Russia’s New Friends in the Middle East

aziz-alsaudputin.jpgToday’s news that Somali pirates have hijacked a Saudi Arabian oil tanker, carrying one quarter of the OPEC nation’s daily production (valued at $100 million), may result in increased cooperation on security of oil shipments between the Saudi and Russian government.  The Kremlin recently pledged to increase its military presence in the Gulf of Aden following the high-profile hijacking of a Ukrainian arms shipment and inference with other Russian freighters, and, just this weekend, the Russian Navy was successful in scaring off an attempted hijacking by pirates of another Saudi vessel.  Surely the royal family will be grateful.

But seeing Russia develop closer and closer relations with Saudi Arabia as the savior of the high seas shouldn’t be too alarming – this is a relationship (and wider regional policy) that the Kremlin has been quietly and successfully developing for several years now, extending into many areas beyond just the energy and political spheres.

According to the experts, since about 2003, Moscow has been taking advantage of the rather obvious opportunity provided by many Middle Eastern governments’ unease with U.S. policy in the region.  These deepening ties reached a peak in 2007, when then President Vladimir Putin made a much publicized trip to Riyadh, where he received a red carpet welcome from King Abdullah just days after lambasting U.S. policy.  The Crown Prince Abdul Aziz al-Saud made a return visit himself to Moscow that November, followed by some visits between the two governments in 2008 (the most recent is photographed).

This level of diplomatic contact isn’t as high as, say, Russia’s interest in Hugo Chavez, but it certainly is much more time they have spend with George W. Bush.

A recent paper I came across while preparing for a talk helps to explain what each side is getting out of this partnership.  For the Saudis, frustrated with the cold shoulder and deaf ears in Washington with regard the Israeli-Palestinian issue, are happy to look for alternative diplomacy and peace iniative forums which may serve to “wake up” the Americans to their needs.  Russia’s increasing clout in the region, their close relations with difficult-to-handle Iran, and even their direct negotiations with Hamas make them an emerging player for the Saudis to entertain – even if politically the achievements are more rhetorical than actionable.

There is also certainly an interest from the state oil company Saudi Aramco in bringing Russia closer into the embrace of OPEC, if falling short of regular membership.  Just this September during a visit to Moscow, the OPEC chairman extended a renewed offer to Russia to bring them in, and for fun, the Russians pretended to ponder the benefits of the cartel before denying any interest (the same they have said about lacking interest in the gas cartel).

An Oct. 23 article in the New York Times reported that the global economic crisis and crash in oil prices has pushed Russia into serious consideration of undertaking production quotas, which have long been anathema to the world’s leading producer.  While OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem el-Badri’s was visiting Moscow, President Dmitry Medvedev made no concrete commitment, but said that the government is quite keen on “maintaining stable oil prices” – which seemed at the time a euphemism for market monopoly.

According to one analyst cited by the article, “The likely reason for the OPEC secretary general’s visit to Moscowtoday was to deliver a message that Saudi Arabia will not take all thefinancial pain on its own. (…) The cartel is unlikely to make anydeeper cuts in the future without the participation of major non-OPECproducers such as Russia.

Motivating the Russian side, we can see a major arms play involved as the subtext to the generalized narrative of “resurgent Russia“.  According to the South Asia Analysis paper, the secretive Russia-Saudi arms deal may total as much as $4 billion for 150 T-90 tanks, 100 helicopters, and a variety of other equipment.  The Saudis plan to spend upward of $12 billion on arms in coming years, and this represents a major shift away from purchases from the United States and Europe, and even represents a choice of Russian arms selected over Chinese suppliers.

While it may be true that Russia remains much better positioned to affect geopolitical outcomes in the Middle East in this current environment, especially if U.S. policy toward Iran remains unchanged, there is no telling how stable this position of dominance might be in the long run. There is only so much that Moscow can say in terms of crowd pleasing the Middle East with the anti-imperialist tropes before the new friends will remember some traditional competing interests.

In terms of oil production, Saudi Arabia and Russia are both traditional competitors, not allies, and any Sovietologist can you tell you what happens whenever Washington convinces the Saudis to ramp up production, temporarily crashing the price – and that’s just one of the many hang-ups which have defined Russo-Saudi antagonism over the majority of Cold War.

…but then again, we are so often reminded by everyone that there is no new Cold War, so really we should probably expect an artful and opportunistic response on behalf of both parties to the prevailing realpolitik over any promises of partnership.

Photo:  Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, Saudi national security council secretary general and former Saudi ambassador to the United States in Astrakhan, south-western Russia, on September 4, 2008. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)