In May 2022, as the gas price crisis began unfolding in the U.S. and peaking in Europe, Asharq Al-Awsat, a London-based and Saudi-linked newspaper, published an article stating bluntly that NATO’s efforts to set oil prices against Russia would fail.

The article describes NATO as a cartel and that the policy to cap prices on Russian oil would harm both NATO and the global economy. Yet, the only person quoted in the article is Dmitry Peskov, press secretary to Russian President Vladimir Putin. His comments are accepted at face value and without criticism.

The article signaled something of an about-turn in Saudi-Arabia-Russia relations, with the mood music between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. becoming increasingly downbeat. So what’s going on?

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Saudi Arabia and Russia hardly have a history of friendly relations. Saudi Arabia has generally positioned itself as neutral on Russia’s war in Ukraine, and only two years prior, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman joined then-U.S. President Donald Trump in waging an economic war on Russia by releasing oil supply into the market and tanking prices. Within OPEC, Saudi Arabia and Russia have more often been competitors than allies.

The reasons for that are historic. Unlike Egypt, Syria, and Algeria, which fell under a Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War, Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and of OPEC, has been a staunch Western ally in opposing Communism. It also views the U.S. as its chief defense ally.

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To Russia, Saudi Arabia’s market for weapons long remained a far-away dream, while Saudi Arabia preferred to rely on U.S. made weapons and was not particular interested in Moscow’s overtures.

In general, Saudi Arabia’s political relationship with Russia has been at best uneasy, and the two countries have had little in common strategically. Indeed, the relationship has mostly been relegated to state level.

While the U.S. and Saudi Arabia do not have a formal defense alliance, they have a history of mutually beneficial policies, with the U.S. having a say on oil prices in exchange for providing security to Saudi Arabia against various regional and global threats. Even when that alliance was challenged by U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to “balance” Iran and Saudi influences in the Middle East and by his administration’s freeze on weapons sales to the Kingdom, Riyadh steered clear of Russia on most issues.

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Shift in relations

To outside observers therefore, such an article from one of the leading Saudi outlets, might have come as a surprise. It is one thing for the Saudis to criticize U.S. foreign policy on Iran and Islamism, but to side against the U.S. with Russia so openly is a 180-degree about-turn from its general position.

Some see the shift as a message to U.S. President Joe Biden, whose flirtation with the Iranian nuclear deal, the lifting of the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) categorization from the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, the distancing from the defense alliance with Saudi Arabia, and the consistently personal attacks on the Crown Prince, have irked the country’s leadership and undermine the basis for close relations with the U.S.

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The situation has certainly not improved over time. Biden’s July visit to Saudi Arabia was disastrous and failed to achieve any of its goals or to improve relations. 

The Crown Prince had played a personal part in negotiating the release of several international prisoners taken by Russia in Ukraine, and also signaled to the Kremlin that the war’s atrocities were not welcome. Indeed, Saudi Arabia had been developing defense relations with Ukraine even prior to the war, having bought some tanks and other weapons.

However, as relations with the U.S. continued to deteriorate, both Russia and elements of the Saudi government started signaling a shift.

Much of it is a direct result of successful Russian information warfare than any true rapprochement between the two countries. However, propaganda can help shape reality and there are more complex issues at play.

While it is tempting to blame it entirely on the U.S. Democratic Party’s hostile position to Saudi Arabia, and the outcry of various soft power and political institutions over the death of the former Saudi government official Jamal Khashoggi, there is another angle of internal Saudi politics completely independent of U.S. foreign policy.

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Elements of the Saudi “Old Guard” – conservative and Islamist-leaning officials who had viewed Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent to power with suspicion and as a challenge to the power, wealth, and international relationships they had accumulated over time – had long since viewed Russia as a potential supporter against the West-oriented Crown Prince.

Moreover, some senior princes, such as the influential former Chief of Intelligence Turki al-Faisal, have been financially invested in Russia’s energy market – along with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Qatar, the source of funding for the various media campaigns against the Crown Prince.

Russia, Qatar, Iran, and the Saudi Old Guard formed a nexus of self-serving economic and political interests, which may explain the strange gravitation towards Russia by the media, even as Russia is receiving significant political and military assistance from Iran, which Riyadh views as an existential threat.

Is Saudi Arabia hoping to woo away Moscow from the Iran axis by playing along on energy matters? That hardly seems the case, given that Russia, Qatar, and Iran had formed a gas cartel in 2008, long before Russia had invaded any part of Ukraine, and long before the current deterioration in relations between the U.S. and the Saudi Arabia.

On the contrary, the influence likely works the other way around. First, Russian and Qatari publications have put out an entire media campaign underscoring and exaggerating the extent of Russian and Saudi energy cooperation. Indeed, Saudi Arabia had joined Russia in limiting production output, but the Saudi energy minister, explaining that decision over the pearl-clutching in the West, contributed the step towards “uncertainty.”

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He was referring to the broken truce between the Arab Coalition and the Houthi militias, who in the past had attacked ARAMCO sites and had succeeded in suspending oil production in Saudi Arabia for a few days, endangering oil supplies. Russian and Qatari sources, however, spun the story to their own advantage to exploit increased tensions between Washington and Riyadh and to facilitate entry to the Saudi political echelons.

Thus, the myth of Saudi realignment with Russia was born and was pursued both in the media and through specific social media accounts, in particular, pushing the image of an alleged personal friendship between Putin and Mohammed bin Salman. There is of course, no evidence to believe any such personal relationship exists.

All of that has contributed to the flurry of political outcries, mostly from the Democrats in Congress, as well as a few Republicans, who have threatened Saudi Arabia with the freezing of weapons sales over this alleged siding with Moscow.

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Mistranslations

Even more sinister has been the working of the Russian propaganda machinery inside Saudi Arabia. Unlike Egypt or other Middle Eastern states where media has already been predisposed to Russian influence and relatively easy to penetrate, Saudis tend to put their confidence into the monarchy and in government circles. News outlets RT and Sputnik do not have the same significant presence in Saudi Arabia as they do in other parts of the world.

However, the Russian propagandists instead used the very princes invested in the Russian energy sphere to fulfill their goals. Through specific voices in the Royal Court, these facilitators started spreading mistranslated speeches by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Russian disinformation. They preyed on the increased openness to combating bigotry and antisemitism which had been advanced by the Crown Prince’s reforms, and to the largely uninitiated Saudi audiences, presented Zelensky’s speech as praising Stepan Bandera and claiming that Zelensky defended Bandera’s “alliance with Hitler to kill Jews.”

The impact of the government-approved mistranslations can drive public discourse and buy-in to a change in official policies. Whereas there is a perception in the West that the Crown Prince is largely behind foreign policy in Saudi Arabia, that is in fact not the case. He is but one voice among many, and ultimately the final word rests with the King and the appointed foreign minister. 

Russian information warfare is even more influential in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a smaller country with an even greater degree of public trust in the government. The UAE’s position on Russia has been far more open than Saudi from the get-go. The current president of the country, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, has initiated friendly calls to Putin, visited Russia after the war in Ukraine had already broken out, and signaled relatively warm and open relations. This was in part to irk the U.S., which had been consistently attacking UAE in various ways, and in part, as a matter of business.

The UAE has been accused of allowing various entities to circumvent the impact of sanctions on Russia; moreover, Dubai in particular, has welcomed, a number of Russian oligarchs. Moreover, the UAE recently publicly declared that it wished to become the Singapore of the Middle East, an ideologically neutral country open to relations with everyone, which essentially makes no distinction between Russia and the U.S. in that regard.

With Qatar already enjoying close cooperation with Russia on most fronts, the bulk of Russian propaganda has therefore been aimed at Saudi Arabia, which is a more populous and influential country, and the most U.S. oriented of the lot. All of that is a dangerous development for U.S. interests. Smaller countries like Bahrain and the UAE, and even larger ones like Saudi Arabia, may see Russia as the only possible line of defense against Iran’s aggression in the absence of significant U.S. presence in the Middle East and dedication to old relations.

Moreover, there is a cadre of corrupt officials and members of royal families who are personally invested into Russia, and who have been looking for an excuse to move closer. There are also a number of lucrative economic projects under joint consideration, such as the renewed effort to build the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline into Central Asia.

Some of the same Old Guard members, such as the very same Turki al-Faisal, have been invested into oil companies in Afghanistan since the 1980s. The U.S. has nominally backed the project, but has not directly got involved. Russia, however, has been looking to coopt both the Taliban and Pakistan and to push for a closer relationship with the Gulf States over this issue.

Despite opposition among reformists such as the Saudi Crown Prince, this alliance will only grow with time. Russian propaganda comes in handy in selling these moves and finding a path to bring back the dark past from that bygone era that the younger Saudis and Emiratis have been yearning to bury.

If Russia succeeds in bringing back to power the old school conservative interests in the Arab Gulf States, the security concerns plaguing the West will be multiplied manifold by the alliance between the Russian kleptocrats and the moneyed Islamists.

Irina Tsukerman is a New York-based National Security lawyer and geopolitical analyst, specializing in information warfare. She is the President of Scarab Rising, Inc. – a media and security strategic advisory organization.

Views expressed in this exclusive insight are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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