I defined two current axes: Russia-Germany-Turkey-Kurdistan-Saudi (RGTKS) and Russia-France-Iraq-Iran-Lebanon (RFIIL). But a third emerging powerful axis is possible: The US-SDF-Kurdistan-Qatar. The most recent events showed that US was incapable of breaking ranks of European countries.
Will Kurdistan’s independence completely shift policies in the Middle East? Only if Kurdistan is not on Russian axis and is re-positioned by US away from Russia. I will tackle this subject in the light of the Saudi shifting policies.
A Different Russian-Saudi Arabia Relationship
This time Russia-Saudi Arabia’s relationship is different from past approaches on all scales:
- Diplomatic relationships between both countries were frozen from 1938 till 2003. In 2015 ties began to develop, but this is the first official visit of Saudi King Salman to Russia. Putin once visited Saudi in 2007. PS: FDI 2015 had different circumstances than FDI 2017.
- Aramco-Rosneft are primary key-players at FDI. In June 2017, Financial Times reported that: “Gazprom is in advanced talks with Aramco about possible sharing of drilling technology.” This was a sign that cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia on energy policy could soon be replicated at the company level.
- Other projects to be concluded include: the petrochemical, energy, infrastructure (air, land, sea industry) and other industrial sectors.
- Trade between both countries has been prospering. The volume increased from $235 millions in 2005 to $926 millions in 2015. Saudi Arabia’s exports amounted $155.3 millions, while imports from Russia were at $770.7 millions.
- During FDI 2017, Saudi culture, folklore, cinema will be introduced to the Russian public and discussed. FDI guests will be even able to take a virtual tour into a reproduced Saudi city via VR-technology. This indicates toward a different kind of relationship: A relationship based on respecting “Wahhabi” Saudi Arabia and promoting it as a “civilized” country adequate for a partnership.
- In an observation of the Kremlin propaganda state’s media tendencies, a U-Turn toward Saudi is noticed. Saudi was previously permanently under indirect media attack. Not to mention, that a totalitarian state like Russia has a one-sided media. This means, it has a coherent and coordinated diffusion of information backing the government, its goals and its elite tycoons.
- Putin’s political genius relies on proxies such as Iran and Hezbollah to attack Saudi Arabia, while he plays the savior and negotiator.
Is a Cartel possible?
So far, there is no indication toward building a cartel between Saudi Arabia and Russia, because of the RFIIL-axis and its conflict of interests. Additionally, there are other factors which could prohibit a cartel:
- Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Germany was approved in April and will cost about $12 billion. The financing is a shared investment of 50% through European countries and 50% through Gazprom.
- The recent Head of UNIFIL Beary dispute with US Haley and Israel was in favor of Moscow. This indicates toward an internal UN dynamic dealing differently with the Middle East than previous decades. It empowers Kremlin’s position.
- Macron’s double-games leverage France, benefit Russia and the markets of EU countries. Macron’s green light from Jordan to accept Assad led to creating a safe-zone in South Syria along Jordan-Israel-Syria border. Iran signed deals with Total France as well as other companies, thus the alternating French statements below, highlight Macron’s potential role and the extension in building the RFIIL axis:
- attacking the Kremlin and simultaneously being a medium for US-Russia negotiations,
- rejecting and accepting Assad,
- meeting Lebanon’s Aoun and reinforcing Assad,
- French companies are investing in Lebanon’s oil and gas.
- Qatar is in a weak position between both axes.
- The Turkish Stream gas pipeline, which will cost about $13 billions urged Turkey to protest possible EU sanctions against Russia and condemned US sanctions.
- These US sanctions and its presence in Syria and Iraq complicate Russia’s and Europe’s strategic economic decisions. Yet the following must be observed:
What the FDI 2017 means
At FDI a common Russian-Saudi fund worth 10 Billion dollars will be created, financed from Russia’s Direct Fund and Saudi’s public investment fund. This will consolidate Russia’s leading status in the energy market and the incapability of US to marginalize and isolate it, despite sanctions and boots in Syria and Iraq.
Moreover, talks between both countries are in their last stage at FDI. Through this fund, Saudi is giving Russian companies access to invest inside Saudi Arabia and other countries in the field of petrochemical, energy, transportation, agriculture and other industries. The agreements are made between the governing rulers of Russia and Saudi Arabia, thus Russian companies within the ruling mafia will get the contracts. It is obvious that Saudi is helping Russia circumvent US sanctions and enabling its companies (Putin gov-linked companies) to invest in several countries under the cover of an FDI fund.
A look at the participants to FDI 2017 reveals in which direction the Russian-Saudi goals are heading. Some of the listed companies include: Public Investment Fund (PIF), Russian energy company Gazprom, Saudi Arabian Oil Company Saudi Aramco, SABIC, SIBUR, AEROFLOT, RUSAL, Grain Silos and Flour Mills, OZK, Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company, Rusagro Group.
“US new sanctions are introduced on entities doing business with Russian military or intelligence agencies, companies involved in Russian off-shore oil projects, and those participating in Russian oil or gas pipeline construction within Russia. The bill targets a wide range of Russian industries.”
What does Saudi Arabia get in return? Leveraging Saudi in Syria and marginalizing Qatar is possible. Saudi clearly wants from Russia to rehabilitate its reputation and market its country as well as crown prince Bin Salman and Vision 2030 in international forums with the help of Russian state media and individual networks. Reducing Qatar’s, Iran’s and Turkey’s regional influence and holding them in check. Acknowledging Kurdistan as an independent state and supporting Sunni of Iraq to get an independent state in Anbar. Supporting Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea project and more.
How will regional and global governments react?
What other governments will do to thwart Russia’s expansion depends on how they evaluate their losses and gains in supporting or boycotting Russia, and evaluating Russia’s power and its effect on short and long term.
Is a U.S.- Qatar — SDF regions — Kurdistan axis possible? One may think that without Turkey it would be impossible, at the contrary it is possible and important to exclude Turkey in order to weaken the positions of Turkey, Russia and Europe verse US-axis. Russia is aware that LNG can be sold to Europe through Asian markets. LNG can be also sold by Kurdistan without including Turkey. The Syrian Democratic Forces led by the US possess a rich oil and gas area. The oil fields in the resource-rich province of Hasaka in North Syria account for more than half of Syria’s 370,000 barrels a day. Fifty percent of the oil block in Hasaka was being operated by Gulfsands, a London-listed company, covering an area of 5,414 square kilometers. Oil payments were made to Rami Makhlouf, the first cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now Makhlouf is indebted to Gulfsands Petroleum which suspended his shares in the company. Gulfsands has been in Syria for more than a decade and owns half an oilfield with China’s Sinochem. Following the imposition of EU sanctions on Sept. 2, 2011, production by Gulfsands fell from 14,500 barrels per day (bpd) to 6,000 in October 2011. Production was completely shut down in March 2012 as a result of sanctions targeting Syria’s economy. A production manager working for the state Syrian Petroleum Company told Executive Magazine that the Syrian regime still operates the field without Gulfsands. Reports indicate that although much of Hasaka province is controlled by the PYD’s armed group, the People’s Defence Units (YPG), the regime still operates the oil fields and controls the security. According to a recent report on the Kurdish news website Welati, the oil city of Remelan has been surrounded by Assad forces and handed over to Arab tribes. In August, Assad, Hezbollah, Russia and Iran struck a deal with ISIS over Deir Ezzor and were able to take over several gas and oil fields within hours. SDF sources told me they will continue to Mayadeen and Bou Kamal which also contain further oil and gas fields. (See my report on ISIS-Hezbollah deal for details).
Whether the U.S. decides to support an independent Kurdistan is also related to other factors, but one thing is definite, at this concrete stage, Iraq is and will remain hijacked by Iran in the presence of Iran’s Shiite proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Most Middle Eastern remain hostile to U.S. and in general despise Western values despite the rulers’ progressive thoughts with the exception of SDF areas and Kurdistan, but for how long? U.S. policies are continuing to make it lose for Russia. It’s time for the U.S. to evaluate why Putin with less resources gained more trust and less hostility in the Middle East.
Joumana Gebara — President, CEO at MidEastAnalyst and Senior SME Analyst at MEA Study and Strategy Center.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Linkedin on October 1, 2017 and on MEA Studies on October 3, 2017
History of Saudi Arabia — Russia ties
The Russian — Saudi relationship began with a letter dated 19 February 1926 in which the former Soviet Union was the first country to officially recognize the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — which was known as Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd till 1932. The official communication between the two countries culminated in a historic visit to Moscow by King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz in 1932 when he was foreign minister during the reign of his father, King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the kingdom. In 1938, the office of the Soviet diplomatic mission was closed in Jeddah and diplomatic relations between the two countries broke down.
After almost 50 years, the new reinstated relationship began 17 September 1990 through the issuance of a joint statement to resume diplomatic relations between the two countries and were reinforced by a visit to Russia by King Abdullah in 2003 when he was crown prince. Then King Salman bin Abdul Aziz visited Russia in 2006 when he was an emir of the Riyadh region and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visited Saudi-Arabia in 2007. Trade and economic cooperation between the two countries gradually began to form between the two countries after mutual visits. However relations between the two countries were strained during the Syrian Civil War in which Russia supported Syrian President Bashar Assad while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supported the Syrian rebels. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that if Saudi Arabia along with Turkey went forth with their invasion plans and invaded Syria, it would lead to World War III.
The Saudi-Russian relations took a new dimension and a qualitative leap after two visits by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman and his talks with the Russian president in June and October of 2015. The two countries signed agreements to expand cooperation in all fields, most notably the agreement to invest $10 billion in a partnership between the Public Investment Fund of the Kingdom and the Russian Fund for Direct Investments.
Saudi Russian Investment Forum 2017
The Russian-Saudi Investment Forum will be held on October 5 in and already has a hashtag! #KSAandRussia. On October 5 King Salman will also visit Russia.
The first seminar will be led by the Saudi Minister of Trade and Investment Majid Al-Qasabi. In addition to a speech by Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak and other ministers from both countries. To be followed by a speech by the Saudi-Russian Business Council, which will include an introduction to the vision of Saudi Arabia 2030 The first symposium will be held under the title “The Future of Energy” in the presence of the presidents of Gazprom and Saudi Aramco. The second part of the seminar focuses on “Locating the Energy Industry”. The second symposium will focus on the importance of the transport sector, which is very important in the field of cooperation between the two countries. The third symposium will discuss the opportunities of agricultural investments between the two countries.
Joumana Gebara — Senior SME and Analyst at MEA Study and Strategy Center
Saudi Aramco Fact-sheet
According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, the state-run Saudi Aramco is worth between 2 trillion US Dollars and $3 trillion US Dollars. Saudi Aramco is the world’s largest daily oil producer, at 12.5 million bpd, almost three times more than Exxon Mobil’s (5.3 million bpd), according to Forbes. In second position comes Russia’s Gazprom, which produces 9.7 million bpd. Additionally, the Saudi firm has the largest proven oil reserves on the planet, controlling reserves of 260 million barrels of oil which account for nearly a fifth of all the world’s oil. East Asia is the main destination for its crude oil exports, representing 65% of total foreign sales. The US is the second most important market with 16%, while northwest Europe and the Mediterranean combined receive 12.8%. Saudi Aramco also has the fourth largest natural gas reserves in the world, at a total of 297.6 of the Russian colossus Gazprom is natural gas. The state-owned enterprise was originally formed in 1933, when Standard Oil of California — now Chevron — was granted exploration rights in Saudi Arabia. The government progressively bought the company’s local assets, and by 1988 it took full control and renamed the corporation Saudi Aramco.
Oil Consortium from 1940 till 1973
“Seven Sisters” was a common term for the seven multinational oil companies of the “Consortium for Iran” oligopoly or cartel, which dominated the global petroleum industry from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s. Alluding to the seven mythological Pleiades sisters fathered by the titan Atlas, the business usage was popularized in the 1950s by businessman Enrico Mattei, then-head of the Italian state oil company Eni. The industry group consisted of: Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP), Gulf Oil (later part of Chevron), Royal Dutch Shell, Standard Oil Company of California (SoCal, now Chevron), Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (Esso, later ExxonStandard Oil Company of New York (Socony, later Mobil, now part of ExxonMobil, Texaco (later merged into Chevron). Preceding the 1973 oil crisis, the Seven Sisters controlled around 85 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves. Since then, industry dominance has shifted to the OPEC cartel and state-owned oil and gas companies in emerging-market economies, such as Saudi Aramco, Gazprom (Russia), China National Petroleum Corporation, National Iranian Oil Company, PDVSA (Venezuela), Petrobras (Brazil), and Petronas (Malaysia).According to consulting firm PFC Energy, by 2012 only 7% of the world’s known oil reserves were in countries that allowed private international companies free rein. Fully 65% were in the hands of state-owned companies.