Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vitaly Naumkin told why Saudi Arabia refused to bring down world oil prices
Having organized an almost complete blockade of Russia from the west after the start of a special operation in Ukraine, the United States could not do the same most in the east. And not only China, a superpower that has no reason to help Washington, has acted as an obstacle in the American path. America was refused support by its main allies in the Arab world, including the planetary energy giant Saudi Arabia.
Putin and Saudi Crown Prince : the fate of world oil prices depends to a large extent on the mutual understanding of these two leaders. Photo: RIA Novosti
In the era of the reign of the last Soviet general secretaries, the Saudis made a very significant contribution to the destruction of the economy of the USSR, purposefully dropping world oil prices. But now Biden's request to contribute to the destruction of the now Russian economy planned by the Americans has come up against a categorical refusal.
What is behind this Riyadh decision? How big are the chances that the Yankees will still manage to crush their partners? And how did Moscow manage to take such a strong position in the Middle East, a region from which it seemed to have been forever squeezed out under Gorbachev and Yeltsin?
Vitaly Naumkin at the presentation of the State Prize of the Russian Federation. Photo: kremlin.ru
Vitaly Naumkin, Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Scientific Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, laureate of the State Prize of the Russian Federation, answered these and many other questions of MK.
Yes, this is largely justified. Although “collapse” is too strong a word. The threat of repetition is also an exaggeration. Today we have a much greater margin of safety. Yes, and relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia are now fundamentally different than in the days of the Brezhnev USSR.
The basis of these relations in the energy sector is our rapprochement on the site of the OPEC + project. This project dates back to the middle of the second decade of our century, when there was a collapse in world oil prices. This forced competitors, what were then the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and Russia, to join forces to stabilize these prices.
By the beginning of December 2016, an agreement was signed in which its participants pledged to reduce the production of “black gold” by 1.7 million barrels per day. The quotas allocated to the parties to the agreement were observed, and the agreement was regularly extended until March 2020, when the agreed amendments were made to it.
In the summer of 2021, an agreement was reached on a slight increase in daily oil production, and the project itself was extended until the end of December 2022, when another reassessment of the situation should take place. It is assumed that Russia's quota will increase from 11 to 11.5 million barrels per day. On April 16, Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, during which a positive assessment was given to cooperation between the two states within the framework of OPEC+.
He persuaded, persuaded, but never persuaded: US Secretary of State Blinken could not convince the de facto ruler of the UAE, Muhammad bin Zayed, to oppose Moscow. Photo: en.wikipedia.org
Washington's attempts to isolate Russia by pitting it against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been fruitless. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS, as he is known in the West) showed respectable consistency, independence and firmness.
We began to change, and Saudi Arabia began to change – towards greater pragmatism. Not so long ago, communism in any form was regarded by the Saudis as a terrible enemy. And now communist China is among the leading trade and economic partners of the kingdom.
An important role in our reconciliation with the kingdom was played by the change in the role and place of religion in our lives, the departure from official atheism and, especially, the granting of full religious freedom to Russian Muslims. And the differences that were between us during the short period of active struggle of our state against religious extremism and terrorism in the Caucasus have long been overcome.
Russia has been an observer country in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation since 2005. And today, the head of the Islamic World League, created at the initiative of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Abdel Karim al-Isa, is received by the top leaders of the Russian Federation. To a certain extent, the normalization of our relations is a return to “historical roots”. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to recognize the state created by the founder of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, and establish official relations with it. In 1938, these relations, however, were interrupted. But up to that moment they were quite friendly. This is preserved in the traditionally strong historical memory of the Saudis.
– The Saudis associated their refusal with the threat from unmanned aerial vehicles of the Yemeni anti-government Houthi movement Ansarullah. This movement is supported by Iran and opposes the alliance led by Saudi Arabia, conducting an anti-Houthi military operation in Yemen.
In the kingdom, as well as in the UAE, they stated with resentment that Washington does not react in any way to the painful attacks of the Houthis on the territory of both monarchies and does not provide the necessary assistance to its allies. Washington even had to make excuses. Only on March 21, responding to grievances poisoning cooperation with Arabian partners, did Washington hand over Patriot missile and anti-aircraft systems to Riyadh. However, while Washington has condemned the Houthis, there are growing calls in the United States to resolve peacefully the decade-long bloody conflict between the Arab coalition-backed government and the Houthis.
“The point here is not so much in Yemen itself, but in Iranian influence in Yemen. Saudi Arabia traditionally views itself as the leader of the Islamic world – a huge part of the world community, whose weight, role and influence in it is constantly growing. Let me remind you that the king of Saudi Arabia bears the title of “servant of the two shrines”, the pilgrimage to which is one of the main duties (“five pillars of faith”) of every Muslim.
Of the more than a dozen and a half million guests who annually arrive in the kingdom, the bulk are pilgrims who make both the main, obligatory pilgrimage in the month of the Hajj and Umra – the “small Hajj”, the rites of which can be performed at any time of the year.
The second important role of Saudi Arabia is the role of defender of the interests of the Sunni majority of the Islamic world, since most of the approximately 36 million people of the Kingdom consider themselves to be one of the madhhabs, or interpretations, of this trend in Islam.
But all this does not mean that Saudi Arabia's relations with all Muslim states are cloudless. For example, the kingdom has difficult relations with another most influential country in the Islamic world – Turkey. The leadership of Turkey, as is commonly believed, belongs to the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Saudi Arabia regards the “brothers” as competitors and, to a certain extent, as opponents. Of course, this hostility is not as harsh as the hostility of the UAE, for which the “brothers” represent almost the main internal threat to the security of the state. But this is still hostility.
However, Saudi Arabia, like the UAE, considers the Islamic Republic of Iran as the main external threat. Iran positions itself as a protector of the Shiite part of the population of the Middle East. Containing Iran's influence is the main objective of Saudi foreign policy.
“There is not one, but three major oil superpowers in the world, each producing more than a dozen million barrels a day of crude oil: Russia, the United States, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But you are right that the United States has indeed been the main ally and partner for the kingdom since the 1930s, when the Americans discovered the richest oil fields in the country.
Why are there significant nuances in the current situation, which are partly manifested in the position of Riyadh regarding the Ukrainian crisis? Because the growth of general distrust of the United States in the region and the attitude towards them as a power “leaving” the Middle East really takes place.
Some distancing from Washington is already becoming a quite stable trend in the politics of most Arabian states. The Kingdom, like the UAE, another influential oil-producing state of Arabia, has been pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy in recent years.
Saudi Arabia seeks to balance close relations with its long-standing partners, the US and Europe, by developing relations with non-Western countries “new” to it, primarily China, as well as Russia and India.
However, in- firstly, these relations are highly asymmetric and, secondly, they are subject to fluctuations due to changes in the world arena and the situation in the region. As is often the case with “balancing states” — they sometimes literally have to “walk on a wire” — they show some inconsistency and even indecision in their foreign policy, being influenced by one or another of their partners, in this case, the West.
The main guarantee of the stability of the multi-vector course of Saudi Arabia is the undoubted political will of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is able not to stop at political risks.
— There can be no doubt that Washington is the stronger participant in this partnership, and the KSA is more weak. However, weak participants sometimes tend to “show their teeth” more often than strong ones. Same here.
After talking with Stalin in Yalta in 1945, the then US President Franklin Roosevelt went to establish relations with the first king of Saudi Arabia. However, during the Ukrainian crisis, traditional allies took fundamentally different positions. Photo: en.wikipedia.org
At the same time, in the East, especially in the Arab world, the personal factor is always very significant. The Saudi establishment has not forgotten the defamation campaign launched in the US against MBS, who was allegedly personally behind the kidnapping and murder of prominent Saudi opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Russia backed the crown prince at the time, reinforcing its image as Saudi Arabia's “new partner” and showing that cooperation with it could be beneficial for the young Saudi reformer. This largely predetermined the fact that Riyadh basically refrains from criticizing Russia in the Ukrainian crisis, although in some ways it shows flexibility, hedging its fundamentally multi-vector positions.
Yes, it is not difficult to assume that Washington will increase pressure on Saudi Arabia, trying to turn it against Moscow. Riyadh's defense of its position will be facilitated by its actual coincidence with the position of other Arab states of the Persian Gulf, except for Qatar and Kuwait.
But Washington's capabilities should not be underestimated either, even given its image of an unreliable partner in the region.
However, we also have our own trump cards. Reliability and loyalty to allied obligations are the unconditional pluses of the Russian leader in the eyes of his Arab colleagues. In this sense, the Syrian experience is working for Moscow's reputation even among the opponents of Bashshar al-Assad (Vitaly Naumkin specifically pointed out that the name of the Syrian president should be spelled that way. – “MK”).
Vitaly Naumkin and Syrian President Bashshar al-Assad
By the way, Saudi Arabia occupies the most prominent place among these opponents. Riyadh is one of the main sponsors of the Syrian opposition to Assad.
– Of course, in the current most difficult international situation, the Russian military base in the Eastern Mediterranean makes our country a serious geopolitical player in the region and beyond.
– For all its firmness in the pragmatic independent defense of the interests of the kingdom, MBS is well aware that he should not cross certain “red lines”. One of these lines is the development of military cooperation with Russia and the purchase of Russian military equipment.
But a general independent trend in the foreign and defense policy of Riyadh is indeed observed. The proof is, for example, this project, information about which was leaked to the media. We are talking about the creation of a joint air defense system by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel. It will most likely be based on a multi-level missile defense structure, in which its three levels are integrated and supplemented with early warning equipment.
On the territory of Israel in Sde Boker (Negev desert) on March 27-28 this year, for the first time, an Arab-Israeli meeting of foreign ministers was held with the participation of representatives of Bahrain, Israel, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as the US Secretary of State.
Representatives of Saudi Arabia in Sde Boker, however, was not. Riyadh is not joining some of its Gulf neighbors in establishing official relations with Israel. And the Saudis have not yet given the go-ahead to public contacts with Israeli diplomats. The reason is the lack of progress in implementing the plan to create a Palestinian state.
But at the same time, there is information in the media about a series of allegedly held secret talks between representatives of the special services of the two states on security issues. It is easy to see that these interests overlap. Israel's main enemy is also Iran. It is not surprising, therefore, that the talks between the leaders of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt discussed the Iranian nuclear threat, the consequences of a new agreement between world powers with Iran, and the US “withdrawal” from the Middle East. Unlike Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not ready to strike directly at Iranian targets – although the Iranian-backed Houthis did damage their oil facilities.
But the main thing is that the summit participants in the current situation were not inclined to trust Blinken's promises on behalf of the United States to guarantee their safety in the event of an escalation in the Persian Gulf.
The Kingdom is not interested in strengthening the positions of the Iranian-linked Shiite Lebanese party Hezbollah on the eve of the Lebanese parliamentary elections. She is accused of supporting the Yemeni Houthis. And representatives of this party, for their part, claim that Riyadh is financing the election campaign of the former Sunni Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who opposes them.
It is believed that the military power of Hezbollah surpasses the forces of the Lebanese army. It is also a serious political force. The emigration from Lebanon of a significant part of the liberal-minded, pro-Western elite to the West and the countries of the Persian Gulf creates a certain political vacuum, which is filled by representatives of the Shiites. Interested in weakening the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, Washington is stepping up sanctions pressure on Lebanon to show that this party is to blame for the acute financial and economic crisis. Here the interests of the United States and Israel, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the other, coincide. However, this is not enough to change the policy of the two leading Arabian monarchies in relation to the two main rivals of the United States – Russia and China.
“You should not think that the achieved level of prosperity saves the kingdom from social, political and even economic problems and upheavals. In particular, the tension between the Sunnis and the Shiite minority does not subside. There is evidence of popular dissatisfaction with the ongoing operation in Yemen, which has to spend a lot of money.
From time to time, underground cells of terrorist organizations threatening the security of the kingdom are found in the country. Recently, 84 terrorists were executed here, the last three of them right on the day of the visit of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who failed to convince his Arabian partners to increase oil production and condemn Moscow.
Let me give you one more example. Although the country has harsh laws against illegal drug trafficking, drug trafficking and drug use cannot be completely eradicated. It is reported that another attempt to smuggle a large consignment of drugs – 456,000 amphetamine tablets hidden in various equipment – was thwarted at the border the other day. Earlier in April, 1.5 million Captagon tablets were seized at the Jordanian border, and 1.6 million tablets were seized at the port of Jeddah in March.
In 2020, 7–8% of Saudis were reported to have used drugs, with amphetamines being among the most common and most users between the ages of 12 and 22. This is facilitated by the closeness of the kingdom, the dominance of inert norms of life.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched unprecedented measures to modernize public life, including allowing women to drive. This is supported by a large young part of the country's population, but is faced with acute dissatisfaction with the Wahhabi clergy. An ambitious program for the development of the kingdom's economy by 2030 has been put forward based on its diversification and reduction of oil dependence, which includes, among other things, the development of tourism. However, it is doubtful that the target figures for tourism – 100 million people a year – can be achieved without a fundamental change in the norms of life in the kingdom. And there are not so many cultural heritage sites here, not to mention the entertainment industry for tourists.
– I think that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman can certainly be considered one of the most reliable partners of Russia. The same applies to the de facto ruler of the UAE, the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed.
Another thing is that the extremely high unpredictability of the development of the situation both in the Middle East region and throughout the world, the constant pressure on the Arabian states of their Western partners, ongoing crises and regional conflicts, fueled by intense competition for resources and influence, cannot but affect the positions of any regional leader. Therefore, the absolute reliability of any of the well-known heads of state is hardly worth it.
At the same time, much will depend on our ability to constantly strengthen the existing trust in our country, convincing regional players that it is simply impossible to solve their ever-complicating political and economic problems without Russia.
— The UAE, like Saudi Arabia , refuse to join the anti-Russian sanctions and condemn Russia. First, the UAE abstained from voting in the UN Security Council on the American draft resolution condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine, and then repeatedly confirmed its intention to remain neutral.
This position is based both on the unwillingness of the UAE rulers to blindly follow the course of the United States and the desire to be guided by their interests, including in the field of security, and on their close and extensive business and political ties with Russia. Moscow is traditionally seen here as a counterbalance to Washington's desire for dominance. So far, this position can be considered fairly stable. But some analysts believe that it could be shaken if the military conflict in Ukraine drags on too long. This position is shared by most Arab states. A pro-American position (for various reasons and with some nuances) was taken by Kuwait, Qatar.
—I think that cooperation with key countries in the Middle East can certainly mitigate the effect of the imposition of sanctions against Russia by the West and some other countries. However, in a number of cases, cooperation will be difficult.
In addition, some, not the most powerful countries in the region, not wanting to put their economies at risk, declare their unwillingness to help Russia circumvent sanctions. At the same time, prospects are opening up for Moscow's cooperation with Arab and other countries of the Middle East region, which will not be hindered by any sanctions, if there is a political will to do so. This may apply, for example, to the sphere of military-technical cooperation, as evidenced by the experience of implementing the deal on the purchase of S-400 missile and anti-aircraft systems by Turkey.
In this regard, it is worth saying a few words about the plans of the UAE to develop its own military-industrial complex. In many ways, the change in the military-industrial policy of this country resembles what Russia is doing today in the field of import substitution, including aircraft manufacturing and other strategic areas. The UAE is committed to the self-sufficiency of its armed forces in certain types of weapons and military equipment and to reduce dependence on foreign supplies. Their experience can be useful for our country, regardless of whether the sanctions regime is maintained or relaxed/lifted.
Thus, in the UAE, the task was set to turn the state into a major manufacturer of world-class civil and military aviation equipment. One example of the accomplishment of this task is the creation of a large center for the repair and maintenance of aviation equipment. There is a center for research and technology of unmanned aerial vehicles. The armored industry is developing. In one of the industrial zones in Abu Dhabi, a joint venture of two large local companies has been created, which produces Nimr multi-purpose armored vehicles. The production of armored personnel carriers based on a South African armored car has been launched.
– President Assad, with the help of Russia and Iran, managed to almost put an end to the ISIS terrorist movement banned in the Russian Federation and inflict serious strikes on the bases of other terrorist groups. The “big” war is over.
But sporadic clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups are an integral part of the Syrian reality. The government in Damascus has established control over a significant, but, unfortunately, not over the entire territory of the country. Thus, its region, located in the northeast of the country, on the left bank of the Euphrates, is under the control of Kurdish forces in alliance with some local Arab tribes and the American administration. Together, these forces profit from the trade in oil produced in this territory, as well as grain.
Russia, together with the Syrian authorities, demands the departure of the Americans and an end to the shameless plunder of the country's resources.
In the northwest, in Idlib, there is a zone controlled by the armed opposition, including both its pro-Turkish detachments and terrorist organizations banned by the entire world community. In Syria, they fear that if Turkish dominance in this zone drags on, then in the future it may be annexed by Ankara. However, cooperation between Russia, Iran and Turkey on Syria continues. The country's sovereignty is violated by Israel's illegal occupation of the Golan Heights in the southwest of the country and the Israeli Air Force's occasional strikes on targets in Syrian territory, which our country condemns.
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Vitaly Naumkin with the King of Bahrain.
– It is not unusual that the Arab street almost everywhere is sympathetic to the actions of Russia and is not inclined to support the course of the United States and its allies due to the fact that they, guided by double standards, do not condemn the actions of Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories and consign to total oblivion the internationally recognized national rights of the Palestinians. The greatest understanding of Russia's actions is met in Syria (with the exception of the opposition), as well as in Palestine.
Vitaly Naumkin with the first president of the Palestinian national administration by Yasser Arafat.