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Saudi Arabia - Russia Policy

Riyadh and Moscow have been at odds for decades. The two oil superpowers produce almost half of the world's crude - and fiercely compete for market shares. The Saudis won't sacrifice their traditionally close alliance with the US for the sake of closer ties with Moscow - and Russia is not going to risk its reliance on Iran.

Saudi Arabia historically sought to walk a narrow line between East and West. Because of its strong commitment to Islam, the kingdom abhorred the atheist policy of the former Soviet Union and therefore tended to be somewhat pro- Western concerning defense matters. However, Saudi Arabia also strongly opposed what it considered to be the pro-Zionist policy of the United States with regard to Israel and the rights of the Palestinians.

In mid-2014, oil price collapsed from above $100 a barrel. Russia and Saudi Arabia predictably panicked, and tried to work out an oil output reduction that would boost the price. But they failed to iron out an action plan, and Russia even pledged to increase production. In December 2016, Moscow and Riyadh convinced OPEC and 11 non-OPEC nations to reduce their oil exports by 1.8 million barrels per day. By late September 2017, oil prices rose to $60 a barrel because compliance with the deal was exceptionally good.

An unexpected rapprochement between the two states was in the making amid Moscow's deteriorating ties with the US, and Donald Trump's unpredictable policy shifts. Saudi Arabia had long been looking to expand the list of its suppliers beyond the US. Russia, the world's second-largest exporter of arms, was ready to sign up.

Saudi Arabia signed preliminary agreements to buy S-400 air defence systems from Russia, officials said, on the sidelines of King Salman's "landmark" visit to Moscow in October 2017. The agreement was announced on 05 October 2017 as Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted King Salman - the first sitting Saudi monarch to visit Russia - for talks at the Kremlin. Along with the S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, Saudi Arabia is also set to buy Kornet anti-tank guided missile systems and multiple rocket launchers under the deal.

King Salman led a delegation to Moscow that also agreed on joint investment deals worth several billion dollars, providing a much-needed financial boost for a Russian economy battered by low oil prices and Western sanctions. On the political front, there was no sign of any substantial breakthrough on the issues that divide Moscow and Riyadh, including the fact that they back rival sides in Syria's civil war. Iran and Saudi Arabia have supported opposing sides in ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Russia, like Iran, is also a key partner of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, who Saudi Arabia has opposed.

Russia's footprint in Saudi Arabia - official and unofficial - is relatively small compared to the U.S. and many other countries. The Russians do not have a serious diplomatic engagement with the kingdom.

By 2008 Russia had begun playing a higher profile role in the Middle East peace process, designed to draw attention to Moscow's reemergence on the international stage, which remained a significant motivation in the Kremlin's diplomacy. Russia continued to position itself as a bridge between the West and Arab states, using its engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah, and its largely uncritical approach to Asad as cards to play. This, along with a competitive interest in tapping Middle Eastern markets beyond arms sales, led Russia to inject new life into formerly moribund relations with Arab states, at a time when ties with Israel were also improving. However, Russian influence in the region remained limited, with Russia checkmated by the intransigence of some of its erstwhile partners.

As early as January 1945, top-level US officials expressed concerns regarding the threat of communism in Saudi Arabia. While the Americansand Soviets were still fighting as allies against Nazi Germany, US diplomatsexpressed grave concerns regarding the Soviet threat to Saudi Arabia. US officialsworried that the Soviet Union would take advantage of political instabilityto establish a presence in Saudi Arabia and potentially deny US accessto Saudi oil. Every US administration from Truman to Reagan — Democrats and Republicans alike — sought to counter the aggressive and expansionist tendencies of the Soviets in the Middle East.

The Soviet Union threw its political weight behind socialists in South Yemen and backed nationalist governments in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The Yemen Civil War, 1962–1970, pitted Imam Badr, the tribes, and Saudi Arabia against the revolutionary government in Sana’a and an Egyptian expeditionary force. Yemen’s contemporary security environment emerged during this period with Saudi Arabia viewing the northern tribes as a security buffer and opposing bot the Nasser-backed YAR and the Soviet-backed Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). The PDRY was the only Arabian client of the Soviet Union. While providing a powerful and somewhat problematic patron, Soviet support also provided powerful enemies, most notably the United States.

King Khalid lambasted the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Riyadh's decision to boost oil output in the 1980s ruined Soviet economy. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, following hard on the heels of the Iranian revolution, convinced American leaders to take a firm stand in the Arabian Gulf. “Let our position be absolutely clear,” President Jimmy Carter declared before Congress on 23 January 1980. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This policy, dubbed the Carter Doctrine, committed American military forces to the defense of the region. This new policy, inspired by the threats to the Arabian Gulf from the Iranian revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, spurred President Carter to create the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF).

In hindsight, the US fear of increased Soviet influence in Saudi Arabia was largely unjustified. The primary reason for this relates to the character of the Saudi regime. Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, and his successors feared and hated communism.

Riyadh and Moscow used to enjoy remarkably warm relations in the 1920s and 30s. The Soviet Union was, in fact, a diplomatic pioneer in Saudi Arabia: It was the first state to recognise Abdulaziz Al Saud (King Salman's father) as the King of the Hijaz and the Sultan of Nejd in February 1926. The Soviet charm offensive in the Arabian Peninsula in the 1920s was the culmination of numerous attempts by Moscow to gain a foothold in the region prior to that.

As early as 1900, Russian imperial military vessels started frequenting the Gulf and making port calls in Kuwait among other destinations. The famous Russian Varyag cruiser visited Kuwait in December 1901 and its captain was greeted by Emir Mubarak Al Sabah despite his agreement with Great Britain not to receive foreign military guests. It was during this visit that the Russians were first introduced to Abdul Rahman Al Saud who was exiled in Kuwait at that time, along with his elder son Abdulaziz, who a year later retook Riaydh from their rivals, the House of Rashid.

As the House of Al Saud was seeking international backing, London looked at young Abdulaziz with a lot of scepticism, which is why he came in contact with the Russian consul in the Persian city of Bushehr inviting him for a visit. The consul visited Kuwait in 1903 accompanied by a Russian military vessel, which caused an outcry in London.

But it wasn't until after the Bolshevik revolution that Moscow decided to seriously focus on the Gulf. Just like the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union saw the value of diplomatic presence in the region as a way to stand up to Britain. Apart from pursuing relations with the House of Al Saud, the Soviet Union looked at the Kingdom of Hejaz whose ruler Sharif Hussein controlled Mecca and Medina as a way to reach out to the entire Muslim world. Being at odds with London, Hussein was on the lookout for strong foreign allies, which is why his representative in Rome engaged in talks with the Soviets.

Extensive diplomatic communication between Georgy Chicherin, the Soviet People's commissar for foreign affairs, and Soviet diplomats reveals just how important his vision of the Arabian Peninsula and its role in the Muslim world was. Advocating the appointment of a Soviet Muslim as envoy to Hejaz, Chicherin noted in his memo to Joseph Stalin that "Getting into Mecca is of crucial importance to us because it would increase our influence in Arabia and beyond." He recognised that the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, was a perfect opportunity to reach out to thousands of Muslims from the British and French colonies and flare up anti-colonial sentiment.

In August 1924, Soviet Consul General Karim Khakimov, a Soviet Muslim of Tatar descent, arrived in Jeddah. Soon after Khakimov's arrival in Jeddah, Abdulaziz launched his campaign to take over Hejaz, which left newly arrived Soviet diplomats with a dilemma of whom to side with. Diplomatic dispatches from the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs ordered Khakimov to position himself as an ally of all Arabs without openly showing a preference for either side.

By December 1924, Abdelaziz took Mecca and Khakimov was convinced that the time was right for him to try to introduce himself to Ibn Saud. In April 1925, when Jeddah was under siege, he was allowed to perform Umrah, a pilgrimage to Mecca, where Ibn Saud was based, thus getting a chance to meet him - something that no Western non-Muslim diplomat had been allowed to do. Khakimov's letters to Moscow reveal that his meeting with Abdulaziz went exceptionally well.

Having established full diplomatic relations with King Abdulaziz, the Soviet Union dispatched, in 1928, a new head of mission to the kingdom, Nazir Bey Turyakulov. London's key concern about the Soviet influence in Jeddah was that it was spreading Communist propaganda among Muslims during the Hajj. Indeed, this was one of the ideas that Moscow had for its diplomats in Jeddah, but in reality, the Soviet mission had a hard time reaching out to both locals and pilgrims.

Soviet diplomats decided to focus on the creation of trade links between Soviet Black Sea ports and Hejaz. Khakimov had managed to convince King Abdulaziz to lift restrictions against Soviet goods that existed in the kingdom due to London's lobbying. In 1929-1930, Soviet goods poured into the kingdom from the port city of Odessa. The biggest achievement of Soviet diplomats in Jeddah was entering the kerosene and benzine market that was almost entirely dominated by the British.

The 1932 visit to the Soviet Union was the highlight of the Saudi-Soviet relations. King Abdulaziz used Moscow's offer of financial aid to push London to provide aid and never accepted the USSR's offer. From that point on, the relations between the two states stagnated. As the power of Joseph Stalin was growing stronger, the relationship between the communist regime and Islam was becoming uneasy. In 1932, the Soviet Union unofficially banned its Muslims from performing Hajj.

Karim Khakimov returned to Jeddah as the Head of Mission in 1935, hoping to revitalise the relationship that during his absence gradually came to a halt. Stalin, who was sceptical about the USSR's presence in the Gulf from the beginning, no longer saw the partnership with King Abdulaziz as beneficial. In fact, dropping any political ambitions for the Gulf was a gesture that Moscow thought would help it partner with England, whose support the Soviet Union sought against Hitler.

The career of the Soviet Lawrence of Arabia ended abruptly when he fell victim to Stalin's political terror in 1937. In September that year, he was recalled to Moscow for a routine visit to the foreign ministry, but upon his arrival, he was arrested on suspicion of being a spy. His colleague Turyakulov who worked with him on the Saudi file was executed in October 1937. Khakimov was executed in January 1938.

King Abdulaziz was outraged at the news that the two Soviet diplomats whom he considered his friends were killed. Two months after Khakimov was executed in Moscow, American geologists discovered the world's largest deposits of crude oil in Dhahran. This prompted the Soviet Union to appoint a new head of mission in Jeddah in 1938. King Abdulaziz, however, turned the appointment down saying that he does not wish to see anyone other than Khakimov or Turyakulov in Jeddah.

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