As the price of oil soars above $50 a barrel, Saudi Arabia and Russia have begun to approach each other with a view to increase cooperation in stabilizing oil markets. Moscow’s ambassador to Riyadh, Andrei Baklanov, has mentioned Saudi approaches to Moscow about cooperation in regulating energy prices and fostering joint policy coordination through the International Energy Forum. Indeed, this cooperation could go so far as joint measures to ensure the safety of gas and oil production, transportation, and supply (Associated Press, September 30). In other words, a kind of “second OPEC” may be in the making.
Although Russia is not a member of OPEC, new reports suggest that its oil reserves may actually be two or three times as large as previously listed, so that its proven reserves would go from the listed 70 billion barrels to double or triple that figure (UPI, September 30). If these reports have any veracity, then there is a compelling interest for these two states to collaborate in regulating energy prices in order to ensure their market share and prevent other energy producers from expanding production to grab that market share and thereby touch off a process that would lower prices and their revenues.
This harmony of interests is easily explainable in terms of a mutual economic interest and could lead to steps that would create a second oil cartel even if it remains an informal one. Certainly both states also share a common interest in ensuring the safety of their exploration platforms, pipelines, refineries, and other energy infrastructures that are favorite targets of terrorist attacks worldwide. Therefore if they are really to start exploring ideas about joint activities to protect their energy infrastructures, a partnership that goes beyond a cartel could eventually emerge out of it.
Undoubtedly there are also common interests in combating terrorism, as both sides are prominent targets of al-Qaeda as well as homegrown terrorists. For a long time Saudi-Russian relations have been improving both in economics and politics, and it is clear from the comments of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Russia that his government wants this cooperation to increase (RIA Novosti, October 9). He has also stated that his government is interested in increasing energy cooperation (RIA Novosti, October 7). However, there are even more grounds for cooperation beyond energy and safety of the two states’ energy infrastructures.
Riyadh has also announced its intention to convene an international conference on steps to combat terrorism and to take collective action with other governments, like Russia, against terrorism, a stance that Moscow appears to welcome (RIA Novosti, Itar-Tass, September 28). So there are clear signs of possible cooperation among the police, intelligence, and maybe even military forces of both governments.
At the same time Saudi Arabia continues to support a substantial expansion of the dissemination of its brand of Islam — Wahhabism, Moscow’s stated nemesis in Chechnya — among Russia’s Muslim communities (UPI, September 28). Saudi money goes to build schools and mosques and to send Mullahs to teach at these institutions. Although Russian criticism of Wahhabism has led Riyadh to assume a lower profile, it continues to support these institutions (UPI, September 28). These efforts have some visible outcomes, as over 9,000 Russian Muslims are expected to make the Hajj to Mecca in January 2005 for the festival of Id al-Adha, or what Russian Muslims call Kurban Bairam (Itar-Tass, September 23).
For the West, undoubtedly the potential collaboration in energy is the most critical element of this developing relationship, because it has the potential to create a new, and potentially even stronger cartel than OPEC with permanent capabilities for affecting and even dislocating the global economy. But for Russia and Saudi Arabia, the potentially combustible mix of strong Saudi support for the propagation of its version of Islam among Russian Muslims and the ever-present terrorist threat that clearly has ideological affinities with Salafi Islam and what Moscow calls Wahhabism, might make it impossible to sustain this relationship beyond its present limits. Whether or not a truly strategic partnership, where common interests in an energy cartel and stabilized market share arrangements overrides other potentially disruptive possibilities; it is clear that the dynamics of the Russo-Saudi relationship bear greater as well as careful scrutiny.