In Dealing With Russia, Saudi is Keeping its Options Open

Russia Saudi Arabia Middle East Oil
A worker checks the valve of an oil pipe at the Imilorskoye oil field, owned by Lukoil, outside the West Siberian city of Kogalym, Russia, January 25. Russia and Saudi Arabia have proposed cutting global oil production to help clear a glut of crude and prop up sinking prices. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Mixed signals have been coming out of Riyadh regarding Russia. First, the Russian and Saudi oil ministers met together on February 16 with their Qatari and Venezuelan counterparts, in the Qatari capital of Doha, and announced they had all agreed to freeze oil output at the January level. This was a carefully calibrated decision. It allowed the countries to signal that, for the first time in 18 months, Saudi Arabia was actively beginning to manage supply and, even rarer, was coordinating with a major non-OPEC producer (Russia). But since supply did not actually change compared with January, the announcement did not disrupt markets or have much impact on the oil price.

Despite this dialogue on the economic front, Saudi and Russian rhetoric on Syria has remained sharply split. Russia has been talking about a political solution and a ceasefire, but has meanwhile been continuing with air strikes. Saudi policy has been the opposite: it has been talking about ramping up its military involvement, but hasn't. The Saudi foreign minister, Adel Jubeir, has talked of potentially sending ground troops to fight ISIS. Shortly after the oil summit, he also called for the opposition to be given surface-to-air missiles. These could presumably end up being used against Russian planes.

For that reason, for all of Saudi Arabia's massive leverage in the international arms market, it is unclear if any countries are actually willing to supply such weapons for use in Syria. Thus, while Saudi Arabia sounds as though it is committed to further fighting—while Russian officials talk of political solutions, ceasefires and elections—the reality on the ground is quite different.

Visiting Riyadh immediately after the Russian air strikes on Syria began late last year, it was typical to hear a wide range of Saudi voices—governmental and non-governmental—expressing their fury and frustration with the Russian approach. The attacks were targeting all forms of opposition, as well as civilians in opposition areas. Such a sweeping crackdown could only lead to further radicalization, many people said. But there was almost equal frustration with the U.S. Several interlocutors emphasized that Saudi Arabia was a major regional power, but not a superpower.

Only the U.S. could stand up to Russia. And Obama was variously seen as, in the best scenario, a hesitant soft-power president in a hard-power world; or as uninterested in the lives of Syrians; or as deliberately capitulating to the Russia-Iran alliance in order to advance the Iran nuclear deal. Yet again, states were failing to bring about justice for Syrians. And a common view in Saudi Arabia—and Qatar—was that this would only encourage non-state actors to fight. Around that time, 55 Saudi clerics issued a fatwa calling for jihad against Bashar al-Assad's regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, depicting the Russians as crusaders and drawing parallels with Afghanistan.

More recently, though, some Saudi diplomats and thinkers have revived the idea of outreach towards Russia. This is not entirely new. The countries have few historical connections; in 2007 Putin was the first Russian leader ever to visit Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia has tried to reach out to Russia over Syria several times, firstly through former intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan, and more recently with the supremely influential defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, meeting Putin at last year's Sochi Grand Prix. While opposing Russia's policy in Syria, the Saudis cannot force it to change without U.S. support. And Russia has one saving grace in the eyes of the current foreign policy establishment: It is not Iran.

When it comes to Syria, Saudi diplomats see more potential areas of common interest with Russia than with Iran. Russia's priority is preserving its strategic alliance with the Syrian state, whereas Iran's key interest in Syria has traditionally been its link with Hezbollah. And while Russian air strikes have killed large numbers of Sunni Muslim Syrians, no one thinks they are motivated by sectarianism (whereas Saudis perceive Iran as having sectarian motives in Syria, just as Iranians perceive Saudis as having their own sectarian motives). Meanwhile, for its part, Russia would like to have regional influence that extends beyond Iran.

So far Russia and Iran have been largely united in their backing of the Syrian regime. Moreover, a general opacity about the inner workings of all three states means that divisions between them are less likely to come to light than divisions within the opposition, between the opposition and its international and regional backers, or indeed the conspicuous divisions over Syria policy within the U.S. administration itself. That does not mean such divisions do not exist.

So far they have not manifested themselves into significant opportunities for compromise or negotiation. But Israel, which is agnostic over whether Assad or the opposition is more of a threat to its own security, has been able to benefit from differences between Russia and Iran: By coordinating with the Russian military, it has been able to keep bombing Hezbollah weapons supplies in certain areas of Syria, without running into any difficulties with Syria's Russian-provided anti-aircraft defenses.

All told, it seems likely that Saudi diplomats will explore the possibilities for finding areas of common interest with Russia, both in Syria and in terms of wider economic engagement—whether that relates to oil policy or business ties. One concern, however, is that Iran is watching closely and drawing the inference that if Saudi Arabia will work with Russia, it is less concerned with Assad's brutality than with finding any means necessary to end Iran's influence in Syria. This compounds the sense that Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a zero sum game, in Syria and in the wider region.

Jane Kinninmont is deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.