Despite the US President Joe Biden’s decision to embrace Saudia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (M.B.S.) for a larger cause of salvaging the struggling European and US economies, the Kingdom is unlikely to embrace Washington’s geopolitics against Russia. This fact flies in the face of many assessments and predictions made by the western mainstream media that US-Saudia ties will improve following Biden’s visit. While the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has pushed many European economies to the brink of recession and with many more tackling extremely high inflation due to the high energy prices and the forecast that these prices are likely to remain high in the foreseeable future, some countries have very clearly – and cleverly – escaped the impact of this war. Besides the fact that Russian economic tactics have been successful in shielding, very largely, the Russian economy against the western onslaught, other countries, too, are seeing an unusual growth spree tied directly to the Russia-Ukraine war. Saudi Arabia perhaps tops that list, which is why the Kingdom – which has extremely ambitious development plans – is unlikely to break this spree and self-destruct its own growth.
Last week, a report on the Saudi economy showed the Kingdom’s oil sector – which is the primary beneficiary of the Russia-Ukraine war – grew at a whopping rate of more than 23 per cent. This growth is good for the Kingdom insofar as it is the key to the money that the Kingdom needs to finance its development projects, such as the ambitions US$1 trillion dollar ‘glass city’ in Neom, called “The Line.”
The oil-driven growth spree is not limited to this sector alone. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that the Saudi economy is likely to grow at 7.6 per cent this year, which is already the highest growth rate among the world economies for 2022. In its world economic outlook for 2022, the IMF said that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia contradict the bleak and ambiguous outlook that stems from several main factors including the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, the restrictions of monetary policies in Europe.” The title of its report – “Gloomy and More Uncertain” – clearly does not apply to the Kingdom.
Does Saudia sound like a country needing, desperately, US help to survive and do everything it can to gain US support? Quite the contrary. The Kingdom sounds like a country that can virtually follow an autonomous policy path – something that the Kingdom has done so far and is likely to continue as well.
Consider this: a crucial part in helping Saudi Arabia achieve this level of growth in the second quarter of 2022 has been played by its oil partnership with Russia. In the second quarter of 2022, Saudi Arabia imported 647,000 tonnes of Russian oil. Not only is this purchase a direct assault on western efforts to sabotage the Russian economy via sanctions and push it into recession, but the very fact that Saudi Arabia has doubled its purchase of Russian oil means that the Kingdom saw in the discounted Russian oil a lucrative opportunity to reap in profits from the record high prices in the international market.
Given the reciprocity – which is strikingly absent at the moment from the US-Saudia ties – the Kingdom’s payoffs are too high to be sacrificed at the altar of the US bid to expand NATO and protect its own global hegemony. This is why Saudi Arabia is still committed to the OPEC+ deal with Russia.
On July 29, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak met Saudi Arabia’s energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman and both reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining market stability and the balance of supply.
The meeting came after an earlier direct telephonic conversation between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and M.B.S. This conversation came less than a week after Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which shows how little impact Biden’s visit had on Saudia’s ruling establishment.
The Putin-M.B.S. talk fits well into the ongoing geopolitics of securing more and more allies to their own sides. For Russia, an oil partnership with Saudia to maintain the OPEC plus is the key. As Saudia’s growth rate shows, this partnership is crucial for the Kingdom as well. There is, thus, an opportunity for both countries to expand their ties from a focus on geoeconomics to geopolitics.
This possibility is at the heart of Saudi efforts to join BRICS, a grouping that includes Russia and China and has its own basket-type reserve currency that not only challenges the US dollar but also resonates with their bid to create a new, alternative world order. This move also aligns neatly with the Kingdom’s own efforts to reduce its dependence on the US and assert its autonomy.
A lot of this is being facilitated by Joe Biden’s own dilemma. He earlier accused M.B.S. of ordering the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. He promised to make Saudia a “pariah” state, thus raising his political stakes too high to be conveniently set aside as and when he deemed fit. Therefore, when Biden came to meet M.B.S. to supposedly “mend” ties, he was unable to shrug off that legacy of making Saudia a “pariah” state. Indeed, western mainstream media reported that Biden “confronted” M.B.S. over Khashoggi’s murder, which means that his visit was unable to break the clog in any meaningful way, leaving the US president trapped in his own net.
With M.B.S. stronger than ever, it is obvious that his shadow over the Kingdom’s policies is likely to remain quite large. With the Saudi economy growing faster than ever – which shows the Crown Prince’s success as a ruler – means that M.B.S. is likely to stay the course benefitting his rule.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.