by Mark N. Katz
Two storylines about Saudi-Russian relations have recently dominated the airwaves. One is that Moscow and Riyadh are sharply divided by several issues: not only Syria and Iran, but also Crimea and the Russian belief that the Saudis are supporting Muslim opposition inside Russia. The other is that Saudi Arabia is about to buy $2-4 billion (reports vary) worth of Russian arms for Egypt.
It seemed unlikely to me that both these reports could be true. If Moscow and Riyadh can’t see eye to eye on issues of mutual concern, then their relationship is bad and the Kingdom would not buy such a large amount of weaponry for Egypt from Russia. On the other hand, if the Saudis do indeed intend to buy billions of dollars in Russian arms for Cairo, then clearly Saudi-Russian relations must not be as bad as has been reported. The question, then, is: what’s the true story?
A visit to Moscow last week convinced me that both storylines are indeed true. Seasoned Russian Middle East watchers I spoke to indicated that Saudi-Russian relations really are very poor. In 2013, Prince Bandar bin Sultan (who was then the Saudi intelligence chief) met twice with President Vladimir Putin to try to persuade him to end Moscow’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. The prince reportedly offered several inducements, including billions in arms purchases for the Saudi military and billions more in Saudi investments in Russia. Putin, however, rejected these offers.
The Saudis, one Russian source indicated, seemed to think that Moscow would change its policy on Syria if it were offered enough money. But for Putin, Syria is a Russian domestic political issue. To be seen as ending support for a long-time ally such as Assad would undermine Putin inside Russia. Thus, the Russian president refused Bandar’s offers.
Crimea’s secession from Ukraine only served to further worsen Saudi-Russian relations. Riyadh’s expression of concern over Russia’s treatment of the Muslim Crimean Tatar population has only fed Russian fears that the Kingdom wants to foment Muslim unrest inside Russia. The Saudi-Russian relationship, then, is indeed poor.
That said, Russian observers are convinced that Riyadh will make a large-scale arms purchase from Russia for Egypt. Riyadh strongly backs the Egyptian military leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (who was just elected president), and is extremely unhappy that Washington does not . After the Obama administration cut back American arms supplies to the Egyptian government for cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood (which el-Sisi ousted from power last summer), Riyadh became determined to find another supplier. Russia happens to be the arms producer that can most readily fulfill this need. Riyadh’s buying Russian arms for Cairo, then, is more a sign of Saudi annoyance with Washington and has no implication for improving Saudi-Russian relations more broadly.
Indeed, according to one source, receiving Russian arms will not even serve to greatly improve Russian-Egyptian relations. Egyptian army officers prefer to work with the US, and do not want to go back to working with Russia as their predecessors did from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s (the Egyptian Army officers I spoke to confirmed this). Egypt’s Saudi benefactors would also support the officers’ position.
A development that could serve to improve Saudi-Russian relations, one Russian observer noted, is the very recent trend toward improved Saudi-Iranian relations. One Saudi grievance against Russia is that it has close ties to Riyadh’s rivals in Tehran. But if Saudi-Iranian (as well as US-Iranian) relations improve, then Riyadh will have less reason to resent the Russian-Iranian relationship. Of course, even if Saudi-Iranian bilateral relations improve, the countries are likely to remain at loggerheads over Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Bahrain. With Moscow continuing to support or sympathize with the actors Tehran is backing in the first three of these states, the prospects for improved Saudi-Iranian relations, and improved Saudi-Russian relations, are limited.
Thus, just as the poor state of Saudi-Russian relations will not prevent Riyadh from buying Russian arms for Cairo, even large-scale Saudi purchases of Russian arms for Egypt will not lead to any appreciable improvement in ties between Moscow and Riyadh.
Photo: Prince Bandar bin Sultan (R), and then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin enter a hall for a signing ceremony in Moscow July 14, 2008. Credit: RUSSIA/RIA NOVOSTI/ALEXEI DRUZHININ