The Emerging Saudi-Russian Alliance

President Obama has spoken again about Iran and his reluctance to intervene in the colossal struggle for hegemony within the greater Middle East. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as the Iranians they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some kind of cold peace”. American intervention, the president went on to say, “would be in the interest of neither the United States nor the Middle East”.

The Obama doctrine for the Middle East has now officially been written. It reads something like this: If you Sunni Arabs are directly attacked, we might find a way of giving you protection; however, for any other type of threat, you Arabs are on your own. In other words, the US has now thrown out the window seventy-five years of official US policy. That is, the essential foundation of a rock-solid commitment to Saudi protection from all threats within the region has now been unofficially terminated. Therefore the historic prevention of naval power, from blocking the Russians from achieving a warm-water presence in the Persian Gulf, has now been put in serious jeopardy. This policy dates all the way back to Great Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. Can Obama really be serious?

Not only is Obama’s doctrine extremely short-sighted, it is also an open invitation for the entire Sunni Middle East to “pull a Sadat”. In the early 1970s, when it had become clear to the Egyptian leadership that support for the Soviet Union had become a dead end, President Sadat dramatically changed course. The Egyptian military invested their country’s next forty years in a one-hundred-and- eighty degree turn toward Washington and away from Moscow. Could this happen again, but only in reverse? Could the Sunni Arab states of the Middle East lose such confidence in American leadership that they could be turned against Washington?

One can only wonder what the Japanese must be thinking. Japan depends on the US for its security, but also the Middle East for its oil. Russian naval bases, as a replacement for an American presence in the Persian Gulf, would have alarm bells going off all over Tokyo! Obama has claimed for the last seven years that he wanted to wind down support for allies in the Middle East, in an attempt to pivot US foreign policy toward Asia. But hasn’t anyone explained to this president that control of Asian sea lanes becomes irrelevant with a Russian naval armada sitting adjacent to the Straits of Hormuz? Perhaps no one in the White House has even thought of the possibility of such an occurrence. But there is the rumor of a royal Saudi visit to Moscow. Perhaps (like the example of North Korean nuclear weapons) US intelligence will be surprised as events unfold.

Then there is the precarious position of the global economy. The International Monetary Fund and the International Bank of Settlements continue to warn of the likelihood of a cyclical downturn leading to a severe bout of deflation and a liquidity crisis within the global bond markets. This could have a deleterious effect on banks worldwide. Such a business slowdown would be a discomfort for nearly everyone, with the possible exception of those countries which produce the necessities of oil and natural gas. A Saudi-Russian understanding over a large rise in the price of worldwide oil, especially if it involves a change in Kremlin policy with regard to Assad and Iran, might very well be a logical step for both Moscow and Riyadh.

Oil, at its current price, serves neither Russian nor Saudi Arabian national interest. But it has been Russian support for Assad in Syria that has forced the Saudi hand. By a strategy of over-production, Riyadh has helped to drive down the price of oil to levels that have badly hurt Moscow’s financial position as well as their own. In fact the Saudis are playing a game of hardball with any nation (including the US) which might side with Iran, either directly or indirectly. Moscow’s support for Assad — and by extension, Iran — has injected the Kremlin directly into the Middle East hegemonic struggle for dominance. But Obama’s inaction has also been perceived throughout the region as aid and comfort to Tehran. This is especially true of the US-led Iranian nuclear deal and the absence of any countervailing force to Russian airpower over Syria.

The Obama doctrine has created a vast vacuum within both Syria and Iraq, and there is good reason to believe that the next American president will be unlikely, politically, to change course. With the demise of the neo-cons in the Republican Party, and with the strong tilt to the left within the Democratic Party, a President Hillary Clinton would have little room to maneuver in relation to Sunni Arab or Turkish interests in the greater Levant. Even Israel doesn’t know what to make of either Obama or his trio of possible successors (Trump, Clinton and/or the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party).

This means that the Saudis and their Arab allies, and perhaps Turkey, will most likely have to come to terms with President Putin. There is always the possibility that Ankara might risk a move into Syria that would engage a Russian military response, and such a response might entail a Turkish demand for NATO support. But Obama (through Biden) has already warned President Erdogan not to make such a move. Whether or not he will listen is another story. When it comes to Russian support for a second Kurdish entity on Turkey’s southern border, Erdogan is very likely to press NATO and Europe with all the leverage he can muster. This would mean the continued de-stabilization of European political elites through war and migration within Syria (and possibly Lebanon).

And then there is Russia itself. Russia would like nothing better than a vast spike in oil prices. Saudi Arabia could offer them such a deal. The Saudis have the oil in quantities sufficient to drive the price upward. President Putin does not exactly enjoy either the American-European sanctions against his Ukraine policy or the current GCC oil pushback over his support for Assad and Iran. Moscow’s ruling elite (like Western Europe) is being stretched to the point of severe political repercussions.

The Russian economy is in serious trouble, and its people are suffering. In the last twenty months, the ruble has lost over half its value. At first, Russian monetary authorities attempted to curb the fall by utilizing 80 billion dollars in foreign currency reserves as a prop. This worked, but the price paid by the central bank was simply unsustainable. Now Russia is left with about 371 billion in foreign reserves and another 51 billion dollars in gold. But nearly 83% of Russian debt is in either Euros or dollars. And as the ruble falls, this debt continues to increase.

Major Russian companies are also suffering from debt demands. Oil giant Rosneft owes a debt payment to a number of US banks, including Bank of America and J.P. Morgan. Perhaps it has enough cash on hand to make one more payment, but that’s it. Meanwhile, the Wall St. Journal reports that the Higher School of Economics in Moscow estimates that 20 of 83 regions within the country may be in technical default due to a prolonged recession. This estimate is on top of an inflation rate which is fast approaching nearly 13% in the last quarter. It’s no wonder that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently said that “the dramatic movement of the oil market (downward) is creating rather serious risks for carrying out the budget”.

President Obama and the vast majority of the American people see nothing to be gained by entering the regional proxy war in Syria. They simply want to fight the ISIS terrorists by air and have Sunni Arabs and Kurds do the fighting and dying on the ground. But this is a flat-earth strategy in a very round world. From Iraq to Lebanon, the Sunnis are an aggrieved community, and until either the Russians or the Americans can show them that Iran and Assad will not be allowed to win in Syria and Iraq, no real victory against ISIS can be won. In fact, if the next US administration persists with the Obama policy of “leading from behind”, Sunni Arabs will be looking for an “out-front leader” who can help them to isolate Tehran. Russia is certainly an “out-front leader” in Syria. Moscow’s commitment to Assad and Iran could be dramatically altered by the prospect of a change of positions with the US in the Persian Gulf.

Where would such a cataclysmic turn of events leave Israel? Well, for one, it would mean that the historic US position in the Middle East would be eroded beyond all recognition. Israel would have to deal with Russia while deciding just exactly where its relationship stood with its current four-decade long strategic partner in Washington. That, in turn, would depend on a very strong American policy with regard to Jerusalem’s interests. It would be a balancing act with both benefits and drawbacks. Jordan would also be in a rather difficult position. Egypt has already “pulled a Sadat” and could do it again. Turkey (as a NATO member) would be left in complete turmoil with regard to Russia’s future approach to Kurdistan. But that takes us back to the situation on the ground in Syria at this very moment.

Given current US policy, none of this is far-fetched. The balance of power in the Middle East is being shaped by Moscow. The US has become a voyeur to the region. Unlike the poor advice of an American president — who appears to have little imagination or understanding of geopolitical possibilities — Saudi Arabia and Iran will never be able to achieve a “cold peace” on their own. If the Middle East alters, the consequences for Asia and Europe will be enormous. Without cooperation based on a world structure organized through peace as its foundation, the bi-polarity of China and Russia on one side and the US on the other will continue. In such an environment, all the rest of the world must decide where their true interest lies. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arabs are no exception.

Israel too must decide. If a Saudi-Russian alliance should occur, the Jewish state would be hard-pressed by both sides — Russia and the US — to tilt one way or another. Israel needs a strategic alternative to a US foreign policy which has been reluctant to determine the nature and future of a strategic balance in the Middle East. Israel has given only lip service to a prospective integration into a Sunni Alliance poised against Iran. But the Saudis have insisted on Israeli withdrawal to the cease-fire lines of 1949 as an ante into regional Sunni configuration. This has been too steep a price for Israel to pay. Meanwhile, Russia has now directly entered the Middle East fray, and Moscow’s interests must be taken into serious consideration.

One way or another, the balance of power within the Middle East will have to be worked out. What Obama doesn’t seem to understand is how his policy of inaction could eventually affect not only the Middle East, but Europe and East Asia as well. Maybe the next American president can enunciate an alternative to the mumbo-jumbo that has passed for coherence within the administration of Barack H. Obama.

As far as I’m concerned, Obama’s legacy is tenuous at best. And it could become catastrophic if Iran continues to press forward with its goal of becoming a regional nuclear power. Given this perspective, in combination with an American policy of Middle East inaction, an emerging Saudi-Russian alliance has become a very distinct possibility. All policies have consequences, and Obama’s policy of inaction might have even greater consequences than he could ever have imagined.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).