The Moscow-Riyadh War of Words: A Conversation with Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: April 9, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

By last fall the protests against the government of Syria had long since turned into a horrendous bloodletting in the streets as security forces and the army continued to battle anti-government forces. Saudi Arabia had for months been a leading actor in efforts to end the turmoil. King Abdullah recalled the Saudi Ambassador from Damascus in August saying:

“What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia.. …The events are grave and cannot be justified, and this has resulted in the loss of large numbers of lives and left many injured. This cannot be contemplated by any sane Muslim, Arab or other human being… …Syria knows the Kingdom’s stand with it in the past. Today, the Kingdom demands a stop to the killing machine, and the shedding of blood, and a rational approach to bring the situation under control. Before it is too late, Syria must launch reforms that are not mere promises but actually realized, so our brothers in Syria can feel it and live it with … dignity … and pride …”

In October as the violence showed no sign of letting up a draft resolution brought before the United Nations Security Council by the European Union threatened sanctions on the Syrian government if it failed to stop the crackdown. On October 4th the draft failed when the Russian Federation and China vetoed the resolution. The resolution called for “an immediate end to violence and urged all sides to reject extremism, expressing “profound regret at the deaths of thousands of people including women and children,” according to a UN’s press release. It added, “The resolution would have demanded that Syrian authorities immediately stop using force against civilians and allow the exercise of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and other fundamental rights. It would have called for the release of all political prisoners and peaceful demonstrators.”

Four months later Russia and China repeated the use of their Security Council veto power to defeat an Arab League sponsored resolution that sought to rein in the Syrian government’s brutal repression. Their action was condemned by others in the Security Council including British Foreign Secretary William Hague who called it “a betrayal of the Syrian people.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton labeled the vetoes “a travesty.” The February 4th draft would have forced Assad to stand down and hand over power to a deputy, pull back troops engaged against civilians and start a transitional process leading to a democratic system.

Three days after the Russian and Chinese vetoes defeated the Security Council Resolution Saudi Arabia and other Gulf leaders recalled their ambassadors from Damascus and expelled Syrian diplomats. It was followed by volleys of accusations especially between Riyadh and Moscow over the Syrian morass. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal asked an Arab League meeting on the crisis, “”How long will we stay as onlookers to what is happening to the brotherly Syrian people, and how much longer will we grant the Syrian regime one period after another so it can commit more massacres against its people?”

At the April 1st Istanbul meeting of the “Friends of Syria” contact group, he reiterated his claim that Russia was responsible for the continuing bloodshed in Syria:

“The position of those countries which thwarted the U.N. Security Council resolution and voted against the resolution of the General Assembly gave the Syrian regime a license to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people.”

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia weren’t always marked by such vitriol. The two countries did not have diplomatic relations between 1938 until 1990 but a rapprochement was underway after the demise of the Soviet Union. The thaw was complete by 2003 when King Abdullah, then Crown Prince, made a landmark visit to Moscow to talk about the opening of new high level contacts. By 2007 the relationship had grown much more cordial and cooperative when President Vladimir Putin arrived in Riyadh for the first visit of a Russian leader to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Dr. Marat Terterov of the Gulf Research Center wrote at the time:

“Russia’s Middle Eastern strategy appears to be going from strength to strength. While the US continues to be embroiled in the Iraqi insurgency, and the West’s standoff with Tehran over its alleged nuclear weapons program fuels tension across the Gulf, 2007 may go down as a landmark year for Moscow’s foreign policy making toward the region. Russian President Putin’s tour of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan in February 2007 — the first such visit by a Russian or Soviet head of state — has already set the stage for Moscow to strongly consolidate on its already vastly improving relations with the Gulf states.”

So what should we make of the current state of relations between Moscow and Riyadh?

SUSRIS talked with Dr. Theodore Karasik last summer to get his take on the impact of the Arab Spring on the Gulf. It has been a phenomenon he preferred to label as “Arab revolts,” and of which he said, “The way I look at it is that all of these revolts had similar origins. They were about acting against dictatorships. About the inability for upward mobility. About education. About freedom of speech. And so on.” Now that last year’s turmoil in the Arab world has apparently claimed positive relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia as a casualty we wanted to get his perspective on these developments.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is Director for Research and Development at the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), based in the Dubai Media City. He joined INEGMA in 2008 after more than twenty years with RAND Corporation to head up the think-tank’s newly established research and consultancy division. INEGMA, founded in 2001, also has a division that focuses on high-level events and conferences and one that concentrates on public relations and marketing in the security and defense arena. This latter Division produces the only Arabic language security and military website, sdarabia.com. Karasik received his PhD at UCLA in History concentrating on the Middle East, Russia, the Caucasus and an outside field in cultural anthropology in tribes and clans, all of which provides him with a “North-South approach” to strategic thinking about the MENA region. Dr. Karasik is currently engaged on many research fronts including the Syria-Russia-Iran issue as well as countering Somali piracy and the development of the Counter-Extremism Center to be based in Abu Dhabi beginning in October. Dr. Karasik was interviewed by phone from his office in Dubai and via email.

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The Moscow-Riyadh War of Words: A Conversation with Dr. Theodore Karasik

[SUSRIS] What’s going on in the Saudi-Russian relationship?

[Dr. Theodore Karasik] The Saudi-Russian relationship has really hit the rocks. Riyadh and Moscow do not see eye to eye on the Syrian issue, especially the U.N. veto by Russia and China, but also since the ending of the April 1st “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul, the rhetoric is reaching a new level of back and forth accusations.

Now you have both foreign ministries sniping at each other rather sharply, and accusing each other of meddling in Syria. They’re at opposing poles if you will about what is going to be the outcome. You have the Russians claiming that the Saudis are supporting the rebels who are really terrorists and they’re taking the Assad line, while the Saudis are accusing the Russians of maintaining the Assad regime and giving armaments to the Syrian military in order to continue to conduct crimes against humanity.

And what this is doing is they are setting back Saudi-Russian relations to a point equal to when Saudi and Russia were bickering over the war in Chechnya. So all of the advances that Russia had made in the last ten years, particularly in the wake of Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2007, have basically all been pushed aside.

[SUSRIS] I recall that visit heralded an opening of a new page in the relationship. After that was there any actual uptick in the quality and quantity of the relations between them?

[Karasik] Absolutely. There were a number of agreements signed between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the energy field. There were also tenders that the Russians were bidding on, particularly in terms of railroad systems in Saudi Arabia. I think all of these improvements in ties are in trouble and going to come to fruition. The Russian companies operating in Saudi Arabia now are going to face a really tough climb such as LUKSAR, a subsidiary of LukOil. They might face some very big problems.

[SUSRIS] How do you see the war of words impacting Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy making?

[Karasik] Saudi foreign policy right now, depending on who you talk to, is in a state of change. It is a reaction to the changing shape of the Near East since Riyadh is making adjustments to meet the new order. Meanwhile Moscow seems stuck in the past. For example, Saudi relations with Egypt, Saudi relations with Syria, Saudi relations with Iran, are all becoming front burner issues. But behind those Saudi foreign policy challenges, specifically with Syria and Iran, they see Russian interference with Saudi goals in the region, and that’s a sign of trouble.

[SUSRIS] Are there other areas in the region where Russian interference will be troubling?

[Karasik] Another country to watch closely in terms of the Russian relationship with the GCC is Qatar. Moscow and Doha have been having a subdued screaming match at each other that started late last year when their ambassador, Vladimir Titorenko, the Russian ambassador to Qatar was roughed up at the airport, and there was a downgrade of relations. In addition, the Qataris still remember well the assassination by the Russian GRU, Moscow’s Foreign Military Intelligence, of Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in 2004. Finally, in February 2012 at a meeting of the UN Security Council, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin is said to have threatened the Qatari Foreign Minister by stating that “Russia will wipe Qatar off the map.” These incidents are not taken lightly in the GCC.

Qatar is among those leading the way for a military intervention in Syria. This is another major way Doha is at odds with Moscow. That was seen also at the Arab League meeting in Cairo last month ago where Lavrov said one thing and the Qataris said another. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said: “We must send a message to the Syrian regime that the world’s patience and our patience has run out, as has the time for silence about its practices” Lavrov, however, argued that, “Russia is not protecting any regime.” He added, “The most urgent task is to end all violence.” That was illustrative of the break between Qatar and Russia who, like the Saudi-Russian relationship, are clearly not seeing eye to eye.

[SUSRIS] What will problems between Russia and Saudi Arabia mean for the energy markets?

[Karasik] I think that it’s part of a triangular relationship that involves Iran. Look at the role of the sanctions and how they’re intended to cripple Iran’s economy. If the Saudis are backing them it does effect the energy market, which brings in Russia. Moscow is supportive of the Iranian economy. However, they also want to make sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, but in a much more subtle way.

You also have to consider the key role of China which wants to guarantee it receives the amount of hydrocarbons that it requires. This is why you see the Chinese visiting the region more and more, and you also see visits by GCC leaders to China for talks about satisfying their energy needs but at reasonable prices. This Chinese action is part of a “twin pillar policy” where Beijing seeks to be friendly with both the GCC, especially Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

From the Russian point of view on the energy market they don’t have a lot to lose from Gulf tensions because the higher the price of oil goes, the more money they will make. Let’s face it, Russia is basically a petroleum economy.

The Russians are able to sit back and make comments about Syria, because they have this – as I’ve mentioned before – this issue of Russian pride and orthodoxy and a history of supporting this regime. It’s one of their last allies in the new order within the Middle East. At the same time though, they watch the markets and they benefit from the turmoil. So they’re playing a masterful game in the region, but when you get back to the Saudis, they know what Russia’s doing. This is why you have a war of words.

[SUSRIS] Russia’s relevancy to the situation in Iran must make the Saudis even more disturbed about Moscow’s maneuvering.

[Karasik] It does. Saudi Arabia was using Russia as a backchannel to Iran to deliver messages to the Iranian leadership. That was orchestrated by Saudi National Security Council Chairman Prince Bandar bin Sultan. And he was going to Moscow quite a bit to discuss Russian views of the GCC-Iranian debate. So getting the Russian point of view was really important because it provided a different angle to interpret.

The Russians do have a different point of view when it comes to looking at the states around the Gulf littoral. What they seek goes back to the old historical thought of a relentless pursuit to the south. Not to quote Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but it is an important point, because geographically the Russians see themselves as really wanting to play a major role in the Near East, specifically in the Arabian Gulf. The problem is that they’re being caught on the wrong side of history. They’re going to find themselves supporting the wrong side when you have a bulk of the GCC states including Saudi Arabia against them.

[SUSRIS] Might one visualize a triangular relationship – Moscow, Damascus, Tehran – as a way to analyze Russia’s interests and activities in the region?

[Karasik] It is actually a very useful construct, and I would take that as a “global rejectionist front.” It aims to discredit American doctrines of free markets, globalization, and liberal democracy. Its ideology is an eclectic mix of authoritarian capitalism, populist socialism, and radical Shia Islam. So these countries are beginning to group around each other more strongly even though they may have ideological and religious differences. They’re standing up not only for their own interests and security, but they also want to put the Saudis in their place and to confront and confuse the United States.

[SUSRIS] You briefly touched on China’s role. Well, what about China? Are the Saudis as disturbed by Beijing’s veto of the U.N. Security Council Resolution on Syria? You mentioned the Chinese are increasing visits and trying to make nice with everybody because of energy security worries.

[Karasik] What China is doing is they’re playing a twin pillar strategy as I mentioned before. They’re supportive of Iran in terms of economics and energy, but at the same time they’re dealing with Saudi Arabia and energy requirements That’s basically a key part of their foreign policy, because they usually don’t take sides when it comes to the energy issue. So they will go ahead and “milk” that for all it’s worth until the U.S. or Europe seeks to put sanctions on Chinese firms doing business in Iran, or energy business in Iran. That’s their perspective.

[SUSRIS] Were you surprised to see the Chinese veto at the U.N. knowing that the Russians were going to veto the Syria resolution? Beijing could have abstained and avoided any antagonism with potential energy partners.

[Karasik] I think that when you have a resolution in the UN Security Council that affects both Russian and Chinese interests they will always cast a vote. China may have appeared to follow Russia’s lead but for different reasons. I believe Beijing saw the veto as a way to maintain Chinese foreign policy without siding with the West and isolating Russia on the Security Council. You also have to think about Russia and Chinese relations. From the Chinese point of view the veto was a tactical move, but clearly Saudi Arabia and other GCC states haven’t demonstrated the level of retribution or comment that we’ve seen with Russia. I see that as the value these states place in relations with China.

[SUSRIS] What does all sniping and triangulating mean for the U.S.-Saudi relationship? The year 2011 was not the best year in government to government relations but do dangerous times in the Gulf mean Washington and Riyadh will be closer in 2012?

[Karasik] If bilateral relations in 2011 can be characterized in this way, and I think it can, then 2012 will be an exacerbation of those features. One reason why is the differences in terms of approach towards the Syrian issue.

The Saudis clearly want to seek a military solution because of the crimes against humanity issue. The United States now seems to be backing off from any kind of military intervention, but has said they support non-lethal aid to the Syrian Free Army as well as helping out with an Arab fund to pay wages to Syrian rebel fighters.

Clearly the U.S. wants to rely on other powers, regional powers to settle this situation, because Washington will have its hands full with Iran for the rest of the year. We must also realize that in an election year it makes these issues even more sensitive for Washington.

[SUSRIS] Some observers recent improvements in Washington-Riyadh ties. They would cite the regional problems last year as causing difficulty between the partners: disagreement over the end of Mubarak in Egypt, warnings about U.S. opposition to Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. You seem to think that 2012 will see a continuation of disagreements. It seems that policymakers on both sides can walk the line between where we agree and where we disagree, while they recognize the importance of Gulf security and the dangerous climate in the region.

[Karasik] I would differ. The fact is that we still have the pesky issue of ongoing events in Bahrain, that I think that can be damaging. There is a discussion of a Saudi-Bahraini union being formed, and there is the perception that Bahrain is already a de facto province of Saudi Arabia anyway.

Then there’s the issues related to democratic movements, or Shiite rights if you will, in Saudi Arabia that the U.S. is going to have to be very clever about.

Finally, there is the issue of the rise of the new Muslim Brotherhood that is sweeping in political Islam into the vacuum caused by the Arab revolt and this fact will have an impact on U.S. allies in the region for the foreseeable future.

[SUSRIS] Riyadh must have an appreciation for the fine line that Washington has to walk on these questions, especially Bahrain, in terms of balancing American interests and values. Would you agree that the United States is not likely to rock the boat over Bahrain or the Eastern Province given the larger security challenges and its interests in the relationship with Saudi Arabia?

[Karasik] I agree with you completely. I’m just arguing that this is a thorn in the side and depending on what happens in Bahrain it could create problems with Saudi Arabia but these problems are not insurmountable. I would go back to the “flip-flop” that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates did when Peninsula Shield forces entered Bahrain. At first, he attacked the occupation then backtracked three days later and agreed with this action.

[SUSRIS] Thank you, Dr. Karasik, sharing your time with us on these important issues. These are interesting times to be observing events from the Gulf.

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About Dr. Karasik

Dr. Theodore Karasik is currently the Director of Research and Development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE and Beirut, Lebanon.

Dr. Karasik is also an Adjunct Lecturer at the Dubai School of Government where he teaches graduate level international relations. Karasik was a Senior Political Scientist in the International Policy and Security Group at RAND Corporation. From 2002-2003, he served as Director of Research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. He has worked on Central Asian, Russian, Caucasian and Arabian Peninsula issues for over 20 years regarding nuclear proliferation, security and terrorism questions including transnational terrorist groups, clan structures and politics, and criminal organizations. He writes numerous risk assessments across his geographical focus. Since 9/11, Dr. Karasik has also concentrated on terrorist targeting and tactics regarding critical infrastructure in the United States, Europe, and the GCC states. Finally, he is a dedicated “Saudiologist” who tracks and analyzes all issues related to internal and external Saudi affairs since the early 1990s.

Dr. Karasik’s key RAND publications released to the public are “Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy (2009 co-author); “Future U.S. Security Relationships with Iraq and Afghanistan: U.S. Air Force Roles (2008 co-author); “Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks (2007 co-author), “Beyond al-Qaeda: The Global Jihadist Movement” (2006 co-author), “Beyond al-Qaeda: The Outer Rings of the Terrorist Universe,” (2006 co-author), “War and Escalation in South Asia,” (2006, co-author), “Economic Dimensions of Security in Central Asia,” (2006; co-author), “The Muslim World After 9/11” (2004; co-author) and “Toxic Warfare” (2002). His other publications include “Islamic Finance in a Global Context: Opportunities and Challenges,” Chicago Journal of International Law, vol. 7, no. 2, Winter 2007 (co-authored) and “Chechnya: A Glimpse of Future Conflict?,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, July-September 1999 (co-authored).

Dr. Karasik is a military analyst on al-Jazeera International and is frequently interviewed by The National, Reuters, Trends News Agency, and AFP. He has a background in basic geology and petroleum geology directly related to his previous work on the Caspian and Arabian Gulf regions. Dr. Karasik served as a Subject Matter Expert on Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia for the U.S. Library of Congress. He also served as a Committee Member on IREX’s Contemporary Issues Fellowship Program for Azerbaijani applicants. Dr. Karasik worked for 18 months with internists in Santa Monica, CA to develop a software package to track human systems and pharmaceutical use. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California, Los Angeles in four fields: Russia, Middle East, Caucasus and an outside field in cultural anthropology focusing on tribes and clans from Central Asia to East Africa. He wrote his dissertation on military and humanitarian operations in the northern port city of Arkhangel’sk and their impact on political institutions during the Russian civil war.

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About Inegma

INEGMA is best described as a commercial hybrid organization that complements the attributes of a research house with that of a corporate management consultancy, operating exclusively within the defense and security domains.

At the core of INEGMA’s activities is the research aspect – it is this intellectual capital that is the foundation for its Strategy and Risk Management Consultancy and also the basis for its wider activities. We possess a strong research network that brings former government and military officials together with high-caliber security expertise from around the world. As a result INEGMA has been delivering high-class open source intelligence on key developments impacting the wider Middle East region since 2001. These insights have come in the form of risk reports and editorials, television and newspaper interviews, and information exchange forums such as specialized conferences and seminars.

INEGMA’s relations with the public and private spheres of defense and security are simultaneously expanding and strengthening. This is a result of both constant interactions and partnering activities and because many of its staff have previously spent many years either in government or in the defense industry. These special relationships continue to provide INEGMA with an extraordinary window into strategic trend-lines of regional governments and militaries. They also give us the ability to follow market trends closely with defense and security vendors operating in the region.

Building on its strong public-private sector network and intellectual capital, today INEGMA is recognized as a leading organizer of high-level defense and security events across the breadth of the Middle East, and an increasingly active management consultancy advising government and private sector clients in the areas of Strategy and Risk Management, and PR and Marketing. INEGMA is a non-partisan organization. It receives no financial assistance from any government or political party, worldwide.

Source: INEGMA

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