Russia through the Saudi looking glass

M.K. Bhadrakumar June 24, 2015 1:47 PM (UTC+8)
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The latest bunch of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks as part of the half a million files relating to Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry contains a revealing document on an “arrangement of reciprocal support to the candidature of the Government of Russia to the Human Rights Council on the understanding that the Government of Russia would also extend its valuable support to the candidature of Saudi Arabia” in the elections to the body held in May 2013.

There is nothing earthshaking here, for sure, but it calls attention to the pragmatism that has characterized the relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Interestingly, the Syrian conflict didn’t come in the way of the above deal-making in 2013. The deal actually predates the rift between Riyadh and Washington following the commencement of direct talks between the US and Iran.

Against this backdrop, the Saudi assessments regarding Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to Russia last week fall into perspective. Writing in the Saudi establishment daily, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya television, cautions against reading too much into MbS’s Russia visit.

Salman meets with Putin in Moscow in 2006
Salman meets with Putin in Moscow in 2006

Rashed acknowledges the Saudi disillusionment over the US’ Middle East policies and takes note that Riyadh has taken “an unusual step and decided to do the opposite” by boosting business ties with Russia in critical areas such as energy and nuclear and military technologies at a time when the US has imposed sanctions and is boycotting Russia.

Nonetheless, Rashed sums up: “Of course, we shouldn’t read into any new developments outside political frameworks, because I can hardly imagine that Saudi Arabia has decided to turn against its alliances (with the West) – but it probably wants to get out of the narrow US corner and expand its options”.

Rashed hints that the Saudis have probably offered to give Russia “the biggest role in operating and overseeing” the 16 nuclear reactors it has decided to build “to join the nuclear club”. But on the political side, Rashed assesses, “Saudi Arabia wants Russia, which is a key player in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon, to be on its side. Russia plays an important role in the military balance with Iran.”

On the whole, what stands out is that Rashed tamps down the excitement over MbS’s Russia visit. He implies that the Saudi-US alienation falls far short of a rupture and, essentially, Riyadh is diversifying its foreign relations. (By the way, MbS is currently on a visit to France to sign “landmark agreements worth tens of billions of euros” in the fields of defense, civil aviation and solar energy.)

All indications are that Moscow took MbS’s visit on its stride. Of course, much as running and managing16 nuclear reactors could mean good business, if the Saudis expect Russia to disengage from its quasi-alliance with Iran in fighting the proxy wars in Syria or Yemen, that is not a price Russia will be willing to pay.

In Syria at least, Iran becomes the indispensible partner for Russia. It should please Russia that Iran is speaking about forming a regional alliance with Iraq and Syria to fight terrorism and is working on a regional summit of the three countries, possibly next week.

Having said that, Russia anticipates shifts in the Iranian foreign policies after the nuclear deal comes through and expects that Iran’s rapprochement with the West becomes inevitable, but hopes that this will be happening gradually, not overnight, but step by step. More importantly, Russia believes that Tehran will continue to develop relations with it.

The influential Russian daily Kommersant reported on Monday quoting a Kremlin source that Moscow has now proposed to Tehran its readiness to supply the advanced Almaz-2500 anti-aircraft missile systems, which are more advanced than the S-300 units that it originally offered under the 2007 deal.

Again, Russia sees Iran as a potential rival in the world energy market. In a commentary on Monday, the official news agency TASS quoted a Russian expert, “Iran does not care at all about Russia’s interests. It needs money and at some future date it will be able to offer considerable competition to Russia, and not in Europe alone: on the oil market, in two or three years from mow, and on the gas market, in five to seven years.”

Indeed, Iran is a highly focused, vastly ambitious regional power, too. Its integration with the West cannot and will not come at the cost of its “Look East” policies aimed at China and Russia. Tehran is pressing hard its case for full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia’s role, being the host country for the SCO summit next month, will be keenly watched.

Without doubt, the 3-way equations involving Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are entering a period of transition. All three protagonists are in it for the long game.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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