The Russians are coming to Saudi Arabia

Last week I attended a closed seminar organized by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the U.S. capital. It was mainly about the crises in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The looming nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran dominated the discussion, since it represents an important political turning point. Some of the attendees asked about reactions towards this deal and its potential consequences whether on political or military fronts. Others anticipated that the deal will provoke countries in the region, encouraging them to work on their own nuclear program, “without stopping to get what Iran got in the nuclear deal.”

This explains the great interest in Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Russia last week. From the visit, it was clear that Saudi Arabia has decided to move into the nuclear club, by building 16 nuclear reactors, while giving Russia the biggest role in operating the reactors. This does not necessarily mean that the kingdom’s focus is on armament, but it surely means that Riyadh has decided to enter the nuclear scene. Last month, the Saudi education minister signed off scholarships for 1,000 students to study energy technologies, including nuclear energy.

The nuclear club

In my opinion, the most important feature of the Deputy Crown Prince’s visit was that it was not customary; it took place at a time when the United States and its European allies decided to economically boycott Russia, sanctioning Moscow over events in Ukraine. This time, the Saudi government took an unusual step and decided to do the opposite: rekindle its relations with Moscow, grow business ties, and sign agreements and deals in vital fields such as gas and nuclear and military technologies. This is one of the rare times that Riyadh takes an opposing line to Washington. But the reason is clear: the Saudis who supported the Western position to boycott Iran for 20 years discovered that Washington betrayed them when it decided to collaborate with Tehran, without coming to an understanding with its partners who had joined the initial boycott!

Saudi Arabia wants Russia, which is a key player in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, to be on its side

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Of course, we shouldn’t read into any new developments outside political frameworks, because I can hardly imagine that Saudi Arabia has decided to turn against its alliances – but it probably wants to get out of the narrow U.S. corner, and expand its options.

Russia has always been an important country. It has recently decided to be an active key player in the region, at a time when the current U.S. administration chose to shrink its engagement policy, and adopt a policy that contrasts with the Gulf states that were facing difficult circumstances. The U.S. supported Baghdad despite its sectarian policies, and left the Assad regime in Syria to commit the greatest tragedy in the history of the region; 250,000 deaths and the displacement of 10 million. It seems that the negativity generated by Washington’s side and the dangerous outcomes resulting from its policies, made the Saudis think about expanding their choices and political investments in the East and West.

Although Saudi Arabia reinstated its relationship with Moscow nearly 14 years ago, it has remained limited. No important promises of cooperation had been implemented so far: Saudi Arabia did not buy Scud missiles as agreed, and Russia did not get anything out of the gas deals. However today, it appears that the Moscow–Riyadh road has become more active. Russia's ambassador to Riyadh, Oleg Ozerov, has said that Russia has been granted an area of land to build the new headquarters of the embassy in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter. In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin reiterated his call to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to visit Russia. President Putin has also received an invitation to visit Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia wants Russia, which is a key player in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, to be on its side. Russia plays an important role in the military balance with Iran, a task that will need intensive and incessant efforts.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 20, 2015.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.
 

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