The scenario in the Middle East is changing fast and at the centre of it is neither the United States or the coalition of countries it leads nor Russia but Saudi Arabia, the Wahabbi country which had so long acted as the source and ultimate prop of many Islamist activities in the Arab world. Continuous crash of oil prices and the rise of the Islamic States (IS) have forced Riyadh to move away from the US sphere of influence and start charting out its own course.
Notwithstanding the recent execution of Sheikh Nimr-al-Nimr, the opposition Shiite cleric, it can be said with a fair amount of certainty that Riyadh is now trying to come out of its self-created cocoon.
Two recent developments point out that Saudi Arabia is prepared to give Russia a space in Middle Eastern affairs. First, preparations are on for Saudi King Salman’s visit to Russia later this year. Secondly, the Saudi deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed Bin Salman, visited Russia last June. Following closely on this, Turki-al-Faisal, the former intelligence chief, stated that Russian actions in Syria were more effective than those of the US and that Russia’s views merit attention and respect.
But it would be wrong to presume that Saudi Arabia is aligning with Russia on the Syrian question. Riyadh is worried about Iranian expansion in the Middle East and the US taking a soft line on the country after the nuclear agreement with Tehran. Saudi Arabia will now try to dominate the Middle East scenario on its own and in keeping with this line, Turkish President Recep Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia on December 30, 2015. Riyadh has also built up a strong coalition comprising the oil rich Arab countries.
But, will Saudi Arabia be really able to dominate the Middle Eastern scenario? Objective conditions preclude such a possibility. There are unmistakable signs that willy-nilly it is tilting towards Russia although that may not be the wish of the Saudi Royal household. Two principal reasons for it are the military fatigue in Yemen and a resource crunch due to Syria. There will be a $100 billion deficit in Saudi Arabia’s budget for 2016. Last year, the budget deficit was 21.6 percent of the GDP and the country barely managed to survive by earlier petro dollar savings.
What will, however, affect the Middle East scenario the most is the decision by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency to withdraw $70 billion from foreign investment fund assets last summer. This will certainly cut down on siphoning of money to terror related organizations through official channels. Moreover, the financial health of Saudi Arabia’s friends in the region are also not good. Reliable estimates put the budget deficits of Middle Eastern oil exporting countries in the next five years around $1 trillion.
It is difficult to predict how long Saudi Arabia can keep up pressure in Yemen or Syria with such a shaky financial condition. It may not go bankrupt in the near future but the Saudi royal family must look for avenues to push up prices of oil, which came down to less than $50 a barrel last September, a sharp nose-dive from $103 in September 2014.
Here lies the raison d’ etre for Saudi overtures to Russia for cooperation. Riyadh is now looking for an “alliance for oil” partnership with Russia which will also give it a foothold in the Eurasian Economic Union. With this end in view Prince Salman had talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Sochi Olympics in 2014. This was followed by the Russian energy minister’s talks with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Three consecutive IS attacks on Saudi mosques have reportedly convinced King Salman about the need for fashioning a new security strategy that puts a premium on choosing an independent course of action, away from US tutelage. Even on Yemen, Saudi Arabia is now open to negotiations. Although Riyadh still demands removal of Bashr-al-Assad as a precondition for ushering in of peace in Syria, yet Brigadier General Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, was hosted in Riyadh by no less than the deputy crown prince last July.
Russian military intervention in the Middle East has induced a new type of assessment among all the stakeholders. The US led coalition’s attack on the IS has undergone a qualitative change. The US attacks are now hitting the IS really hard. Meanwhile, to establish its credibility with international powers King Salman has fired Prince Bandar, a former intelligence chief, who had his fingers in many CIA-orchestrated operations. Now, a secret Saudi Arabian document has surfaced which shows that the King Salman-led administration has instructed its Middle Eastern embassies not to fund Syrian rebels any more.
Does this really portend a fundamental shift in terror-related Middle Eastern politics?
(Amitava Mukherjee is an Indian journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])