US influence wanes as King Salman visits Russia

US influence wanes as King Salman visits Russia
Comment: With Saudi Arabia's reliance on an increasingly unreliable Washington at an all-time low, Riyadh is diversifying its allies to include Russia, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
6 min read
04 Oct, 2017
Then Prince Salman meets with Russian President Putin in 2007 [Getty]
When it comes to Saudi-Russian relations, history is in the making - as King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud prepares to visit the Russian capital on Thursday as the first Saudi monarch to visit Moscow since the kingdom was founded in 1932.

Salman's visit represents another step in the enormous upheaval in Saudi domestic and international policy overseen by his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who visited the Kremlin most recently in May.

It also represents a weakening of traditional American dominance in the Middle East, as Moscow reasserts itself on the world stage as a force with which to be reckoned.

A history of unfriendly relations

It was not that long ago that Saudi Arabia, as a firm and fast member of the US axis opposing the Soviet Union, was actively undermining Russian power. After all, who can forget that Riyadh was actively financing the multi-ethnic mujahedeen against the almost decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979. Alongside the United States, Saudi Arabia provided much in the way of financial resources that allowed the "jihad" in Afghanistan to not only survive, but to thrive.

Saudi backed Afghan fighters
celebrate atop an abandoned Soviet tank [Getty archive]

In the days when jihad was in vogue and was accepted by the West as a heroic force of good against the evil of Soviet communism - one need only remember how Rambo III was dedicated to "the brave mujahedeen" of Afghanistan - Saudi Arabia was a crucial player in the effort to blunt Moscow's power.

Arguably, were it not for Saudi men, money and spiritual exhortations, the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan may have been far bloodier and far lengthier.

But it is not just in Afghanistan that the goals of Saudi Arabia and Russia diverged, but across almost every other major regional and international conflict. As patron to Riyadh, Washington spent much of its time in the post-Suez Crisis world order supporting monarchical regimes, particularly in the Arab world, and especially oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, the Soviets supported a number of left-leaning national socialist parties and movements, including Egypt's most famous leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The Marxist-based movements that Moscow backed harboured ideals that were considered antithetical to the conservative Arab monarchies that were now threatened. When the Soviet-backed Nasser instigated a republican putsch in the then-Kingdom of Yemen in 1962, Saudi Arabia responded by supporting the embattled monarch Imam Mohammed al-Badr alongside Britain.

When Saudi Arabia itself was bombed by Egyptian air forces - most of which were Soviet-made and supplied aircraft - US President John F Kennedy sent fighter jets to show Nasser that, whatever happened in Yemen, his Saudi allies were not to be attacked on their home turf.

Relations between Nasser and King Faisal
were icy at best - 1969 [Getty archive]

Most recently, of course, is the conflict in Syria, where Saudi Arabia has provided supported to Syrian rebel factions while Moscow continues to back the barbaric regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The near-collapse of the Syrian revolution and the loss of much of the territories that revolutionary fighters had prised from the dictatorial grip of Assad is most likely a key reason behind Riyadh's recalibration in its relations with Moscow. It is not the successive defeats suffered by the revolutionaries itself that has Riyadh thinking about its relations with Russia, but rather what Russian strength in Syria represents.

US weakness forces Riyadh to look elsewhere

Whatever America's hard and soft power capabilities, it is Washington's role in Syria that has acted as a barometer for US influence and strength in the Middle East, and the Saudi Arabians are not blind.

The United States has utterly failed to contain Russian influence in Syria, while also failing to contain Iranian expansionism as Iran funnels Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia jihadists into the bloody meatgrinder that is the Syrian conflict.

With a single-minded obsession with defeating the Islamic State group, the US has failed to handle the larger threat that is the Assad regime. On balance, Assad's forces - backed by Russia and Iran - have slaughtered an infinitely higher proportion of the more than half a million Syrians killed since the revolution kicked off in 2011.

The Assad regime is also responsible for freeing extremists from Sednaya prison early in the conflict in order to change the narrative from one of emancipation from the rule of the Assad family, to one of countering the terrorist threat posed by IS and al-Qaeda-linked groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Apart from a brief moment in April when President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike against a regime airbase at Shayrat in response to yet another horrific chemical weapons attack, all the signs appear to point to the fact that the US-led coalition is happy for Assad to remain in power as long as IS is defeated.

To most sensible observers, this essentially meant that Washington had not only ceded major countries like Iraq to Iranian influence, but had now also sold Syria out too. In Riyadh's eyes, and in the zero-sum atmosphere that has been created by Iranian expansionism, this meant that Washington had categorically failed to protect Saudi interests.

Trump receives the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud
medal from King Salman May 2017 [Getty]

Considering Russia has resumed its role as a major antagonist in Western eyes - look no further than Ukraine, Syria and electoral interference in the US and elsewhere - and with further consideration of Saudi Arabia's history as a traditionally strong ally to the United States, many eyebrows are being raised at King Salman's visit to Moscow.

However, when one assesses the strategic environment in which Saudi Arabia finds itself operating these days, its warming of ties with Moscow should come as no surprise.

After all, Saudi Arabia famously forked out some $400 billion in investments and purchases following Trump's visit to Riyadh in May, yet has seemingly seen little in the way of a return on investment.

In essence, Saudi Arabia has helped bankroll a fragile American economy while seeing very little in the way of support from Washington in Syria or even in its dispute with Qatar.

Rather than keeping all its eggs in an American basket, Riyadh is now showing that it is willing to diversify its economic and political partnerships, and make the US think twice about taking the kingdom for granted.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.