TCS Daily

Bear and Camel Rapprochement

By Ariel Cohen - September 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Geopolitical tectonic plates have shifted as the de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah, completed his recent visit to Russia.


No longer sure of its prior close relationship with Washington, the Saudi monarchy is reaching out to the former empire it helped America to defeat in Afghanistan only 15 years ago.


In the aftermath of the Iraq war, Riyadh is looking to balance U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf. It also hopes to diversify its sources of weapons and signal to Washington that it keeps all geopolitical options open.


Russia is the third largest weapons exporter after U.S. and Great Britain. It leads the world in selling large weapons systems like tanks and aircraft. Its military sales topped $6 billion in 2002, according to the Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute.


In the 1990s, Russia sold a $4 billion state-of-the-art, multi-layer air defense system to the United Arab Emirates, and would like to open the large and lucrative Saudi weapons market to its rusting but once-formidable arms industry.


The Saudis also recognize that Russia -- as the largest producer of oil outside of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the largest producer of natural gas -- packs a lot of punch in the global energy markets. While the U.S. is interested in diversifying its energy supply to include Russia, Saudi Arabia wants its own direct energy dialogue with Moscow.


Russian oil exports have grown 8-10 percent a year since 1998. Its increasing oil market share started to worry the Saudi kingdom. Riyadh traditionally considers itself the market-maker of energy and wants others to follow. It is also worried that the more efficient Russian private sector oil model may become contagious. The Saudi royal family would like to keep controls of the "spice."


The five-year oil-and-gas cooperation agreement signed in Moscow by the energy ministers will allow the two fuel giants to coordinate supply of oil to the global markets. Russia will not even need to join OPEC, although the U.S. State Department sources told TCS that Washington "will not be excited" if Moscow consider joining the cartel.


Moscow is driven towards a partnership with Saudi Arabia for a combination of geopolitical and geo-economic reasons. It is looking to compensate itself for the loss of influence in the Gulf with the demise of Saddam Hussein, the old Soviet client.


Russia's traditionally warm relations with other secular Arab countries, Syria and Libya, have stagnated for years. While Damascus has no cash to pay for Russian weapons, Riyadh has plenty. And Russian energy companies, flush with cash, are looking for joint ventures in the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia.


The desert kingdom is a perfect partner for giant natural gas development schemes under the umbrella of Prince Abdullah's much-touted "gas initiative," which would include power generation, liquid natural gas (LNG) production for export, and gas-powered desalination.


Most importantly, though, Moscow believes that Saudis and other rich Gulf states hold the keys to the 9-year-old war in Chechnya. One of the most radical and audacious Islamist commanders in Chechnya, known by Nome-de-guerre Hattab, was a Saudi. The Russian special forces killed him after a long hunt. Another top commander, Shamil Basaev, on the U.S. Department of State terrorism list, is known to have military and financial support from the Gulf, as well as a flow of jihadi recruits.


In October of last year, the Russian security services alleged in the media that the Chechen suicide bombers who took 1,000 people hostage in a Moscow theater made phone calls to the Gulf. Their commander, they said, has negotiated to make a "snuff movie" featuring hostage executions for a rich Gulf sponsor -- for US $1 million.


The Kremlin was livid. In the last summit with President Bush in St. Petersburg in June, President Putin stressed that 15 out of 19 hijackers were Saudi. President Bush nodded in agreement. This was an intentional jab to signal to Saudi Arabia that Russia is willing to join forces with the United States in prosecuting the war against terrorism if the Saudis don't reign the radical Chechens in.


Al Qaeda's terrorist attacks in Riyadh, in which over 30 Saudis died, seemed to have changed the tone in the desert kingdom. Now Saudi leaders claim that they view Chechen separatism as an internal Russian affair, and that their assistance was always exclusively humanitarian. While nobody in Moscow believes that, the Putin Administration, which is facing parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections in March 2004, is hoping for drying up of financing to terrorism, and significant decrease in hostilities.


Russian-Saudi relations have known their share ups and downs. The Soviet Union was the first state to recognize the desert Kingdom of Hijaz in 1926, hoping to upset the British. In the great purge of 1937, however, Stalin recalled the Soviet Ambassador and had him shot.


Saudi Arabia paid billions of dollars and thousands of mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It also crashed the oil prices down, denying Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet General Secretary, his principal source of foreign cash. The conflict that brought Riyadh and Washington to the pinnacle of their friendship, allowed the Saudis to propagate the Wahhabi school of Islam worldwide, and hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. Saudi foundations and rich individuals have poured over $100 million to support Chechen separatism. According to George Engelhardt, a Moscow-based expert on radical Islam, the Saudis are spending up to $100 million a year to support Wahhabi indoctrination and anti-Western lobbying. This amount is likely to increase if more Saudi companies will become engaged in Russia.


Dr. Sergey Karaganov, the Chairman of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a consultant to the Russian government and to energy companies, was instrumental in bringing Prince Abdullah to Moscow. Karaganov says that the visit was "very productive." This means Saudi-Russian cooperation both on energy and on Chechnya.


As Moscow and Riyadh discover their newfound common agenda, and pursue cooperation, the bear-and-camel rapprochement demonstrates the old adage: countries do not have permanent friends. They only have permanent interests.



Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.


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