Following the launch of the ambitious Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has started a new chapter in its history, turning itself from a US dependent indecisive closed shadow-country, to the mighty power of the Middle East, with enormous potential, strength, opening its doors to the whole world step by step.
Saudi Arabia is intensifying its diplomatic efforts to change its perception to start a new era.
The kingdom uses current challenging circumstances as opportunities for taking a new path and succeed in it. It successfully diversifies its investment flows, thus putting money in different baskets. It attracts foreign technologies that assist with boosting innovation in the kingdom, and it lays the basis of its independence from natural resources. It invests significant money in youths, their studies in Western countries, because upon their return they will bring the most precious treasure - knowledge - that will contribute to the successful development of the country. Through all these moves the kingdom also cuts its dependency from the US - an ally that is becoming less reliable and less predictable. So diversification of political ties is also an important move of the country to become stronger and less dependent on vicissitudes of fate.
Russia is one of the partners of the kingdom in its far reaching ambitious plans is, however not such an evident one. Bilateral ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia are permanently developing the last couple of years opening new opportunities for both countries and their business circles, but not moving as fast as they really could. Potential of bilateral relations development is extraordinary. But this potential is not opened and not properly used.
Russian purposes in Syria are not clear for the Kingdom at all. Why does Russia declare that its military contingency in Syria is to fight terrorism, but ISIS stays, mostly unhindered by Russian fighter planes, Palmyra is lost again, but Russia announces ending its military contingency in Syria after the fall of Aleppo?Maria Dubovikova
Bilateral ties, despite the more or less warm relations between the two governments, are dominated at least in the level of the two societies in general, by suspicions, mistrust and ignorance.
Saudi business circles are very poorly informed about doing business in Russia. They face significant language barriers each time they try to find counterparts in Russia, due to the low level of English proficiency among Russians. Western media is their key source information about Russia, as long as there is no Russian media source in Arabic or English they consider reliable and of a high quality. The public opinion of Saudis is dominated by numerous traditional stereotypes - vodka, bears on the streets, Matryoshka - no one really tries to tackle from the Russian side.
Russian laziness and passiveness of business also does not add any positiveness in the situation. Another problem business risk facing each time coming to Russia is at the least being stuck with security officers for several hours in the airport, or at worst being deported right from the border in the Russian airport - even with the relevant visa. It is hard to explain that this can happen to all people coming from the Middle East because of security measures, as such a situation happens to innocent people coming to develop business ties, and it is humiliating and demotivating to do anything on this track. Also business circles are paralyzed by the restrictively short visas given, limiting their business opportunities.
Getting Russian visas is in general the talk of the town. I still remember how I was inviting my colleague from France to take part in a conference in Moscow, and she decided to go with her husband, thus applying for a business visa herself, following the official invitation, and her husband applied for a tourism visa. He was refused for strange reasons, as his wife was going for business reasons, he could not go for tourism. She was given a three-day visa.
Nevertheless there are many common interests that can finally break down boundaries. Investment projects have all chances to be a true ram. However some political issues remain as sensitive points between the two countries. Two of them are Iran and Syria, and mostly they are connected.
For Riyadh, Russia’s close partnership with Iran is a reason for strong worries as it is considered as a threat for national interests. Mostly it is perceived as Moscow’s refusal to build on strong cooperation and friendship with the kingdom. This approach to the analysis is not right, however its roots are quite understandable.
In this context Russian cooperation with Iran in Syria raises many questions. The main being if Russia considers the possibility that Iranian geopolitical strengthening in the region through Shia communities has been used for its own interests, to bring destabilization of the region and sectarian wars?
Russian purposes in Syria are not clear for the Kingdom at all. Why does Russia declare that its military contingency in Syria is to fight terrorism, but ISIS stays, mostly unhindered by Russian fighter planes, Palmyra is lost again, but Russia announces ending its military contingency in Syria after the fall of Aleppo? These questions rarely receive properly articulated answers. And the problem is not even that there is nothing to say, but that Russia still does not pay much attention to the straight articulation of its positions and principles, that sometimes can have a feeling that it does not really know what it is doing and what the target is.
This vagueness creates a mistrust and an unwanted freedom to interpret as they choose. It also forms the climate where members at all levels are inclined to see the spread of obstacles, instead of forests of opportunities. Meanwhile positions of the two countries on many issues are common and can lay the perfect basis for an intense bilateral boost. The core is a proper communication and articulation of positions. Russia and Saudi Arabia both stand strong against terrorism, in the face of which both stay vulnerable.
In Syria both countries agree upon the need for a period under the control of the international community, the impossibility of Syrian federalization and fragmentation. Both countries consider the installation of a secular government in Syria important. In case of Iran Russia could play a role of a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran, assisting in easing of tensions and helping to build a constructive dialogue. As long as Donald Trump occupies the White House, Iran will supposedly become far more flexible and compliant.
No matter the difficulties experienced, the two countries have a mutual interest of developing bilateral ties and strengthening cooperation. But the main precondition of successful development of ties is firstly effective mutual prejudices fighting, the improvement of the climate of trust and fair cooperation.
Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme