A popular geopolitical image of the Middle East and North Africa is a region divided starkly into opposing camps. But as the Saudi king’s unprecedented visit to Moscow this week indicates, these days most players prefer to hedge their bets, balancing different relationships and avoiding over-aligning with any single power.
There are two main reasons for this. One is that there are so many different divisions in the region. From the ‘axis of evil’ to the ‘Shia crescent’, much has been written about binary divides: Sunni and Shia, Arabs and non-Arabs, Islamists and secularists, or pro- and anti-Western camps. And some regional powers play these cards when it suits them. But leaders, governments and political groups repeatedly team up with temporary partners on specific issues when they have common interests or enemies.
For instance, Turkey works with the US to back Syrian opposition groups, but shares Iran’s fears about US backing for the Kurdish ones. Israel has coordinated with Arab countries that officially don’t speak to it because of their mutual fears of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia’s media may use sectarian narratives to criticize Iran, but this year Riyadh has been reaching out to Iraqi Shia leaders while fighting with Qatar, a fellow Salafist Sunni country. Rhetoric may focus on grand narratives and identity politics, but politics is more pragmatic.
The second, more specifically contemporary reason for countries like Saudi Arabia to hedge their bets and diversify their alliances is the uncertainty about the future role of the US in the region. There is a widespread perception in the Gulf that the US will eventually wind down its long-term security presence in the region. This perception may be premature and exaggerated, but it is certainly there.
But no new power is thought likely to replace the US. Russia, and later the more economically significant powers China and India, may well play a greater role, but none is on track to replicate the security dominance of the US. Rather, regional governments are likely to replace their heavy investment in one paramount foreign ally with more of a portfolio approach to partnerships, which may be more issue-based and more transactional.
This gives them more bargaining power. Even if the US does not in fact have any intention of reducing its military commitment to the region, it is rational for the regional powers to have more international partners who they can work with on different issues – or play off against one another. That includes partners like Russia who avoid criticizing their friends’ domestic human rights records. Gulf leaders particularly like to point this out to the US.
This approach of seeking new relationships has been in the works for some time. Putin became the first Russian president to visit Saudi Arabia ten years ago. A year before that, the then-Saudi King Abdullah ensured that his first foreign trip as king was to China and India, not the US or UK, to reflect the changing nature of energy and trade flows, which are increasingly between developing countries.
None of this means Saudi Arabia is changing sides. It has said it will cooperate with Russia on energy and joint investment projects, and might even sign some arms deals. The two countries will try to find ways to accommodate each other in Syria, where Saudi Arabia hopes that Russia’s alliance with the regime will at least prevent Assad from being entirely dependent on Iran (Saudi Arabia’s regional arch-enemy). But Saudi Arabia will not persuade Russia to side with it against Iran, or even against Qatar.
However, both countries have some gains to make from a less tense relationship. And both are keen, for different reasons, to send a message to Washington that it is not the only player in town.
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