In 1979, Saudi-Russian relations were extremely poor. The two countries did not even have diplomatic relations — nor had they since the 1930s. Many observers regarded Soviet military support for Marxist regimes in Ethiopia, South Yemen, and Afghanistan as ultimately aimed at surrounding the oil-rich Kingdom and bringing about the downfall of its US-allied ruling family. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the uncertainty about whether the Iranian Revolution might evolve in a Marxist direction only served to intensify the perception of a Soviet threat to the Kingdom.
By 2009, though, Saudi-Russian relations have grown as friendly as they have ever been. Moscow long ago stopped supporting a network of Marxist revolutionary regimes or intervening militarily in the vicinity of Saudi Arabia. There have been a series of high-profile visits by senior leaders of the two countries, including one by then-Crown Prince ‘Abdullah to Moscow in September 2003 and another by then-President Vladimir Putin to Riyadh in February 2007. The Kingdom even hosted the Kremlin-appointed strongman in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, in 2007 and 2008. In addition, Lukoil and other Russian firms are now operating in Saudi Arabia. A significant trade relationship has developed between the two countries. There also have been many reports about how Riyadh may soon start buying weapons from Russia.
This improvement in Saudi-Russian relations, though, was quite slow in coming. Despite the overall improvement in Moscow’s ties with the West that occurred under Mikhail Gorbachev, Saudi Arabia and the USSR did not restore diplomatic relations until after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Despite superficially improved ties in the early 1990s, Saudi-Russian relations deteriorated again by the mid-1990s. Riyadh grew concerned about Russian arms sales to Tehran as well as support for Iran’s atomic energy program (which many feared would lead to its acquisition of nuclear weapons). For their part, Russian officials and commentators openly accused Riyadh of supporting the Chechen rebels and of seeking to spread “Wahabism” among Muslims in Russia and other former Soviet republics. The countries also had competing interests in the oil sphere: Russia sought to increase both its production and exports, while Saudi Arabia wanted Russia to join, and abide by production limits set by, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
By the time of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, Saudi-Russian relations had grown very tense. President Putin’s reaction to 9/11 was not only to seize this as an opportunity to improve Russian-American relations, but to encourage Americans to see themselves as being in a common struggle with Russians against what Moscow portrayed as Saudi-backed Sunni terrorists. However, by 2003, Russian-American and Saudi-American relations had begun to deteriorate, as both Moscow and Riyadh opposed the launching of the war in Iraq. Over the course of 2003, Saudi-Russian relations improved, culminating in the visit of Crown Prince ‘Abdullah to Moscow in September of that year. Many observers now saw Putin as attempting to ally with the Kingdom against the United States.
Perhaps a more important contribution to the improvement in the Saudi-Russian relationship than their common opposition to US policy toward Iraq was the switch made by Riyadh from criticizing to actually supporting Moscow’s policy in Chechnya. Especially after the 2003 al-Qa‘ida-launched attacks inside Saudi Arabia, Moscow and Riyadh appeared to increasingly recognize each other as allies against a common enemy. The dramatic rise in the price of oil throughout most of the 2000s also helped to ease Moscow-Riyadh tensions over Russian oil production levels.
Some feared that improved Saudi-Russian relations at a time when Saudi-American relations were strained could lead to Riyadh seeking more security assistance from Moscow and less from Washington. This, however, has not happened. The Saudis have no illusions about Russia being able to replace America as the Kingdom’s principal defender. Nor does Moscow appear to seek this role. Despite the sharp deterioration that has occurred in Russian-American relations, Moscow seems to recognize that the continued close Saudi-American security relations actually benefit Russia. Moscow simply is not in a position to defend the Kingdom — or Russia’s growing economic interests there. Further, Moscow recognizes that the most likely replacement for a government in Saudi Arabia that is closely allied to the United States is not one that is closely allied to Russia, but a radical Islamist regime that is as virulently hostile toward Russia as it is toward the West.
But while there has been a dramatic improvement in Saudi-Russian relations since 2003, there are also important differences between the two countries. Moscow is frustrated that Saudi Arabia has not awarded contracts to more Russian firms to operate inside the Kingdom. And despite all the media reports over the last few years that the Kingdom is about to place large orders for Russian arms, it has not done so. The Saudis, for their part, are unhappy about the role Russia continues to play in providing both arms and nuclear know-how to Riyadh’s regional rival, Iran. According to some Russian press reports in 2008, Riyadh has linked Saudi arms purchases from Russia to Moscow distancing itself from Tehran. Prime Minister Putin, though, made clear that this was not something Russia would do. Each side appears to hope that the other will back down, but so far neither has.
In addition, the decline in the price of oil from the dramatic high it reached in mid-2008 has resulted in renewed tensions over Russian oil production levels. Moscow has hinted that it “might” join OPEC, but has not actually done so. In March 2009, influential Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin told a meeting of OPEC ministers that Moscow might send a permanent representative to the OPEC Secretariat — a step that is clearly far short of Russia becoming a member and abiding by OPEC production limits.
Finally, if the recent increase in Muslim insurgent activity in the North Caucasus continues, this could sour Saudi-Russian relations. Unable to acknowledge that harsh Russian government policies and xenophobic Russian popular attitudes toward Muslims are contributing to the upsurge of violence in the North Caucasus, Russians are likely to revert to blaming “outside forces,” including Saudi Arabia, regardless of whether such blame is justified. Still, it is possible that the situation in the North Caucasus will not deteriorate, or that Saudi-Russian relations will not suffer even if it does — especially if Riyadh continues to express support and understanding for Moscow’s efforts to deal with domestic terrorists (as Riyadh has done in recent years). There may be a limit, though, to the extent that Riyadh can do this, especially if sympathy for the Muslims of the North Caucasus grows in the rest of the Muslim world.
Thus, while relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia have grown friendlier since 2003, there are important differences — either active or latent — between them that serve to limit how close their ties can become. Though Moscow and Riyadh are not hostile toward one another, as they had been in 1979 and continued to be for many years thereafter, they have not become allies. Nor are they likely to.