Saudi Arabia And Russia: A Budding Rapprochement?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 4

Was the Kadyrov expedition to Saudi Arabia a sudden breakthrough, or simply the formal confirmation of a long-ripening rapprochement between the desert kingdom and Moscow? In a January 21 article for Moskovskie novosti, Sanobar Shermatova and Bakhtiyar Mirkasymov discussed several aspects of Russian-Saudi relations that have attracted too little attention to date. What, for example, lies behind the dramatic announcement that Saudi businessmen will begin to invest their capital in Chechnya? Why has the kingdom’s nominally Wahhabi regime, after years of helping the separatist guerrillas, now seemingly switched sides?

According to Shermatova and Mirkasymov, official Saudi attitudes toward the Caucasus had in fact been changing for some time as part of a process that the two journalists called a “secret revolution.” Closely connected with this change is the collapse of the long-standing pact between the royal house and the disciples of strict Wahhabi Islam. Previously, the crown could count on whatever fatwa it might need from the country’s seventeen-member council of senior Islamic clergy: Acceptance of an American military presence on Saudi soil is one example. But now, they wrote, the senior clergy “have explicitly forbidden the use of the country’s territory for military operations against other Islamic countries.”

In the past, wrote Shermatova and Mirkasymov, the Saudi elite had a tacit agreement with al Qaeda and other extremist religious groups–it would finance their missionary activities in other countries, including those of the former Soviet Union, while expecting the extremists to refrain from violent provocations within Saudi Arabia itself. Milestones in the breakdown of that agreement include the 1998 inter-Arab agreement about fighting terrorism. A decisive turning point came last May when terrorists blew up three residential complexes for foreigners in Riyadh. Since then the kingdom’s political elite has been treating the war against terrorism as a “war for its own political survival,” arresting hundreds of suspected extremists and freezing billions of dollars in bank accounts thought to be used to support terrorist activities. The authorities have also forbidden Saudi charitable organizations from sending money abroad without official permission. This decision has affected “more than a dozen charitable foundations, among which are some which, according to Russia, were sponsoring Chechen guerrillas.”

Thus, this “little-noticed revolution…has led the kingdom to review its foreign relations. One of the consequences: Riyadh’s current rapprochement with Moscow.”

Another element in that rapprochement, according to the Moskovskie novosti article, is that since the September 11 events Saudi Arabia has been looking for new outlets for its investment capital–fearing that its funds may be frozen in America and western Europe. In response, Russia’s former espionage chief, Yevgeny Primakov–he is also a former prime minister and a veteran Middle East expert–successfully lobbied for the creation of a Russian-Arab business council, co-chaired by the prominent tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov. When Kadyrov visited the kingdom last month he was armed with a letter from Vladimir Putin to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto head of the royal family, inviting investment in Russia. This letter of course strongly elevated Kadyrov’s own status in the eyes of his hosts. It also increases even further the opportunities for him to line his own pockets: “It is understood that some of the Saudis’ money, in accordance with their traditions, will be donated to various charitable funds close to Kadyrov himself.” Shermatova and Mirkasymov wrote that the Saudi side will insist on guarantees for the safety of their capital.

It remains to be seen whether such guarantees will be any more reliable in practice for the Saudis than they have been for western investors in Russia. But in any case, it is clear that the Saudis are looking for broad strategic gains, not just direct economic profits, from their new relationship with Russia. If they continue on their current course, Kadyrov stands to be a major beneficiary.