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Saudi Arabia Ditches the US for Russia: Does It Matter?

Step back and calmly contemplate the geopolitical shift taking place in the Middle East. Does anyone realize what's happening beyond what the headlines read? The answer is may be.
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Step back and calmly contemplate the geopolitical shift taking place in the Middle East. Does anyone realize what's happening beyond what the headlines read? The answer is may be. Even before the United States and Iran reached a landmark deal this week to rein in Iran's nuclear program, the past 20 months of negotiations have seen one of the United States' strongest allies in the Middle East retreat in skepticism -- and straight into the embrace of an international adversary. But then is Saudi Arabia really our friend anymore?

The latest troubling evidence: A high-level delegation from Saudi Arabia attended a Russian-sponsored economic conference in a country targeted by punishing U.S. economic sanctions for its actions involving Ukraine. The real buzz, however, is that the visit of the Saudi crown prince was to deliver an invitation from King Salman for Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit the desert kingdom.

Mr. Putin didn't waste time accepting the invitation.

Is King Salman ditching the United States for Russia? Is a partnership between Russia and the kingdom in the making? Is Saudi Arabia's rapprochement with Russia payback for U.S. negotiations with fierce Muslim rival Iran over the latter's nuclear program? Answers to these questions aren't as simple as one might think.

Shockingly, when President Obama visited the kingdom in January of this year to attend the funeral of the late King Abdullah, King Salman in a clear diplomatic slight left our president, his wife and a staffer waiting alone in the palace till King Salman finished his mid-day prayer. The U.S. news media didn't report this incident. It was Al-Jazeera in Doha, Qatar, that reported the kingdom's insult.

I strongly believe that, in making Obama wait alone, King Salman sought to send a message that there's a new ruler in charge in the kingdom; that things will change drastically; and that Saudi Arabia will resolutely pursue its own interests, regardless of what the United States thinks and wants. In a further show of noncooperation, King Salman snubbed Obama several months later by not attending an international security summit at Camp David.

Against this backdrop, king Salman's invitation to Putin to visit Saudi Arabia could have a significant impact on the global oil market. Saudi Arabia's move suggests its willingness to allow Russia -- a non-OPEC oil producer -- to now have a voice when it comes to the oil cartel's strategic decisions regarding stable petroleum output and any rise in oil prices in the international market. Whether this move will provide Russia an actual opportunity to be critical part of the cartel's policy making regarding oil and gas production is anybody's guess. Yet, Saudi Arabia's latest investment of $10Billion in Russia sends a powerful message to the US. Using history as my guide, the kingdom tends to engage in this kind of political behavior to make the US rush into accommodating the Kingdom's needs whatever they might be.

Geopolitics is clearly at the heart of this diplomatic maneuvering, and for three main reasons. First, the kingdom is aware of the United States' declining dependence on oil resources from the Middle East (it's about time) because of domestic production. Second, the shift of wealth from West to East suggests that a huge economic transformation is unfolding offering the prospect of new partners. Third, as part of its own geopolitical strategy, Russia wants to further position itself as a major player in the Middle East since many countries in the region are disappointed with U.S. policies.

Some in the Middle East see Russia and China as potential economic partners. Could these blossoming relationships develop into military cooperation? The possibility is there since China and Russia are in position to provide military hardware to the kingdom.

Complications loom, however. One cannot ignore the fact Saudi Arabia and Russia are on opposite sides in key issues involving Iran, Syria and Yemen. Despite warming relations between Moscow and Riyadh, ongoing conflicts in the region will certainly limit how far any cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia goes. Both countries are engaged in a political game that will serve only their short-term goals.

Bottom line: No matter how this rapprochement plays out, international security analysts shouldn't see this sudden pivot of the Saudis toward Russia through Cold War lenses, where a country had to belong solidly to one bloc or the other. If the Middle East is proof of anything, it's that different alliances form on one hot-button issue or cause, then re-form in completely conflicting and confounding ways on the next.

The challenge for the United States is coming up with a foreign policy response that is consistent in principle, yet can endure increasingly fluid situations abroad. And that can't be easy.