In a visit to Moscow last July, Saudi emissary Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the head of Saudi intelligence, reportedly offered Russian President Vladimir Putin certain incentives if Moscow would abandon its support for the Assad government in Syria and accept its overthrow by Islamic fundamentalists supported by Saudi Arabia.
Part of Prince Bandar’s purported proposition was seedy but not unheard-of in diplomatic history — an offer to grant Russian companies privileged access to Saudi oil resources and additional Saudi cooperation with Russia on energy policy. There was a more sinister element, though, more suited to a gangster movie: If Russia accommodated Saudi ambitions in Syria, Saudi Arabia could guarantee that radical Islamist terrorists would not attack the Sochi Olympics next year.
However unsavory the reported deal may be, it would not be without precedent. For more than half a century, the desert oil kingdom has oriented its international affairs around one special relationship, its bargain with the United States to supply the nation and its allies with unrestricted supplies of oil in return for guarantees of its security without undue criticism for its starkly undemocratic monarchy and human rights abuses. The special relationship has survived several major crises, notably the 1973 Saudi oil embargo and the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America, orchestrated largely by Saudi nationals. There are signs that the U.S.-Saudi marriage of convenience may not be so convenient anymore, at least for Riyadh.
Several weeks ago, Saudi Arabia rejected a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council after having lobbied for the seat for two years. According to both Saudi and American sources, it was an expression of dissatisfaction with the Obama administration and opposition to the recent Russia-brokered deal to prevent U.S. airstrikes against Syria.
President Obama has disappointed the Saudis even more than he has disappointed an American public with his ineffective diplomacy and lack of discernible strategic plan or principles. Having succumbed to the siren song of the Washington war party eager to strike at Syria, he promised to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles at Damascus, to the delight of the Saudi princes. Congress unexpectedly threw cold water on his plans, making it clear that more sensible heads in Washington were wary of yet another U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. Even more unexpectedly, Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry were upstaged by a diplomatic initiative from Moscow, which put forth a proposal whereby Syria would account for and eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal under international supervision. The Syrian government immediately embraced the proposal, it was quickly endorsed by the United Nations, and the American war party and their Saudi allies could only sulk.
So why does Saudi Arabia care so much about the fate of Syria? It’s certainly not because of the purported human rights abuses or alleged war crimes of the Assad regime. The royal house of Saud presides over one of the most repressive and corrupt regimes in the world, to whose abuses successive U.S. administrations have politely turned a blind eye. The Saudi royal family is reliant upon the support of the fanatical adherents of a particularly intolerant and vehemently anti-modern strand of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism. This particular strand inspired jihadists from Saudi Arabia and played crucial roles in the U.S.- and Saudi-financed mujahedeen in their war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which later morphed into the brutally medieval Taliban regime and which helped spawn and support Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
What is Saudi Arabia’s real interest in Syria? The perpetual fear of the House of Saud is Iran and encirclement by Shia Muslims. Under Saudi Arabia’s severe interpretation of Islam, the Shia are dangerous apostates who have abandoned “the true religion” for false idols and beliefs. Iran is a Shia theocracy, which after the disastrous American occupation of Iraq, also has immense influence with the Shia-led government of Iraq. Unhappily for the Saud family, Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern provinces are home to a substantial and restless Shia minority weary of Saudi oppression and their second-class status in the kingdom.
From the Saudi perspective, the presence of regimes and movements that are supported by its archnemesis Iran are an intolerable threat. In the Saudi calculus, a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic caliphate in Syria would be a preferable alternative to the existing secular and pluralistic government in Damascus, merely because it is supported by Shia Tehran.
Hence, it is not surprising that the Saudis are casting about for new strategic relationships to supplement, if not supplant, their reliance on an unsteady and uncertain America. Russia quite wisely is wary of making Faustian bargains with the oil kingdom, in part because of its own traumatic experience of Wahhabist-inspired terrorism on its own territory, dating from long before Sept. 11, and which reputedly was in part financed by wealthy Saudis who have long supported jihadist movements around the world.
Thus, Saudi Arabia seems to be stuck on a dead-end road, which is probably a good thing for the prospects for peace in Syria, an internationally supported resolution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, stated and unstated, and for the Middle East as a whole. The United States also seems sidelined for the time being, unable to impose its will unilaterally wherever it deems itself to have national interests at stake. Because of the recent increase in U.S. domestic oil production, thanks to new technologies, America is increasingly less reliant on Middle East imports and thus perhaps less inclined to meddle in the region. In fact, right now the driving force in Mideast diplomacy is coming from Moscow, and considering the track record of the U.S. and its Saudi allies in recent decades, maybe it’s time to give Russian diplomacy a chance.
Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow and professor of world politics at Moscow State University.