The Saudi-Russian ‘alliance’: A Saudi diversification card that can’t work well

Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman’s visit to Russia in June was seemingly a policy shift by Saudi Arabia — an indication to more than a few analysts of a Saudi tilt to Russia.

The Saudis signed six agreements with Russia. They included a pact concerning the peaceful use of nuclear technology and the creation of a working group to develop joint energy projects

But the two nations are certainly far from making an alliance for one simple reason: They are competitors in global oil market. This rivalry is most likely to continue to direct their bilateral relations, resulting in an uneasy framework.

The question of how they can reconcile this mutually conflicting position becomes all the more important when assessing the Saudi-led “Sunni bloc’s” much talked about “tilt” towards Russia.

In actual terms, the crown prince’s visit was (notwithstanding the agreements signed) only a timely “diversification card” used by the Saudis to exert pressure on the US to give them their desired defense deals. They also wanted to push the US further into “reviewing” its Iran policy.

Though the Saudis seem to have partially achieved their objective, especially with regard to defense deals, they also seem to have lost something: Their erstwhile position in the Middle East as the chief US ally. It is not a coincidence that it was right after prince’s visit to Russia that the US finally pulled Turkey into the war against ISIS, allowing that country to deal as it pleased, with the Kurds as well. Since then, Turkish involvement in the Mideast conflict has increased manifold; while Saudi Arabia seems to be busy contesting Iran by any means at its disposal.

However, as far as the question of Saudi-Russia alliance is concerned, the two nations remain rivals rather than allies. Although oil was on agenda during prince’s visit with the possible establishment of a “working group,” Russia and Saudi Arabia continue to fiercely compete against each other.

For instance, in May 2015, Russia’s oil output reached a record 10.78 million barrels per day, pretty close to its Soviet-era production of 1987. This was significantly up from May last year, when Russian production stood at 10.08 million bpd. The record crude oil output from Russia is certain to continue putting pressure on the global crude oil markets. And in near term, Russia doesn’t appear to be considering any output cut.

On the other hand, as the world’s leading crude exporter, Saudi Arabia’s output is also in top gear. As per OPEC statistics, Saudi output rose by 697,000 bpd between February and May this year, rising to 10.3 million bpd in May 2015 vs. 9.69 million bpd a year earlier.

That Russia and Saudi Arabia are competitors rather than allies is quite evident in the case of China — an attractive destination for both Russian and Saudi oil — which imports a large chunk of oil from the two oil powers.

For example, due to an upsurge in Russian oil production, Saudi oil exports to China fell by almost 42% in June 2015. An additional factor that contributed to this plunge is newly signed agreements between Russia and China. In 2013, Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, signed an $85 billion deal with China’s Sinopec to deliver 100m tons of crude over 10 years. And then Rosneft also struck a 25-year contract, worth $270 billion, with Chinese state-owned oil company CNPC for the delivery of 365 million tons of oil.

As a result of these developments, Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia in June to become China’s top crude supplier. China imported a record 3.92 million metric tons from its northern neighbor in May, according to data provided by the Beijing’s General Administration of Customs. That’s equivalent to 927,000 barrels a day, a 20% increase from the previous month.

It’s important to note that Russia’s upsurge in oil production came amid numerous Western-imposed sanctions on importing oil from Russia due to Moscow’s dispute with the West —  mainly over Ukraine, and partly over Syria and Iran issues.

As far as the Syrian case is concerned, it was Saudi Arabia itself that partied not only in imposing these sanctions but also in dropping oil prices to the lowest in years.  This low price certainly hurts the Russian economy which greatly depends on stable and higher oil prices. By many estimates, Russia needs oil prices to hover around $100 a barrel to meet its budget commitments.

When asked about the reasons behind the drop in oil prices, or more specifically about the US’ and its allies’ core interest in wanting to drive down the price of oil, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said the only reason for this was “to harm Russia.”  As it stands today, oil prices continues to face a fall, causing more problems for the Russian economy. This mutual interest in keeping the price of oil low makes Saudi Arabia and the US natural allies and keeps Russia the main prey.

This “oil war” between the Saudis and Russia is, on the other end of the geopolitical spectrum, deeply rooted in Syrian conflict. For Russia, Syria is a very crucial ally because it provides Moscow with access to Latakia, a very critical seaport. Syria also serves as a gateway for Russian inroads into the Middle East.

With the Saudis and Russia fighting to dominate the global oil markets and with both contesting each other in the Middle East to boot, agreements of the type signed during the crown prince’s visit to Russia are highly unlikely to neutralize the negative impacts of this crucial tussle between the two countries.

What’s more, expectations in some quarters of an end to the Syrian conflict due to Saudi-Russia rapprochement hardly takes into account and oversimplifies the situation by ignoring the deeply ideological nature of Saudi-Syria conflict. Russia may be supporting Syria’s Assad out of geostrategic necessity.  For Saudi Arabia, however, the core reason is ideological and deeply rooted in a Wahhabism version of Islam that greatly emphasizes “purity” of faith through elimination of all “rogue” elements.

Considering the extremely divergent nature of Russian and Saudi interests in Syria, there can hardly be any common ground for them to reach a compromise solution. Hence,  the puzzling question: Can Saudi Arabia and Russia transcend their competing positions in global politics to forge a durable alliance?

For a durable alliance to be created, countries have to have long-term common interests. In this case, there don’t appear to be any. There are only short-term opportunities. For Saudi Arabia, Russia can provide nuclear technology. The Saudis, in turn, can provide modern oil extraction technology to Russia. As such, given the nature of agreements signed and announcements made during the visit, it is quite evident that Saudi-Russia relations have nothing in common beyond these two possible areas of cooperation.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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