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Saudi Arabia’s Unlikely Flirtation with Russia and Israel

25 Jun 2015
Anthony Ricketts
President Obama and King Salman are drawing apart from each other. Photo Credit: Google Images (The Indian Express) Creative Commons.

Saudi Arabia’s recent courtship with Russia and Israel should be understood as a failure of the United States government to assure Saudi Arabia of their security.

For much of the last 35 years Saudi Arabia has looked to the United States as a beacon of security and a source of political clout. This relationship was born out of, and in response to, the growing Soviet influence throughout the Cold War and was later reinforced by the geo-political threat posed by the Iranian revolution. But cracks are beginning to emerge in this relationship, and the Saudis have begun to look for unlikely friends in order to replace the US security umbrella that they have depended on for so long.

On the 17th June, Saudi Arabia’s defence minister, Muhammad bin Salman, undertook a visit to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin. This meeting, which was kept secret until just a few hours before Salman departed Saudi Arabia, came at a time when the two states are at odds over many issues in the Middle East – most notably Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war and the Saudi-led military operation against the Houthi’s in Yemen.

But this high level visit saw much of these differences swept aside as the two states look to further their own divergent national interests and find new friends amidst a changing political landscape. The two states signed a nuclear cooperation deal to support Saudi Arabia’s quest to build 16 nuclear reactors, and the Saudi foreign minister declared that there was nothing stopping them from purchasing Russian weapon systems. Saudi Arabia also signed a memorandum of understanding that will see it invest up to $10 billion in a Russian investment fund.

These agreements are indicative of the Saudi leadership adjusting their geo-political sails, and are underscored by a willingness to build a military arsenal that could include a nuclear weapon. The Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom recently told the Telegraph that they are ready to go nuclear if the pending nuclear accords with Iran do not satisfy their security needs. The worry here is that the turmoil throughout the Middle East will be further complicated by a nuclear arms race reminiscent of the Cold War. And the $10 billion investment deal will no doubt frustrate many in the European Union and United States who have championed the continued sanctions against Russia in response to their adventurism in Ukraine. It also critically undoes much of the argument that the Saudis dropped oil prices to pry Russian support away from al-Assad.

This Saudi-Russia affinity comes at a time when the Saudi leadership recently reached out to their long time foe – Israel. While Saudi Arabia still doesn’t acknowledge the right of Israel to exist, and Israel continues to discard the Saudi led Arab Peace Initiative – which attempts to normalise relations between the Arab region and Israel in order to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the two enemies now have a common foe to contain, Iran.

On the 4th June, Saudi Arabia and Israel revealed at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that they’ve been engaged in secret diplomacy to discuss Iran over five meetings since 2014. These discussions come on top of an apparent recent offer by Israel to supply the Saudis with an ‘Iron Dome’ rocket defense technology in order to strike to down incoming Houthi attacks – something that the Saudis rejected.

The driving force behind Saudi Arabia’s willingness to turn ‘foe into friend’ is the Iranian nuclear accords due later this month. President Obama, along with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, are close to finalising a deal that would see Iran reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and scale back the number of installed centrifuges, in return for the lifting of sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

But both Saudi Arabia and Israel view this deal as a direct threat to their security and a reneging of the hitherto security assurances given by the United States administration. Israeli Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, stated that “such a deal would not block Iran’s path to the bomb….it would pave it”. Similarly, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, recently snubbed a summit held by US President Obama, in response to what he understood as US indifference to Iran’s meddling in Arab affairs and the willingness of the US to partner with Iran.

If successful, the Iranian nuclear deal will alter the balance of power in the Middle East and usher in a recalibration of states’ alliances. The consequences of this may not be felt by the champion of this effort, President Obama, but it will be felt by the next US President, who will preside over a region that no longer understands the United States as a legitimate and credible source of security.

Anthony Ricketts is a PhD student at the University of Queensland. His research focuses on the link between US foreign policy and sectarianism in the Middle East. He can be contacted at and followed on twitter at @AnthonyRickettsThis article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.