Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union agreed Monday, after more than 50 years of mutual suspicion and often open hostility, to resume normal diplomatic relations in a far-reaching shift of Middle East alliances.
Meeting in the Kremlin with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said the Soviet Union’s firm stand against Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait had encouraged his country, long an opponent of Soviet activity in the Middle East, to restore full relations with Moscow.
“We hope that, faced with the world community’s unanimity, Iraq will agree to the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of its troops from Kuwait and will restore legality there,” Saud said after meeting earlier with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze.
A joint statement published by Tass, the official Soviet news agency, said the two countries were “guided by the desire to develop friendly ties between them for the good of the people of both states.”
The two pledged to “work actively to achieve the settlement of regional conflicts, develop international cooperation and strengthen overall peace and security.”
Soviet officials believe, as Tass’ diplomatic correspondent put it, that “the restoration of diplomatic relations amid an acute crisis in the Arab East emphasizes the resolve of both states to insist on the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions on the Persian Gulf, in cooperation with other members of the international community.”
In fact, the Soviet Union is counting on its move to tell Iraq--even more firmly than its previous condemnations of the invasion and occupation of Kuwait--that their previous relationship is over and that Moscow is now firmly aligned with Baghdad’s foes. The Soviets had armed Iraq for three decades.
“The image of Saud al Faisal with Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin should convey as strong a message as that of Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush in Helsinki last week,” Igor P. Belayev, a leading Soviet specialist on the Middle East, commented in an interview, referring to the superpower summit meeting.
“Saddam Hussein (the Iraqi president) should know that he is isolated, that he cannot win, that he must withdraw. I think that Saddam Hussein will begin to understand his vulnerability.”
Even without formal relations, the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia had been exchanging political views and discussing developments in Middle East issues and the world oil market, according to Soviet officials. The move had been forecast for some months.
The increasingly severe economic crisis in the Soviet Union has prompted considerable speculation in recent weeks among Arab and Western diplomats and bankers that Saudi Arabia may provide financial assistance. This aid could include low-interest or no-interest loans, participation in an international fund to underwrite Gorbachev’s planned reforms or even direct investment in Soviet development projects, some speculated.
“There is a natural economic affinity between Saudi Arabia, as the world’s largest oil exporter, and the Soviet Union, as the largest oil producer,” commented a prominent Middle East banker based in London. “Each wants to see the other stable, secure and prosperous. Saudi Arabia’s needs right now are obvious, and so are the Soviet Union’s.”
Nevertheless, the decision to resume full diplomatic relations reflected the sweeping changes in Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, as well as the Saudis’ acceptance that Moscow no longer is attempting to spread communism worldwide and thus does not threaten the kingdom’s political conservatism and Islamic orthodoxy.
In the past, the Soviet Union denounced Saudi Arabia as a reactionary, repressive regime and a tool of the United States in the Middle East. For its part, the Saudis saw the Kremlin promoting revolution in the Arab world and oppressing its large Muslim population and that of neighboring Afghanistan.
“We have changed,” Viktor A. Kriminyuk, a Middle East specialist at the U.S.A. Institute in Moscow, said in an interview. “In the past, we supported a lot of causes, did a lot of things, took a view of the world that made other countries very uneasy. . . .
“We are changing, and as we do so, others change in response. The dynamic of this ‘new political thinking,’ as we call it, is that straightforward, but its impact already is profound and--witness these recent developments--it is spreading in a region where the conflicts have been the most intractable.”
Looking further ahead, the Soviet Union sees friendly relations with Saudi Arabia as a key element in the role that it hopes to play with the United States in mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict, finding a solution to the Palestinian problem and ending the civil war in Lebanon.
“As long as our relations were characterized by suspicion--and not just suspicion but hostility to one another--then any efforts to resolve these multiple conflicts were almost bound to be frustrated,” said Belayev, the regional specialist. “How can anyone mediate if he himself cannot talk directly to all the parties?”
Similar logic had brought two Israeli Cabinet ministers, Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai and Science and Energy Minister Yuval Neeman, to Moscow over the weekend for two hours of discussions with Gorbachev on the Middle East.
According to Soviet officials, Gorbachev told the ministers that the Soviet Union, which broke diplomatic relations with Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, is ready to restore full ties as soon as Israel indicates a readiness to take part in negotiations laying the foundation for a Middle East peace conference.
The meeting, the first such contact in 23 years, was “much more than a gesture,” a senior Soviet official said Monday. “It was intended to open the door to Israel. We hope that they will now seriously consider entering the peace process.”
Meanwhile, Israeli and Soviet diplomats met to prepare for full talks later this month between the two countries’ foreign ministers at U.N. headquarters in New York, and a Soviet spokesman suggested that they reached a significantly larger measure of understanding than in past discussions.
“The gulf crisis has made clear the need to resolve immediately all the other conflicts in the region, first and foremost the Arab-Israeli conflict,” the Soviet spokesman said, summing up the talks.
The Soviet and Israeli delegations agreed, he said, that there is “an urgent need to create regional security structures and work out measures to facilitate the establishment of peace and stability for all Middle East peoples.”
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union were frozen in 1938 when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin withdrew first his chief envoy and then the whole mission from Saudi Arabia during one of his purges of the Soviet foreign service.
“Stalin called them home, maybe shot them and then forgot about Saudi Arabia,” Belayev said. “There was no other reason. Our relations had been quite good.”
In 1927, the Soviet Union had been the first country to recognize King Ibn Saud’s Kingdom of the Hijaz, as Saudi Arabia was then known, and a few years later it established one of the first diplomatic missions in Jidda.
Relations worsened after World War II. The Saudis, with their deep conservatism, formed an effective alliance with the United States and opposed the Soviet Union’s efforts to penetrate into the Arab world through support of “progressive forces” and their revolutions.
For its part, Saudi Arabia viewed virtually any Soviet move in the region with alarm. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 confirmed the Saudis’ worst fear: that Moscow was planning to move south by force, endangering not only the stability of the oil-rich region but also the Muslim heartlands.
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