The Kremlin and the Kingdom: Contradictory Signals?

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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

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Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com

5 Comments

  1. Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent, Persian Gulf kingdoms) have made a strategic error that will in the long run cost them. The oil wealth that has blown their way by the luck of the draw has given them the mistaken notion that they have made major accomplishments when they have not. For centuries they have been pawns in someone else’s empire and now they wish to be emperors themselves, issue orders and have other leaders jump, and they get upset when nobody jumps. The trouble is you can’t buy an empire. Empires of the past happened with real planning, boots on the ground, loyal forces willing to give up (or rent out) their lives for the glory and expansion of the empire, and a commitment to risk: that of putting everything on the line for the sake of building an empire. That’s how Persians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Mongols, French, Spaniards and Brits did it. Even the early Muslim empire did it that way. The Saudis want an empire without all those elements. They only want to throw money at it and act like the wizard from behind the curtain so that if their plots go sour they can resort to some kind of a plausible deniability. In reality they can’t even defend their own kingdoms and rely on West’s guarantees to stay in power. These games the Saudis have played, using their oil wealth on fomenting civil wars and regime change elsewhere, they have a cost. While the kings have been spending billions elsewhere they have neglected developing modern and self-sustaining societies. From time to time they have shown great ambition for domestic modernization and development and had partial success, but for the amount of wealth they have amassed they have severely underachieved because their focus has been self-preservation and aggrandizement. They have stayed in power with an iron fist. They have also tried to channel the subversive forces such as AQ to their own goals abroad and thus dissipate some of that energy in ways that harms others, not the House of Saud. They have been playing with fire for decades. It’s a matter of time before these subversive forces and restless populations become uncontrollable. Not only have they failed at building an empire using petro-dollars and someone else’s foot soldiers, they have continued to risk their own kingdoms while alienating former friends.

  2. I believe that this post attaches too much importance to what the Saudis feel, rather than to what the Egyptians want. Saudi Arabia needs Egypt as much as or even more than the other way round. Since the Arab Spring and the loss of many allies and continuing problems in Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi Arabia feels besieged and Egypt as an important Arab country is the only country that can provide some reassurance for the Saudis. Therefore, the relationship seems to be driven by the Egyptians. So far, Egypt has received close to $20.00 billion from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. If the Egyptians have decided to buy weapons from Russia as a gesture of defiance against the United States, the Saudis would have no option but to pay for them.

    As for Saudi-Iranian relations, just earlier this week the Emir of Kuwait was in Tehran apparently with a message from Saudi Arabia. He was warmly received and both sides made many friendly noises and signed a number of important agreements. It seems that, despite their disagreements, the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are going to improve and we can expect Foreign Minister Zarif visiting Saudi Arabia in the near future.

  3. Once upon a time the Egypt was armed by the Russians. In the 1967 and the Yon Kipper war of 1973 the Egyptians were using Russian tanks. The Syrians too. The more things change the more they stay the same.

  4. How this pans will depend a lot on what sort of arms the Saudis are purchasing for the Egyptians. It may also indicate that the Saudis are not overly concerned about the Syrian war or the Iranians anymore – which will leave the right-wing Israelis fuming because it means all their efforts to wedge the Saudis and the Iranians were for next to nothing.

  5. Interesting post, speculation, guess work, trying to connect the dots, seeking relevance perhaps. None the less, nobody outside of the participants really knows the true story.

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