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Saudi oil attacks: How Russia stands to benefit

Vladimir Putin did not wait long to suggest that Saudi Arabia could benefit from buying Russia's S-400 defence system
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 Summit in Osaka on 29 June (AFP)

The recent attacks on major Saudi oil facilities, which knocked out half of the kingdom’s oil production, herald a significant shift in approaches towards regional and global security.

As oil prices soared, the paradigm of a secure and protected Gulf under a US military umbrella started to crumble. Beyond the severe ramifications for the global oil market and economy, we should not underestimate the political and security aspects of these attacks - particularly with respect to Russia.

The situation has increased the value of stable and secure energy supplies, which plays directly into Moscow’s hands.

Vital infrastructure

Given its system of oil and gas pipelines to Europe, and the developing pipeline to China, Russia has established a reputation as a reliable energy supplier. Its ability to protect its vital energy infrastructure, which has not experienced major failures or attacks over the last several decades, bolsters this reputation further.

Moscow simply doesn’t face the same risks as Saudi Arabia in oil production and supply. 

Russia’s energy minister, Alexander Novak, said there was no need to increase oil output to compensate for the Saudi loss, noting that there was already enough in global stockpiles to manage the impacts. It would be hard for Russia to significantly increase its output in any event, as the country hit a new peak in production just last year.

Russia will likely use its diplomatic arsenal to help defuse tensions and preserve its relations with Saudi Arabia

At the same time, increased volatility in the Middle East could easily slide into a regional war, which would negatively influence many players politically and economically, including Russia. Moscow has no interest in augmenting the growing tensions in the Gulf.

Against this backdrop, Russia’s recent proposal for a collective security infrastructure in the Gulf is even more timely and relevant. Moscow would do well to use this opportunity to market its concept more actively, in a bid to initiate discussions at the regional level.

It also provides a chance for a diplomatic surge, with Russia and its European partners working to constrain further escalation in the region. 

Stabilising pillar

As a stabilising pillar for Gulf oil-producing countries, Moscow could reap other benefits from the latest crisis, namely in expanding the market for its military systems.

Going forward, Riyadh and other Gulf states may become more serious about purchasing Russian arms, including the S-400 and other air defence systems, including electronic warfare systems, to help protect their own important economic and oil infrastructure - a suggestion Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made. 

“We are ready to help Saudi Arabia protect their people,” Putin said this week. “They need to make clever decisions, as Iran did by buying our S-300, as [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan did by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 air-defence systems.

"These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack.”

A Russian military cargo plane carrying the S-400 missile defence system is unloaded northwest of Ankara on 27 August (Handout/Turkish Defence Ministry/AFP)
A Russian military cargo plane carrying the S-400 missile defence system is unloaded northwest of Ankara on 27 August (Handout/Turkish Defence Ministry/AFP)

Indeed, the attacks open up certain opportunities for Moscow to enhance its military-technical cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has been interested in purchasing Russian arms for awhile. The topic was on the agenda during King Salman’s 2017 visit to Moscow, and will likely arise again during Putin’s upcoming visit to the kingdom. 

A day after Putin made his comments about Saudi Arabia buying his country’s defence systems, Russia’s state military exporter, Rosoboronexport, announced that it would present the latest Russian systems for combating unmanned aerial vehicles and other air attack weapons at the Dubai Airshow in November.

Security calculations

On the other hand, Riyadh will likely face serious pressure and opposition from Washington if it decides to purchase Russian arms. And Putin’s “offer” could put Russia in a tricky position. He offered to sell Riyadh the most sophisticated version of Russia’s air defence systems, the S-400, while Iran has the S-300 version.

If Saudi Arabia does go for the S-400, this could drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran.

Saudi oil attacks: Weaponising oil in the Gulf
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Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region, while moving the region closer to an accidental slide into a war that no-one wants.

In this situation, Russia will likely use its diplomatic arsenal to help defuse tensions and preserve its relations with Saudi Arabia - a matter of critical importance in the run-up to Putin’s visit to the kingdom next month.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Alexey Khlebnikov
Alexey Khlebnikov is a MENA expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He holds an MA in global public policy and Middle Eastern studies. He was a Muskie fellow at the University of Minnesota Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs (2012-2014) and a research fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS in 2013.