of a prospective Russian arms sale to the kingdom as well as Saudi investment in Russia. King Salman and his son the crown prince, though, will be far more focused on learning about what plans Moscow might have for limiting Iranian influence in Syria and elsewhere in the region. If one side disappoints the other, the other will undoubtedly return the favor. Indeed, some Russian observers are already speculating about when (not if) Moscow will pull out of its oil-production-limitation agreement with Riyadh.
Mark N. Katz
Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, is a visiting senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Photo credit: Kremlin
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.