Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has had a meeting in Moscow with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, during which they have publicly clashed on the way forward in the Syrian crisis.
Al-Jubeir predictably demanded that President Assad leave power in Syria, and said that Iran and Hezbollah – Syria’s allies – had no role in that country.
Lavrov responded that Hezbollah and Iran – like Russia – were present in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian government.
On the subject of President Assad, the Russian position was again set out today by Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, who is reported to have said that President Putin’s attitude to President Assad is unchanged: he is not President Assad’s advocate but he insists that the future of any country – including the question of its President – must be decided by the people of that country, and not by other countries or parties.
There was an appearance of common ground between the Russians and the Saudis during the talks in Moscow in that the Saudis appeared to support the Astana peace process and the Russian-Turkish sponsored ceasefire. However given what appear to be reliable reports that the Al-Qaeda backed Jihadis in northern Syria have recently received via Turkey more supplies of TOW anti-tank missiles from the Gulf Arab states – first and foremost Saudi Arabia – I doubt that anyone takes that seriously.
The Russians and the Saudis are on opposite sides in the Syrian war, and there would have been no expectation on either side of a change in positions. Al-Jubeir did not come to Moscow to talk about Syria or to try to get Russia to change its policy in Syria.
For a long time after the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011 the Saudis thought they could persuade the Russians to drop President Assad. They are under no such illusions now, especially after a disastrous ‘secret’ visit by the head of Saudi intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan to Moscow in the summer of 2013, when Prince Bandar threatened Putin with terrorist attacks against the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi unless Putin dropped his support for President Assad, only to be harshly criticised by Putin for openly threatening Russia with terrorism (Bandar was fired a few months later).
The reality is that despite their different positions on the Syrian war, in most other respects relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia are cordial.
The two countries have recently been cooperating on oil production cuts, and Valentina Matviyenko, the powerful Chairman of Russia’s Federation Council (the upper house of Russia’s parliament), who is an outside possibility for Putin’s successor, recently visited Saudi Arabia, where she raised eyebrows by wearing ‘Islamic friendly’ dress and where she had a meeting with King Salman.
During the meeting Matviyenko renewed a longstanding invitation to King Salman to visit Russia, which the King is said to have accepted, and it is likely that today’s talks between Lavrov and Al-Jubeir are in part intended to prepare the ground for that visit.
Saudi Arabia is not an ally of Russia. It is an ally of the US, and in the present conflicts in the Middle East it is also in an undeclared and fiercely denied but nonetheless very real alliance with Israel. Saudi Arabia’s primary enemy is Iran, which is increasingly tilting towards Russia, and which is edging towards an alliance with Russia.
Saudi Arabia is also the primary sponsor and financial backer of the various Wahhabi movements violent offshoots of which have in recent years been terrorising not just the Middle East but the world in general. It is moreover an open secret that Saudi Arabia provides financial and other forms of backing to various terrorist groups, including at times to Al-Qaeda, and to the organisation which is now called ISIS, and – as Putin pointedly reminded Prince Bandar during their fraught meeting in Moscow in 2013 – to the various Jihadi terrorist groups who have fought the Russians in the northern Caucasus.
The Russians and the Saudis nonetheless have a mutual interest in maintaining a dialogue with each other.
Both countries have a strong mutual interest in preserving stability in the oil market, the Saudis – whose entire economy depends on oil – especially so. The events since the oil crash of 2014 have starkly demonstrated that unless there is some degree of consensus between the Russians and the Saudis on oil production levels, the oil market risks descending into a ferocious free-for-all. Whilst the Russian economy is sufficiently large and diversified to survive that, it is now clear that the bloated and entirely oil dependent Saudi economy is not.
In addition the Russians want to attract external investment into their economy, and the Saudis along with the other Gulf states have recently become increasingly interested in investing in Russia, whose economy is large, stable, and starting to grow. Recently the sovereign wealth fund of the wealthy Gulf Arab state of Qatar – with which the Saudis have tense relations – invested in Russia’s state oil giant Rosneft, and the Saudis will not want to be left behind.
There has even at times been talk of Saudi Arabia buying arms from Russia – a traditional way for wealthy Arab states to consolidate business relationships with foreign partners – though despite longstanding rumours (including talk of Russia selling Saudi Arabia Iskander missiles) no such arms sales have ever materialised.
Beyond these tough minded economic calculations, the Saudis and the Russians have a shared geopolitical interest in maintaining a dialogue with each other.
The Saudis do not want Russia to commit wholeheartedly to an alliance with Iran – their mortal enemy and rival – and if only for that reason they will try to maintain a dialogue with Moscow in order to maintain some distance between Russia and Iran, and to preserve some Saudi influence in Moscow.
The Russians for their part recognise Saudi Arabia’s pivotal position in the Middle East and the fact that whether the Russians like the fact or not Saudi Arabia is for the moment the de facto leader of the Arab world. For that reason the Russians will wish to preserve a dialogue with what is a powerful and influential country in a critically important region of the world, with which Russia has to maintain some level of contact if it is to manage its relations in the region efficiently.
By way of example, Russia will hope for at least some degree of cooperation from Saudi Arabia as it works towards a political settlement of the Syrian crisis, even if that cooperation only takes the form of the Saudis forbearing from acting too obviously as spoilers.
It is upon these tough minded and realistic calculations that the Saudi-Russian relationship depends. It is not a case of an alliance or – to use the currently fashionable phrase – a ‘partnership’ between two countries which in many respects are adversaries.
Rather it is an attempt to prevent a situation where they might become enemies, which would drastically reduce their economic and geopolitical options and room for manoeuvre, and which would be in the interests of neither.