June 23, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia Looks to Russia

• On June 18, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia, visited St. Petersburg, Russia, to engage in high-level talks

• Meanwhile, Yemen continues to sink further as UN talks in Geneva last week started but ended without progress and the Saudi-led bombing campaign persists

• The signing of several bilateral agreements between Saudi Arabia and Russia reveals the perceived mutual benefit in a closer relationship between the two countries

• Russia does not share the Saudi focus on Iran, but sees a greater threat from extremism.


With the Houthis still firmly in control in Sana'a despite the bombing campaign, Saudi Arabia has few options beyond increasing the level and intensity of its attacks. But this is a difficult policy to sell to the rest of the world while the sole measurable effect seems to be the increase in levels of civilian damage. The UN launched a new appeal on Friday for $1.6 billion to address ‘a looming humanitarian catastrophe’ in Yemen that includes dengue fever and malaria. However, on top of all the other demands for financial support around the world, donors may ask whether a better starting point might be an end to the fighting.

Predictably, the UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva that finally got under way on June 16 ended after three days without even achieving a temporary ceasefire. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen described the talks gloomily as ‘the launch of a long and arduous path.’ The Houthis are not prepared to back down, and they believe that they can hit back at Saudi Arabia’s southern provinces while continuing to make gains in Yemen. Whatever they manage in the short-term will be minor pinpricks in a relatively desolate and unimportant area of the country, but nonetheless irritating to Saudi Arabia if they become more widespread and more frequent.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince, is both the face and architect of the Saudi campaign in Yemen and is vulnerable to criticism if he can show no positive results from an engagement by the region’s Arab superpower with its poorest member. He was in St. Petersburg on Thursday to coincide with the International Economic Forum, and held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In April, Russia was the sole Security Council member not to vote in favor of Resolution 2216 that demanded the Houthis stop fighting and withdraw their forces. Prince Mohammed no doubt hoped to negotiate a more supportive relationship, and certainly his visit received praise in the official media on both sides as it concluded with several agreements, including one on a head of state visit in both directions.

Russia may court Saudi Arabia for its influence on the price of oil, and may see it as a country in play, especially for large arms contracts and other projects as U.S. and Saudi foreign policy objectives appear to diverge; but any advantage is likely to be short-term and cannot be achieved without offering something in return. For the Saudis, that will be anything that reduces Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq.

It was no surprise to learn from the Wikileaks cables dumped on June 19 that the rivalry with Iran lies at the center of Saudi Arabian foreign policy. As the deadline of June 30 for a final P5+1 agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue approaches, and even if it is extended, Prince Mohammed will have wanted to alert President Putin to the dangers that Saudi Arabia sees in allowing Iran back into the international fold with the potential to become a nuclear power. But in the complex circularity of international affairs, Russia sees Iran as the mainstay of the Syrian government, which Moscow supports. It is Iranian money and direct military support that are sustaining the Assad regime more than the Russian equipment he receives.

Russia therefore may have tried to persuade Prince Mohammed to take notice of a more urgent threat—the one posed by the so-called Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. This is of increasing relevance to Russia as there are well over 2,000 Russians fighting in the region. On June 13, a senior commander of the Kavkaz Emirat, an al-Qaeda affiliate, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and was accepted on June 21 with the announcement by the Islamic State of the formation of its North Caucuses Wilayat, comprising four provinces (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and ‘Kabika’). While this may have little immediate practical consequence for Russian security, Putin may regard Saudi support for the Syrian opposition as indirect support for Russian extremism.

The Russian-Saudi relationship will continue to improve, but it is unlikely that the strategic interests of either country will lead to the fundamental change in policy that the other desires.


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