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Saudi Arabia’s balancing act: Navigating geopolitical waters amidst the Russo-Ukrainian War

In spite of voting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations last year, Saudi Arabia has maintained an uncertain position on the war ever since. Overall, it appears that Riyadh may be looking to maximise opportunities presented by the conflict by maintaining good relations with both sides.

July 18, 2023 - Joseph Roche - Articles and Commentary

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires in 2018. Photo: Matias Lynch / Shutterstock

Traditionally a staunch ally of Washington, Saudi Arabia, like most other Gulf petro-monarchies, initially maintained neutrality at the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Riyadh refused to join western sanctions against Russia and was even accused of being pro-Russian. However, after more than a year of war, it appears that the Saudi kingdom has managed to strike a delicate balance in its relations between the United States and Russia. At the same time, it has maintained a cordial relationship with Ukraine, to whom it provided a financial aid package of 400 million US dollars on February 26th.

The diplomatic visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on May 19th, followed by the arrival of Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev just a few days later, despite being under western sanctions, underscores the delicate balancing act carried out by Saudi Arabia between the two opposing parties.

Will there be an American-Saudi divorce over Russia?

Following the Quincy Agreement in 1945, Saudi Arabia became firmly rooted in the western camp throughout conflicts such as the Cold War. However, since 2015, Russia has appeared to influence the Saudi-American relationship. By forging closer ties with the Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Russia pursued several objectives. It has sought to regain an influence in the Middle East that was lost after the collapse of the USSR. The Kremlin also hopes to break its western-imposed isolation following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. This is to be achieved through engagement with new markets and curbing the fall in oil prices through dialogue with OPEC. Finally, Moscow also wants to mitigate the threat posed by radical Islam, particularly in its Muslim provinces, by establishing a security dialogue with the oil-rich Gulf monarchies.

As international relations became increasingly multipolar, Saudi Arabia became more independent of Washington and recognised Moscow as an indispensable player.

Both Russia and Saudi Arabia share frustrations with the United States. The successive failures of Washington in the Middle East and a growing energy self-sufficiency saw the country distance itself from Riyadh.

In this regard, Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, stated to the Atlantic Council that “Russia, like China and unlike the US, has carefully balanced its relationships with all states in the Gulf, including Iran, Iraq, and all six GCC member-states.”

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, during the Arab Spring, resented the abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It also did not look fondly on the Obama administration’s change of course in Syria in 2013 concerning the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who was an enemy of Riyadh. Additionally, the Khashoggi affair, the weak US response to the Houthi regime in Yemen, and the almost non-existent reaction to Iranian attacks against the country have only further distanced Riyadh from Washington.

But above all, this Saudi-Russian rapprochement is facilitated by a shared desire within OPEC to act in line with their respective interests. While many saw the joint action of Saudi Arabia and Russia to reduce oil production and increase prices as a provocation against Washington, this has been challenged by Joseph A. Kéchichian, a Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. He has emphasised that “Saudi Arabia’s objectives did not change: how to best serve the interests of Saudi Arabia by selling oil at the highest possible price, investing in numerous oil and gas projects worldwide, and ensuring steady returns over the next few decades to transform Saudi society.”

Is the Iranian factor decisive?

What is the Saudi reaction to the ongoing Russian-Iranian rapprochement? It should be noted that Iran remains Saudi Arabia’s archenemy in the region, and the Wahhabi kingdom rightly worries about Iran sending weapons to Russia.

Unsurprisingly, as noted by Cafiero, “Saudi Arabia does not positively view the strengthening Russian-Iranian entente.” Despite this, he has said that “it is notable how Russia’s deepening partnership with Iran has not fuelled serious friction in Moscow’s relationship with Riyadh, underscoring Russia’s success in maintaining a delicate balance in the Gulf.”

While Saudi Arabia will likely continue to view Russia’s relationship with some unease, especially during the current period of Saudi-Iranian détente, officials in Riyadh may come to consider it less problematic. This is especially true with the recent easing of tensions in Saudi-Iranian relations under the auspices of China.

In relation to Syria, Kéchichian has also noted that Saudi Arabia “correctly understood that Russia and Iran were keen to advance their long-term interests in the Mediterranean, even if it meant balancing their presence in Syria with Turkey as well.”

And even though Saudi Arabia and Russia found themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War, today both powers are trying, for different reasons, to promote peace in the region. Russia aims to solidify its geopolitical gains, while Saudi Arabia seeks to limit Iran’s influence, which thrives on the chaotic power vacuum left by the Syrian conflict.

Saudi Arabia and Ukraine: a balancing force

Saudi Arabia’s primary objective is to maintain good relations with all its partners and minimise the impact of the geopolitical earthquake caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine concerning its interests.

Despite Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine, it remains a significant global power for Saudi Arabia, particularly as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with veto power. As Kéchichian emphasises, Saudi Arabia aims to maintain a relatively neutral diplomatic position, not rushing to Moscow’s aid but avoiding aligning with the western camp against a UNSC permanent member. While Saudi Arabia opposed the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, it seeks to maintain this diplomatic neutrality.

In line with this approach, Saudi Arabia, while refusing to join western sanctions against Russia, condemned the Russian aggression in Ukraine at the United Nations. It is also the reason why Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, visited Kyiv in February 2023 and offered Ukraine financial assistance amounting to 400 million US dollars. Throughout the conflict, Saudi Arabia has refrained from providing military assistance but has played a mediating role between Russia and Ukraine, including facilitating prisoner exchanges. Notably, Saudi Arabia played a role in the release of numerous Azov fighters who fought on in Azovstal at the beginning of the war.

As Cafiero points out, Saudi Arabia has strived to maintain balance between Ukraine and Russia in the ongoing conflict. Riyadh’s engagement with Kyiv is part of its efforts to prevent western statesmen from concluding that Saudi Arabia sided with Vladimir Putin’s government in this war. Saudi Arabia has also provided humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, which has garnered goodwill among Ukrainians and presented

Riyadh as a responsible actor in the international community.

Thus, for now, Saudi Arabia seems to be succeeding in maintaining a delicate balance in its relations with Russia, Ukraine and the United States, while mitigating any potential consequences of the war for its economy and security. While Riyadh may be concerned about the Russia-Iran rapprochement, it is currently playing the waiting game to see how this relationship evolves, even as its relations with Tehran, facilitated by China, are also potentially moving towards resolution.

Joseph Roche is an independent French journalist and geopolitical analyst who covers the war in Ukraine for various outlets.

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