Russia and Saudi Arabia: Old Disenchantments, New Challenges

The Joseph Biden administration can manage its recalibration of relations with Saudi Arabia without unwarranted fear that Riyadh will view Russia as a safe-harbor alternative to the United States on a myriad of state-to-state interactions that are most important to the Kingdom.

While Russia’s transactional approach to foreign partners has at times given it advantages in some areas over the more value-based framework of U.S. foreign relations, there clearly have been limits to the Russian style of dealing with Saudi Arabia in this century. For now, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have lost his bet on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) as a resolute Russian strategic partner. However, Putin will continue to do business when necessary with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) on a transactional basis given its role as a key player in the region, particularly in the expanded Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+). U.S. foreign policy during the Biden administration will do best to recognize that the Russia-Saudi partnership is a transactional one that will endure, but not at the highest order of broad functionality, including at times within OPEC+.

Clearly, critical factors in the Saudi-Russian relationship are different in 2021 than in 2020. After the raucous OPEC+ disagreements in Vienna in March 2020, Moscow and Riyadh both welcomed President Trump’s face-saving intervention to reconvene negotiations and help shape their outcome. The Biden administration has other concerns and priorities that make any future such specific interventions highly unlikely, but team Biden has a historic opportunity. By properly recognizing the inherent limits to Russian-Saudi strategic cooperation, the Biden administration can pursue a combination of competitive and cooperative strategies to address the security challenge from Iran in the region, decrease turbulence in world energy markets, buffer the United States from Russian and Saudi market pressure, and better prepare America for the eventual post–fossil fuel era—and all without worries that a tight Russia-Saudi partnership might somehow stand in the way.   Order on Amazon