Several Arabic news agencies reported, on November 21, that Chechnya’s ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, had apologized to the Saudis for condemning Salafism. News sources said that Kadyrov planned to visit Saudi Arabia to hold talks with government officials. In clarifying his earlier critical remarks, the Chechen governor explained that he was not against “true Salafists,” but opposed only the “false” ones in the North Caucasus and Russia, who posed a terrorist threat (Kavkazskaya Politika, November 21). For days, Kadyrov failed to confirm or refute his reconciliation efforts with the Saudis. Then suddenly, on November 27, in a series of Instagram posts, Chechnya’s governor described his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, at the invitation of the kingdom’s officials (Instagram.com, November 27). Kadyrov stated that he and his entourage negotiated with the Saudi officials on investments into Chechnya, student exchanges, and other forms of cooperation (Instagram.com, November 27).
The breakthrough is quite significant since relations between Kadyrov and the Saudis had significantly soured in the past several months. The falling out between the Chechens and Saudis took place after an Islamic conference in Grozny, at the end of August. The Chechen authorities, with Moscow’s backing, rallied Islamic scholars from Russia and abroad—most notably, the rector of al-Azhar University in Egypt, Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed el-Tayeb—to issue a fatwa condemning Salafism and proclaiming this Islamic movement as a form of extremist teaching. Saudi Arabia, where Salafism is the official ideology, was unhappy about Kadyrov’s initiative, especially since this time the Chechen authorities managed to attract authoritative scholars from Egypt. One Saudi Muslim scholar reportedly even allowed for murdering Kadyrov because the latter allegedly turned himself into an “unbeliever” (Eadaily.com, September 8).
Many Russian commentators were delighted that Chechnya, under Moscow’s auspices, managed to upset the Saudis (Riafan.ru, September 4). However, gradually, the tide started to turn against Kadyrov and his Russian backers. Most importantly, Russia critically depends on the Saudi Arabian government’s cooperation in trying to raise the price of oil. Oil and natural gas revenues play a vital role in keeping the Russian financial system afloat (see EDM, October 5). At the same time, Russia’s policies in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime clearly come into conflict with Saudi Arabia’s interests regarding Middle Eastern politics. But at this moment, it appears Moscow still has high hopes for cooperation with the Saudis and that is why regional actors in the North Caucasus, such as Kadyrov and others, are allowed (and likely encouraged) to maintain contacts with the Middle East.
Following the falling out between Kadyrov and the Saudis, the latter seized on the opportunity to invite Kadyrov’s neighbor and longtime nemesis, Ingushetian governor Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, for an official visit to the kingdom. Yevkurov’s rhetoric had been much more amenable to Salafism than Kadyrov’s, which must have been appreciated by the Saudis. At the beginning of November, an official delegation of Ingushetia, led by Yevkurov visited Saudi Arabia for the first time at such a high level. The king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, himself received the governor of Ingushetia. Members of the Ingushetian delegation were allowed into the sacred Muslim places in the kingdom. Overall, Saudi officials attempted to demonstrate that they treated Yevkurov with the same high level of respect as they had bestowed on Kadyrov in the past. Kadyrov had been the Saudis’ friend and a mediator between them and the Russians for years; whereas the Saudi officials practically ignored Chechnya’s neighbors and ethnic cousins, the Ingush (Onkavkaz.com, November 2).
Ramzan Kadyrov evidently disliked being sidelined from the position of a middleman between the Saudis and Russians. Additionally, Kadyrov may have lost some needed investments from the Middle East. During the oil boom, Chechnya’s governor could have requested additional funding from Moscow. However, as a recent public exchange between Kadyrov, the Russian Ministry of Finance and President Vladimir Putin indicated, in the current financial downturn even Chechnya faces difficulties in securing funding from Moscow. Kadyrov criticized the finance ministry for cutting financial aid for Chechnya, and Putin asked the ministry officials to look for ways to find additional funds for the republic next year but not for the current year (Lenta.ru, November 1).
Under the conditions of the deepening financial crisis, Kadyrov is likely to look for funds outside Russia and press Moscow to allow him to reach out to the Middle East to replenish his coffers with money from the Gulf countries. Since Moscow seems unable to fulfill its obligations to Kadyrov and his men, it is increasingly under pressure to allow foreign actors to come in.
Given the combination of increased importance of foreign investors and Moscow’s interests in the Middle East, Kadyrov appears to be trying to put his relationship with Saudi Arabia back on track. Instead of openly condemning Salafists, the Chechen governor is likely to revert to the policy of quiet, low-key suppression. Kadyrov’s foray into big politics and the world of rich Arab investors was nearly ruined, but he appears to have regained his status to some extent. The sudden reconciliation between Kadyrov and the Saudis also signifies a rare setback for Moscow’s policy of suppressing the so-called “non-traditional” forms of Islam in Russia. Even though Russian authorities will probably continue attacking Salafism, among other Islamic teachings, the official rhetoric will likely become less damning. As for the Saudis, they can now be expected to try to expand their channels of communication with Moscow instead of depending on Ramzan Kadyrov alone.