Saudi Prince Meets His Russian Emperor

The Saudis forgot that the Russians have fought the Saudis’ brainchild, Al-Qaeda, and its affiliate terrorist organizations for decades in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, and in Russia itself.

putinsultanMore than at any time in its violent history, the oligarchical Saudi regime is petrified of becoming marginalized in the mosaic of changing variables in the Middle East.

The causes of this apprehension are many—the impact of the Arab Spring on regional stability and political alliances, royal defectors, unabashed demands for political reforms and social justice coming from Saudi men and women, more energy sources, new players and discord within OPEC, western governments’ support for the overthrow of Arab dictators, and dwindling of American support for the Saudi monarchy.

The confluence of these unprecedented ominous challenges has created an environment of fear for the authoritarian Saudi rulers. Even though Saudi royals have realized that their sway among their Western allies has been in decline for some time, they did not grasp the reality of their dispensability until the unexpected Arab Spring and Western support for the ouster of major strategic Arab allies.

Given these daunting challenges, the Saudi regime concluded that it can no longer count on the West to promote Saudi interest and to protect the regime against domestic and regional threats.

For instance, after relentless efforts by Saudi King Abdullah to cajole the United States and its European allies into invading Iran to “cut off the head of the snake” under the pretext of destroying Iran’s nuclear program, the Saudi rulers have concluded that the US is pursuing policies that serve America’s interests and strengthen its strategic long-term objectives, which are not compatible with those of  the Saudi regime, especially as they relate to Iran.

Convinced that Western democracies no longer trust or depend on the Saudi rulers to promote and defend their interests, the Saudi regime naively tried to pressure the US again. This time, the Saudi rulers tried to compel the US to invade Syria and take out the tyrannical Syrian regime and to hand the Syria to Saudi and Qatari-supported Jihadi operatives whose ultimate objective is the destruction of Western democracy.

After realizing that the Western governments, whom the Saudi rulers have relied on and manipulated for decades, are not going to do their dirty work, the Saudi regime dispatched its supposed “big gun,” Prince Bandar, former ambassador to the US and current head of Saudi intelligence, to Moscow to tantalize (bribe) Russia’s hard-nosed top man, President Vladimir Putin into letting go of Syria’s Alawite regime.

Despite Prince Bandar’s lucrative offers, including heavy financial investment in the Russian economy and a commitment to switching the Saudis’ allegiance from the US to Russia, he was snubbed. “During the meeting at the Kremlin, the Saudi official explained to his interlocutor that Riyadh is ready to help Moscow play a bigger role in the Middle East.”

Additionally, “Bandar proposed that Saudi Arabia buy $15 billion (11 billion euros) of weapons from Russia and invest ‘considerably’ in the country.” Prince Bandar assured Putin that “whatever regime comes after” Assad, it will be “completely in the Saudis’ hands and will not sign any agreement allowing any Gulf country to transport its gas across Syria to Europe and compete with Russian gas exports.”

Putin’s unwillingness to accept the Saudi offer must have been very hard on Prince Bandar, who is accustomed to blackmailing, threatening, or purchasing Western officials for less than what he proposed to the unbending former Russian intelligence Tsar. Despite the generous offer, Bandar was soundly rebuffed by Putin and sent home empty-handed, with a bruised ego and loss of credibility among senior princes.

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The cantankerous Saudi Prince and those who dispatched him to Moscow in the hope of cutting a quick deal with Putin seem to have made colossal business and political miscalculations. They forgot that the Russians (the former Soviet Union) have fought the Saudis’ brainchild, Al-Qaeda, and its affiliate terrorist organizations for decades in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, and in Russia itself, where civilians were massacred in theaters and in children’s schools. The Saudis did not appear to take into account the difference between doing business with the wily Russian politicians and the trusting Westerners.

Furthermore, the Saudis may have erroneously thought that they could capitalize on the US-Russian squabble over the Edward Snowden episode and their disagreements on other issues, but they failed to understand that Putin is too smart to fall for Saudi political tricks. The Saudis attempted to send a message to the Americans and Europeans, warning them that despite decades of Saudi-Western alliance, the West can be replaced.

Even if the ruling Saudi princes are serious about emasculating their associations with the West in favor of better strategic, military, and economic relations with the Russians, they may not be able to do so.

The West has entrenched historical interests in the Gulf region which are protected by overwhelming land and sea military posts, specifically in Qatar and Bahrain, both bordering the gigantic, rich Saudi oil fields, refineries and ports. It is inconceivable that the West would surrender its economic, military and strategic advantages in the Gulf region to any other power, regardless of consequences.

Additionally, it’s not to the Saudis’ advantage to forge an alliance with a non-Western major power without including the smaller Gulf Arab states whom the Saudis use as a bargaining tool and as a buffer against countries like Iran.

However, it is unlikely that the smaller Gulf states, which enjoy strong ties with the West, can or would follow the Saudis into such a new alliance. They prefer to be outposts of the West and not depend on the ruling Saudi princes’ domination. These states do not care much for the Saudi rulers, whom they consider rigid and even threatening to their domestic stability and to their preferred “live and let live” regional relations, especially with Iran, Iraq and Israel.

Given these realities, it looks like the repressive Saudi royals do not have as much room and power to maneuver as they have come to believe. This is what happens when arrogance and ignorance outstrip reality.

Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountability. Read other articles by Ali.