Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Saudi-Russian Relations in the Putin Era

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Saudi-Russian Relations in the Putin Era

Article excerpt

Saudi-Russian relations have been negatively affected by differences over several issues in recent years. These include oil pricing policy, investment and trade, Russian allegations about Saudi policy toward Chechnya and other Muslims in the former USSR, and Saudi security concerns about Russian arms transfers as well as the growing Russian-Israeli relationship. This article examines contrasting Saudi and Russian perspectives on each of these issues and explores the possible consequences of their troubled relationship.

Twenty years ago, Saudi-Soviet relations were extremely poor, as they were throughout the Cold War. The Soviets sought to reduce Saudi dependence on the United States. They were then trying, as they had for many years, to convince the Saudis that if Riyadh even began to cooperate with Moscow, Washington would be forced to take Saudi views more seriously than it did. The Soviets frequently pointed out how they and the Saudis shared important common interests: both supported the Palestinian side in the ongoing ArabIsraeli conflict as well as Iraqi President Saddam Husayn in his ongoing war with the Islamic Republic of Iran after the latter's forces crossed into Iraqi territory. Yet, despite Moscow's repeated professions of friendship, Riyadh felt extremely threatened by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Soviet support for nearby Marxist regimes in South Yemen and Ethiopia as well as Marxist revolutionary movements in the area, and Soviet arms sales to radical Arab regimes. The Saudis also disapproved of Moscow's suppression of Islam and treatment of Soviet Muslims. Saudi antipathy toward the USSR was so great that Riyadh would not even agree to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Moscow (which had been cut off by Stalin in 1938).1 Nor did this situation seem likely to change twenty years ago.

Ten years ago, however, the situation changed completely. In addition to the collapse of Communism and the winding down of the worldwide Cold War, Moscow reversed those policies which Riyadh had found most threatening by withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan and its support from South Yemen, Ethiopia, and Marxist revolutionaries generally. Further, Soviet cooperation during 1990-91 allowed for a series of UN Security Council resolutions to be approved which demanded the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, including one authorizing the use of force to expel them. Riyadh finally did agree to the restoration of diplomatic ties with Moscow in 1990, shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. With the Saudis providing $2.5 billion in aid to Moscow in 1991 and the Muslims of the former USSR suddenly free to practice their religion and interact with their co-religionists elsewhere, it appeared that good relations between Moscow and Riyadh had been well launched. Russian commentators eagerly anticipated the prospect of a friendly Saudi-Russian relationship, which they hoped would include large-scale Saudi investment in Russia as well as Russian arms sales to the Kingdom.2

These Russian hopes, however, have largely failed to materialize, and Saudi-Russian relations are once again poor. Many of the issues which Moscow and Riyadh disagreed over twenty years ago-and which appeared resolved ten years ago-have resurfaced, albeit in a very different context. Although Moscow no longer supports Marxist regimes or revolutionary movements as it did during the Cold War, Riyadh continues to feel threatened by reports of Moscow selling arms to neighboring states with which Riyadh has uneasy, or even hostile, relations. For its part, Moscow feels frustrated by the failure of Saudi investment in Russia to materialize as well as the Saudi proclivity for keeping oil prices in the moderate, instead of the high, range. While the Saudi leadership may not be particularly concerned about Russian views on these matters, it is disturbed by the growing trend in Russia to blame Saudi Arabia for the continued conflict in Chechnya, the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the former USSR, and the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan. …

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