Vladimir Putin, eager to capitalise on escalating tension in the Gulf, looks like he needs a marketing and reputation management advisor.
Putin recognised opportunity when he urged Saudi Arabia to move ahead with the acquisition of Russia’s much-touted S-400 anti-missile defence system, after the kingdom’s six battalions of US-made Patriot batteries failed to detect drone and missile attacks on two of the country’s key oil facilities, knocking out half of its production.
Russian efforts to capitalise on the mounting tensions are as much opportunistic as they are strategic.
The attacks on Saudi facilities, whether executed by an Iranian-backed group based on an decision of its own or at the behest of Iran, or launched by the Islamic republic itself, sent a message not only to Riyadh and Washington but also to Moscow and Beijing. The message is as follows: Iran and its allies will not sit idly by as the United States seeks to cut off Iranian oil exports, allow Saudi Arabia to gobble up Iranian market share and force the Islamic republic on its knees.
As if to drive the point home, Putin pointed out, while making his offer for military supplies, that he had already sold Russian systems to Turkey and Iran.
Saudi Arabia was careful to let Putin’s seeming faux-pas pass. The kingdom has played its cards close to its chest by similarly refraining from responding to US President Donald J. Trump’s apparent rewriting of the long-standing US commitment to the defence of Saudi Arabia; that is, in the wake of the attacks.
Mr Trump’s emphasis on the fact that the attacks were against Saudi Arabia and not against the United States – and that his administration would support a Saudi response or potentially act on its behalf against payment – will nonetheless not have gone unnoticed in Riyadh and elsewhere in the Gulf.
Question marks about the United States’ commitment were first sparked by President Barack Obama when he paved Iran’s initial return to the international fold. This was done with the 2015 agreement curbing the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme and his publicly expressed belief that Saudi Arabia and Iran needed to share power in the Middle East.
Gulf concern diminished with Mr Trump visiting Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as president months after assuming office in 2017, his withdrawal last year from the Iranian nuclear accord and imposition of harsh economic sanctions on the Islamic republic, as well as his defence of the kingdom in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
That started to change when Trump, in June, failed to respond to the downing by Iran of a US drone, reacting cautiously to attacks since on tankers in the Gulf, as well as Trump’s apparent transactional approach to the targeting of Saudi oil facilities.
Gulf anxiety is further fuelled by a growing sense that the United States, no longer dependent on Gulf oil imports, is changing its perception of the Gulf’s strategic importance and has embarked upon a gradual process of turning its back on the region.
Anxiety lies at the root of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s more assertive posture that has led to several years of ill-conceived, erratic and largely failed political and military initiatives. These include the devastating war in Yemen and the debilitating diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.
In what may have been both an indication of changing Gulf attitudes towards the United States and a bow to US demands for burden sharing, Saudi Arabia has started to reach out to other countries for help in bolstering its air defences. It is reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had, for example, requested South Korean assistance in strengthening of the kingdom’s air defence system.
The Pentagon – in response to a request from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and an effort to cushion potential Gulf doubts about the United States’ commitments – said it was sending an unspecified number of troops and equipment to the two countries to ameliorate defences.
General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed the US would help provide ‘a layered system of defensive capabilities to mitigate the risk of swarms of drones or other attacks that may come from Iran’.
Now we return to Russian involvement. Seeking to enhance Iran’s international isolation and share the burden (a first step towards reduced US engagement) General Dunford said the US was looking ‘for other international partners to also contribute to Saudi Arabia’s defense’.
If necessary, the US could revive elements of a Chinese-backed Russian proposal in order to promote regional security. This proposal involves a collective security concept that would replace the Gulf’s US defence umbrella and position Russia as a power broker alongside the United States.
The proposition entails the creation of a counter-terrorism coalition that would be the motor for resolution of conflicts across the region, promoting mutual security guarantees for interested stakeholders.
The proposal calls for a “universal and comprehensive” security system, and would involve the Gulf states, Russia, China, the US, the European Union and India, as well as other stakeholders; a likely reference to Iran.
Iranian involvement could, however, undermine the proposition: it is cumbersome to envision Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly stated that it would only sit with Iran at one table on conditions unacceptable to Tehran, reversing its position and joining a security pact that would include the Islamic republic.