Yelena Suponina, advisor to the director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, expert on Asia and the Middle East, discusses the present situation in Saudi Arabia and whether changes are in store for the kingdom following the death of King Abdullah.
Rivalry with Iran
Under King Abdullah, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran began to improve gradually. There were several meetings between Saudi and Iranian delegations. In the fall of 2014, the two countries’ foreign ministers, Saud al Faisal and Javad Zarif, met at the UN General Assembly in New York. Even so, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are still tense, suspicion remains, and no major changes for the better are expected in the foreseeable future.
The new Saudi king, Salman, will continue the tactics of his predecessor and brother, which means that the low-grade tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia will remain but they will seek to prevent any sudden escalation. They will most likely make a show of normalizing contacts, partly in response to persistent requests from the United States, Saudi Arabia’s ally. President Barack Obama believes that Iran should be involved in solving regional problems. He has also abandoned the idea, backed by some US politicians, that the US government should support immediate regime change in Iran. Saudi Arabia is perceptive to these signals, and until there is a change of government in Washington there will be no drastic changes in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Saudi Arabia and international terrorism
Saudi Arabia is affected by terrorism. There have been attacks both against Saudi nationals and against US service members stationed in the kingdom. There is no denying that some Saudi Arabians sympathize with terrorists and jihadism. As is known, there are terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State, as well as so-called charities in Saudi Arabia that funnel money to extremists.
The royal family and the country’s security service are unable to fully control their subjects, especially wealthy citizens. Funding for terrorists comes both from organizations and from individuals with extremist sympathies. In his remarks at Harvard University in 2014, US Vice President Joe Biden named the countries providing financial and technical assistance to extremists. Saudi Arabia was on that list, next to Turkey and some other countries.
There is a view that, after several years of bloodshed, Riyadh has effectively adopted the Russian position on Syria. In reality, the Russian position was first adopted by the United States after a sober assessment of the situation. President Obama has turned out to be an indecisive leader, disliked both by “hawks” and “doves.” He is not peaceful enough for the doves and not belligerent enough for the hawks. Saudi Arabia called for tougher action on Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s position ‘has not changed very much. Possibly, there is awareness that a change of government in Syria can make the situation even worse. Still, a certain measure of inertia in Saudi Arabia’s Syria policy was made more likely by King Abdullah’s illness. He had been in a coma since December 2014 but even prior to that he had experienced bouts of ill health.
King Salman, at the time crown prince, cannot boast good health either, so he has not been actively involved in state affairs. The low profile Saudi Arabia has kept recently on a number of Middle East issues can be partially attributed to these internal processes. Now that the transition has been completed, King Salman, with the help of his inner circle, will do all he can to boost the country’s presence in the region. Nevertheless, there are no indications of drastic changes in Saudi Arabia’s policy.
Shifts within the elite
There are a number of reasons, beyond external factors, for the drastic changes in the Middle East. Long-standing internal problems have also played a role. Saudi Arabia has had its share of such problems, including an ageing leadership and unresolved economic issues, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is a rich oil-producing state. The events of 2011-2012 showed that royal authority was able to quell protests, although in Saudi Arabia they never reached a big scale.
King Abdullah was able to establish dialogue between elites and pacify the internal opposition because the government had enough money to buy off opponents and increase social spending.
Essentially, the Saudi king doused the protest with petrodollars, but that also takes some skill; not everyone can settle a growing conflict with money. King Abdullah showed himself to be a wise, realistic and measured politician. By all appearances, King Salman will follow the same course, slowly implementing minor reforms with money and persuasion while trying to maintain control. This will work for them in the short term, but in the long term Saudi Arabia needs to pursue serious reforms.
Oil prices rose somewhat on news of King Abdullah’s death, which helped some oil exporters, including Russia, patch up their budgets a bit, but the larger problem remains. The temporary increase was in fact related to market participants’ uncertainty as to how stable the situation in Saudi Arabia is. Literally within 24 hours everyone came to the conclusion that the situation is stable enough and that the departure of one king and the arrival of another will not have a big impact on the oil market. The transition in Saudi Arabia is not a factor that oil exporters should count on to raise oil prices.
Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi is still in place, which is further evidence that there will be no abrupt changes. Saudi Arabia continues to pursue the same policy. It is afraid of losing market share and does not want to reduce oil production. So it is prepared to put up with low oil prices. Saudi Arabia cannot be expected to reduce oil output. We can argue all we like about conspiracy theories and whether Saudi Arabia is deliberately bringing prices down, but the issue here is whether there will be any significant changes. Frankly, no serious changes should be expected within the next several months.
In Soviet times relations between Moscow and Riyadh were practically non-existent, despite the fact that the Soviet Union was among the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in the 1920s-1930s and recognize the new state on the Arabian Peninsula. Nevertheless, relations gradually deteriorated, and contacts began to be restored only under President Vladimir Putin.
Under Boris Yeltsin, Russia had no close ties with Persian Gulf countries. In 2007, during Vladimir Putin’s first visit to Saudi Arabia, I accompanied the president with a group of analysts and reporters. Putin travelled to several Arab countries in the Persian Gulf during the trip, which marked a breakthrough in relations with those states. I remember well how relations started almost from scratch and how many plans were made, though not all of them were acted on. Why? First, Saudi Arabia is more oriented toward its partner and sponsor across the ocean, the United States. Second, the revolutionary changes that occurred in the Middle East became an impediment. For understandable reasons, the Saudis had other things to worry about than bilateral cooperation. The revolutionary upheavals in Egypt, Libya and other countries distracted everyone from the routine problems that bilateral partnerships thrive on.
Also let’s not forget that there are political disagreements between Moscow and Riyadh over what’s best for the region. Saudi Arabia often supports Washington’s rash plans for reckless military adventures in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia was a close US ally in the 2003 war in Iraq and the 2011 war in Libya, and was prepared to go even further at times, for example, in the case of Syria. Saudi Arabia advocated military action, but Barack Obama hesitated and ultimately backed down, not least due to Moscow’s 2013 initiative to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.
These disagreements between the kingdom and Russia impede the development of a partnership. There is progress to be made in this area, and the mechanisms are already in place: cooperation between the countries’ chambers of commerce and industry as well as humanitarian and cultural cooperation. Economic partnership between private and state companies can serve as a viable foundation, and there will have to be some convergence in views and positions on what is happening in the region and the world. Until that happens I do not expect a breakthrough in relations with Saudi Arabia, but on the other hand, I believe that the current partnership will be preserved under King Salman.