By Suzanne Sulika Rothman
Since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, Azerbaijan focused its foreign policy efforts on balancing relations between the major powers in the region and building strong ties to Europe. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia fine-tuned its foreign policy to bolster its long-standing alliance with the United States and to cement its influence in the Middle East. As a result, relations between Baku and Riyadh remained in somewhat a dormant state. Until recently that is.
The past six months have seen an increase in the level of cooperation between Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia. In light of their mutual lack of interest, the question beckons to be- asked: why try now?
The answer may be correlated to Iran's efforts of rapprochement with the West.
Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to recognized Azerbaijan's independence, and was one of the nations to aid Azerbaijan in the wake of the war with Armenia. Thus, the two enjoyed amicable relations, but were never particularly close. Since Riyadh's declaration that Azerbaijan is its "main partner in the region," in 2012 the tide began to change. Azerbaijan is playing and will continue to play an important role in the international arena in the future. It is a bridge between the East and the West, Saudi Arabia's deputy foreign minister, Prince Khaled Bin Saud Bin Khaled told Trend in June 2012.
In December 2013 the head of SAGIA (Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority), Abdullatif al-Othman, visited Baku and concluded an agreement to invest in Azerbaijan's petrochemical and refining sectors with the Azeri government. The two governments signed a total of twelve economic agreements and put ten more in the works. In addition to bolstering their economic collaboration, Riyadh and Baku ]resolved to upgrade their relationship in the spheres of culture and education.
Economic cooperation between two OIC members who also share an Islamic heritage is not all too surprising and can be viewed as financial pragmatism. However, in addition to the sudden increase in trade and investment, the Saudis and Azerbaijanis began to cooperate on security issues. In April 2014 the General Director of Border Guard of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia visited Azerbaijan to discuss border security agreements.
Additionally, in late 2013 the two governments reached an extradition agreement as part of a security protocol, which also called for a joint fight against crime and terrorism.
Azerbaijan and the KSA's recent upgrade of bilateral relations can be seen as a Saudi effort to diminish Iran's influence in the region and the Muslim world at large.
The Saudis and Iranians have long been regional rivals, with both vying for hegemony. Until now, the Saudi government enjoyed the full support of the United States against the Islamic Republic, but with the election of Rouhani and resumption of talks between Iran and the West the political situation changed. More than ever now, the Saudis view Iran as a threat and are concerned that the US's support is waning.
Disaffected by the U.S.'s recent overtures to the Islamic Republic, Riyadh's likely response to seek new alliances to strengthen its security and augment its clout in the region. Azerbaijan is a particularly attractive ally because it is already a sometimes rival of Iran. Certainly, Azerbaijan's quarrels with Tehran are not at all like the bitter enmity between the Ayatollahs and the al-Saud family. Still, the existence of distrust between Azerbaijan and its neighbor to the south provide an opening for a Saudi alliance. Baku also stands to gain, as Saudi money will flow into its growing economy and strengthen it. Politically, having a wealthy and powerful ally like the KSA will help Azerbaijan attain a more balanced foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran and Russia and not rely on Turkey as its sole true ally.
There are, however, drawbacks. Azerbaijan has demonstrated that its reluctance to defy Iran by supporting its adversaries. When the media reported that Azerbaijan might allow Israel to launch an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities from its bases, for instance, the Azerbaijani government swiftly denied the claims and proclaimed it would never allow its territory to be used by a foreign country to attack the Islamic Republic.
Furthermore, the Saudi government uses soft power by exporting its religious ideology to other countries, including Azerbaijan. In fact, some 200 Azerbaijanis are known to be fighting in Syria, many alongside Sunni forces that are buttressed by the Saudis. The staunchly secular Aliyev government has been constantly resisting such influences, which they perceive as a threat. And the government has banned its nationals from fighting in Syria.
In sum, the latest developments in Azerbaijani-Saudi relations, while not dramatic, should be understood in the context of the geopolitical situation. With Iran currying favor with the West while still maintaining its nuclear program, Riyadh's overtures towards Baku are likely part of its strategy to strengthen its clout in the region and contain Iran's influence.
Suzanne is a Fulbright ETA based in Baku, Azerbaijan. The views in this article are her own and do not reflect the views of the Fulbright Program, the US Embassy in Baku, or the US Department of State.