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Can Nuclear Power Warm Russian-Saudi Relations?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) attends a meeting with Saudi Defence Minister Prince Mohammad Bin Salman at the Konstantin (Konstantinovsky) Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

Just weeks ago, Saudi Arabia and Russia traded diplomatic barbs over the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. Now, the world’s two top oil producers have reached a series of agreements spanning everything from housing to space exploration.

One of those deals inked at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum calls for Russia to help Saudi Arabia develop and maintain a nuclear energy program. The agreement is raising some eyebrows.

The nuclear agreement came as no surprise to Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project, but the timing and the players did.

“The timing coming shortly after President Obama hosted GCC leaders at Camp David. This seems to be a move by the Kingdom to show it has alternatives to the United States—or maybe supplements to the United States,” he said.

Perhaps even more surprising to Riedel was the fact that it was Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman who headed the Saudi delegation to Russia. At only twenty-nine years old, he has served as a minister of defense for only five months and deputy crown prince for just two months.

“I think the Russian-Saudi summit was an opportunity to poke the United States a little bit,” Riedel said, “but even more an opportunity for Prince Mohamed bin Salman to be featured as a world class diplomat.”

Alternative energy, alternative relations

The deal signed in Russia June 19 paves the way for Russia to help Saudi Arabia construct and run a planned 16 reactors and to manage fuel and radioactive waste.

“It makes a lot of sense because the Kingdom cannot continue to be a major exporter of oil if it consumes more and more of its oil domestically, and it needs to look for alternative forms of energy,” Riedel said.

Saudi Arabia's population leaped from 20 million in 2000 to 28.3 million in 2012, according to the World Bank. In the same period of time, the Kingdom's net electricity consumption more than doubled, according to the U.S. Energy Administration.

Saudi is also driven by a desire to match whatever nuclear technology rival Iran has, said Riedel.

“But in practical terms, the Saudis are more than a decade – probably two or three decades – behind the Iranians in terms of developing nuclear technology, and splashy announcements in St. Petersburg don’t really change the facts on the ground,” he added.

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Russia has never been particularly close. Saudi Arabia’s friendship with the United States and alleged support of separatists in the Caucasus have long been issues for Russia. More recently, Russia supported of two of the Kingdom’s regional rivals: backing the Assad regime in Syria and participating in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

“While everyone acknowledged that the divergence over Syria has led to frosty relations between the two countries over the past few years, the Saudis still see Russia as an important global power with which it needs to have solid relations to keep oil prices stable and because it could be a reliable weapons supplier,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst with JTG, Inc. and former political analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C.

Nazer disagrees with those who might view the nuclear deal as a reaction to cooled relations between Washington and Riyadh.

“While some Saudis have advocated strengthening relations with Russia because they do not come with ‘preconditions’ - a clear reference to the U.S. - I think the Saudis realize that no single power can replace the US in the region,” he said. “Its ability to project its military power is proven and remains to be unmatched.”

Nazer added the Saudis clearly want to keep all their options open and to maintain relations with as many regional and global powers as possible, especially in a time of unprecedented tumult in the region – and dropping oil prices.

Riedel noted that Saudi Arabia did not offer one thing Russia really hoped for: help raising oil prices.

“What Putin would really love to have heard from Mohamed bin Salman was that the Kingdom was cutting back on oil production by two or three million barrels a day, which might raise oil prices.”

The U.S. reaction to the news, which comes in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, was circumspect.

“Saudi Arabia is a key friend and partner in the Middle East for the United States,” spokesman John Kirby told reporters June 19. “Our view is now is not the time for business as usual with Russia.”

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