Rachel Bronson | Executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, author of Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia (2006)
King Salman’s trip to Moscow last week can be summed up in one word: awkward. Awkward in the immediate sense that the golden escalator the king rode from his airplane to the tarmac jammed, leaving him stranded uncomfortably for a few painful moments. But his trip was also awkward because for most of its history, Saudi Arabia has fought to reduce Soviet, and more recently Russian, influence in the Middle East. So why exactly did King Salman reverse history and show up in Russia, the first such trip for a Saudi monarch?
Saudi Arabia’s grand strategy is premised on regime survival and avoiding external encirclement. The U.S.-Saudi relationship deepened during the Cold War, as the Saudis were threatened by Soviet advances in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Iran has been Saudi Arabia’s most menacing adversary. The Saudis have watched as Iran has steadily increased its political influence throughout the region: in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Today, King Salman is testing whether he can loosen ties between Tehran and Moscow by inserting the kingdom between the two with new lucrative military and economic arrangements. It’s a tactic that Riyadh has used before to encourage more Saudi-friendly policies.
What does this mean for U.S.-Saudi relations? Probably not much. Given Russia’s growing influence in the region, the Saudis need their longstanding ally, even if the United States is distracted domestically and unpredictable internationally. The $100 billion in U.S.-Saudi defense contracts signed in May are a testament to the relationship’s continued importance. But the Saudis are clearly nervous and are looking to play a more active role in shaping their region’s political realities, even if it means overcoming a history of problematic relations with Russia. Such realities are likely to prove harder to fix than an uncooperative shiny staircase.
Fred Wehrey | Senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf
King Salman’s visit to Moscow is not a slip in the tectonic plates of global power, with a corresponding loss of American clout. Instead, it is more an expression of what has always been a Saudi pattern of diplomacy, well before King Salman came to power, namely a “diversified portfolio” of hedging against Washington—what one scholar has called “managed multi-dependence.”
To be sure, the talks were significant, carrying an explicit Saudi recognition of Russia’s power in Syria and growing influence in the region. Saudi Arabia has also been engaging Russia on Yemen, and hopes that a gas deal with Moscow will further isolate its rival Qatar. The proposed $3.5 billion arms deal supports Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030, with possible technology transfer that could spur an indigenous Saudi arms industry, and jobs for Saudis. For its part, prospective Saudi investments could give Russia some relief from U.S.- and EU-imposed sanctions.
But beyond these potential domestic yields—and they are potential—the actual geopolitical effect of the visit may be less seismic than many imagine. The trip does not herald a new condominium to manage the Middle East, as Russia enjoys its “moment” and America fades from the scene. Riyadh’s hope that economic inducements will get Moscow to pry Iran away from Syria may be overly optimistic in the near term. Tensions between Tehran and Moscow exist over Syria, but Russia still depends on Iranian forces for access to key areas and wants to preserve broader ties with Iran in Eurasia and Central Asia. Equally ill-considered are breathless warnings that the arms deal between the two states will erode America’s security ties. Such deals with Russia have been announced before and have often failed to materialize. At any rate the scale of current and propose American arms transfers dwarfs the Russian offer.
In short, we have seen this script before—that the U.S. is being “bypassed” by Middle East allies engaging outside powers such as Russia and China. These fears misconstrue the fact that patron-client relations in the Middle East, even between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, have always been more polyamorous than assumed.
Jane Kinninmont | Senior research fellow and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs
There is a widespread perception in the Gulf that the United States is less committed than it once was to Gulf security. This is partly about the changing nature of the global energy market, with the U.S. obtaining more of its oil at home and the Gulf primarily supplying Asian countries.
But it also reflects a fear among Gulf rulers that the U.S. will not defend them against the primary threats they see themselves as facing. In 1991 the U.S. proved its willingness to defend Kuwait against invasion. In 2011 it was not willing to defend Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak against an internal uprising. Seen from the West, the distinction was obvious, but less so for Gulf rulers. Their primary threat perceptions include internal political challenges to the established regimes, and hybrid internal and external threats in which domestic opponents link up with transnational movements and foreign sponsors. Thus the line that various Gulf princes have delivered to the U.S.: We don’t agree with Russia in Syria, but we wish we had allies that would give us what Russia has given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In this state of uncertainty, Gulf states are looking to forge new alliances—sending the Saudi king to Moscow for the first time and reaching out to Asian partners. They are also looking to reinforce older ones, by intensifying security cooperation with Egypt’s and Jordan’s militaries, and with the United Kingdom, which is expanding its naval bases in Bahrain and Oman.
Hussein Ibish | Senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C.
Some aspects of the Saudi king’s trip are independent of Washington’s policies. Riyadh and Moscow must cooperate on energy pricing, on which both of their economies depend, and those relations are largely a bilateral matter. However, other elements of the trip do suggest an increased desire of the Saudis to build relations with Russia, diversify their options, and develop their own independent stance in the region. On Syria, in part because of U.S. inaction, Russia and its allies supporting President Bashar al-Assad are ascendant and if Riyadh is to successfully contain Iran’s power and influence there, cooperation from Moscow will be a key.
Strengthening ties with Moscow can also incentivize U.S. responsiveness to Saudi concerns. The agreement for the kingdom to purchase an unspecified number of Russian S-400 anti-missile systems is a good case in point. Riyadh is mostly keen to acquire the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to augment its existing batteries of the Patriot anti-missile system. Washington was dragging its feet on the sale, which is still subject to a block in the Republican-controlled Congress, but it was no surprise that last Friday, after the S-400 announcement, the State Department approved a $15 billion THAAD sale to Riyadh.