Saudi Arabia has signed an historic deal with the Russian Federation. This deal covers a host of important interests that the two powers share—everything from stabilizing the global price of oil and developing natural gas resources, to counterterrorism and arms sales. Though analysts in the West tend to wring their hands about the perceived loss of American influence over Saudi Arabia, they should instead acknowledge that this shift in Saudi policy was a long time coming. After all, Saudi Arabia shares a bevy of common interests with the Russians, beyond what their recent deal covers.
Geography remains destiny. Few things can trump the fundamental fact that Saudi Arabia is physically closer to Russia than it is to the United States. Economically, Saudi Arabia along with Russia, can combine to be one of the world’s leading producers of fossil fuel. Saudi Arabia is a majority Sunni Muslim state and Russia is home to a large—and growing—Sunni Muslim population (Moscow has Europe’s largest Muslim population, for instance). Also, both Saudi Arabia and Russia are threatened by the scourge of Salafi-Wahhābī jihadist terrorism.
Further, while the United States has been on its quixotic crusade to defeat jihadism by toppling the relatively pro-American, secular Arab autocrats, the Saudis are feeling the squeeze. And this is all before we factor in the righteous American anger over the tacit support Saudis are offering several Islamist groups across the globe. And, we mustn’t overlook the fact that the Saudi royal family is facing potentially deep societal upheaval from its mostly conservative Muslim population that has been bristling under their family’s authoritarian rule. After the neocon fantasies enacted with such horrifying results throughout the Mideast since 2003, is it any wonder that the Saudis look to Russia as a force for regional stability (as opposed to the Americans)?
Since the 1990s, the developed world—especially the United States—has been reducing its demand for Saudi oil. In fact, the United States does not get the bulk of its oil from Saudi Arabia. America receives most of its oil from places like Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria. Plus, in recent years, the United States has enjoyed a veritable bonanza from its own oil shale and natural gas revolutions. Today, American production of these sources is at peak efficiency, and the supplies are sold at extremely competitive rates on the global market—thereby undermining Saudi Arabia’s decades-long but now dwindling monopoly on global energy markets.
In this context, Saudi Arabia’s move toward Russia is but one move in a long line of geopolitical maneuvers aimed at aligning Saudi Arabia with its best “customers.” The moment that Western demand permanently declined for Saudi fossil fuels was the moment that Riyadh stopped deferring to Washington. Since then, the Saudis reoriented their foreign and economic policies toward meeting the growing demand of Asia, specifically from China and India. In the last few years alone, the Saudis have signed a spate of deals with the Chinese over their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Saudi Arabia envisions itself as a critical node in the new, land-based Chinese trading network that will link Europe and Asia together. China hopes the BRI will break America’s maritime power by shifting the bulk of global trade to land routes that China controls (as opposed to relying on shipping lanes that America dominates).
Whereas the BRI represents a real threat to American foreign policy, the same voices decrying Saudi Arabia’s natural rapprochement with the Russians have turned a blind eye over the years to Saudi Arabia’s increasing alliance with the Chinese. This is strange, since the United States shares more geopolitical interests with the Russians than it currently does with China. In fact, the Saudi rapprochement with Russia, while it does present some headaches for American foreign policy, can be turned in America’s favor.
Right now, Russia is Iran’s primary benefactor. Iran is using Russia’s unequivocal support to buttress its attempts at building an illegal nuclear arsenal, becoming the regional hegemon, and continuing to threaten their Israeli and Sunni Arab neighbors with annihilation. With Saudi Arabia becoming a critical node for both Chinese and Russian trade, the Saudis can put pressure on Russia to rein in Iran’s expansionary impulses (a shared interest with the United States). Also, Russian counterterrorism objectives align nicely with both Saudi and American counterterrorism ones. While an imperfect fit, the new Russo-Saudi friendship hardly represents a geostrategic catastrophe for America.
Russia needs Saudi Arabia to help stabilize the global price of oil and for developing natural gas sources. Russia needs Iran for natural gas, also, but Saudi Arabia is the key for Russia dominating the global energy market. And Russia, the soon-to-be stabilizing force in the Mideast, will be compelled to do that which the United States has been trying to do: tamp down on ethno-religious animosities, in order to ensure the stable flow of energy. It will work out as badly for the Russians as it has thus far for the United States.
The raison d’être for American dominance in the Mideast was to control access to the oil there. Those days are long gone. Between America’s diversification of its energy markets, as well as the potential that alternative energy technology (such as nuclear fusion) presents, the Mideast is just not as important as it once was to the United States. Ultimately, the economies that are disproportionately dependent on the price of oil to survive will lose. Pity the Saudis and Russians.
Finally, the international system is now a multipolar one. Thus, the kind of zero-sum thinking that most Western policymakers engage in has little relevance today. As President Trump suggested in his recent speech at the United Nations: strict national interests will drive international relations from here on out. It’s in the Saudi national interest to get closer to Russia. Fact is, Russia does have a role to play in the Middle East because the four major powers of the region (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel) want them to play a role.
What’s more, the American people no longer believe it is in America’s interest to remain as the guarantor of security in the region (and America’s military is already overstretched as it is). In the words of former President Richard Nixon, “America cannot—and will not—conceive of all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world. We will help where it makes a real difference and is considered in our interest.”
This is the reality that the United States finds itself in today. President Trump recognizes this. So, quit worrying and learn to love the multipolar world already!