Saudi Arabia’s King Salman will head an official delegation on October4-7, 2017 to have meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin and senior government officials, the first ever visit by a Saudi King to Moscow since the foundation of the Kingdom.
The visit, which has been postponed several times earlier, is gaining significance due to the success of preliminary visits by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to Russia since he took over the Ministry of Defense in 2015, during which he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a number of senior Russian officials.
Several landmark pacts are expected to be signed during the King’s visit to Russia, which primarily seeks to further enhance its political image in the Islamic world. Moscow has tried for decades to act as a mediator in many Middle East conflicts, starting from intervening in Iraq by convincing Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait as well as trying to counsel former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Russia: The polar shift
King Salman’s visit to Moscow demonstrates that Saudi Arabia is trying balancing its relations with the two superpowers: the US and Russia.
The importance of the visit stems from statement of Dimitry Peskov, the Russian president’s spokesperson, who said that “Saudi Arabia is a country that plays a key role in Arab affairs. It is a leader in the Arab world. We in Russia seek to boost dialogue with Riyadh on various issues of common concern, including the current situation in the Middle East and in Syria in particular.”
Politically, Saudi Arabia has been supporting the Syrian opposition against Bashar Al-Assad. This has changed recently when Saudi government asked the Syrian opposition to think of means to save their country and to start the reconciliation process. Russia believes that its military support to the Syrian army has changed the balance of power on the ground and has created the four de-escalation zones that could bring an end to the war.
The visit at this critical time indicates that Russia has proven its presence in the Middle East and is giving due importance to Riyadh’s political and strategic status in Russia-Arab relationsShehab Al-Makahleh
This success has been viewed by Saudis as an indicator of the role Russians may play in the future of the Middle East, at a time when Americans have started reducing their political and military presence. This has prompted states in the Middle East to head eastward toward China and Russia.
Furthermore, the Saudi king’s focus will be on Moscow’s ties with Qatar and Iran. Although Moscow may not reconsider replacing its old allies with new ones, Russia and Saudi Arabia can work toward improving their economic relations. Since mid-1950s Russia started to forge strategic alliances with Third World nations that eventually culminated in its stand to support the Syrian government in its so-called “war against terrorism”.
As regards the Qatari issue with other GCC states, the Russian stand is that it would work as a mediator. However, Russians have felt that Saudis are leading a major change in the region which should be beneficial at every level. Amongst the items on the agenda is the Iranian influence in the Arab region, including Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Qatar.
The Saudis are aware that Russians will not change their stand toward Iran overnight as they have made Iran their strategic partner. The rise of a Turkish-Iranian alliance is another issue that Saudi Arabia is concerned about.
The Syrian scenario
On the other hand, Russians would like to see greater clarity in the strategy of the Saudi government’s position towards some regional issues starting from Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Moscow believes that the best solution to the Syrian issue is a transitional body for reaching a consensus in the aftermath of Geneva and Astana conferences and this should be reached only by Syrians themselves who would decide the future of the Syrian state and the future of the Syrian president as well through democratic decentralisation or pluralistic decentralisation formulas for the prospective settlement of the Syrian conflict. This is a message Russian officials would convey to the Saudi officials.
Over the past two years, Moscow has become an important political hub for many Arab leaders, Libyan government officials, Yemenis, Iraqis, Kurds, Turkish and North African officials, who have converged on Moscow to discuss means for solving issues bedevilling the Middle East.
Putin and the crown prince
Putin hosted Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the Kremlin on May 30, where both leaders gave the green-light to their governments to bolster cooperation in various fields including oil, renewable energy and infrastructure projects.
The visit of the crown prince to Moscow was timely as it came on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh on May 21 where he held talks with over 30 Arab and Muslim leaders.
This was reiterated by Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al Jubair in his interview with Sputnik news agency a few days ago when he said that the visit of King Salman will be historic because “it will symbolize the extent of the relationship and consultations that take place between the two countries. Our two countries are more closely aligned to each other than what some analysts try to portray.” This statement reveals how far Saudi government seeks to take relations between both Riyadh and Moscow.
The Saudi minister highlighted the objectives of the visit, starting from increased financial investments by both countries in their economies, as well as the nurturing of cultural, educational, scientific relations and cooperation to enhance areas of security to counter extremism and terrorism in the region.
On the economic front, a number of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with Russian companies will be signed. Saudi Aramco and Saudi Basic Industries Corp (SABIC) will sign MoU with CIBOR, Russia’s largest petrochemical company, and shall discuss opportunities to build petrochemical plants in the two countries.
Saudi Arabia and Russia, the world’s top oil producers, have worked closely together over the past year to reach an agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers to cut global output and boost prices. Other agreements are expected to be signed, including MoU between Saudi Aramco and Novatech, the largest non-state gas producer in Russia. There will also be discussion on investment opportunities in the gas sector.
Moscow and Riyadh are slated to have joint projects in petrochemical industries and LNGs with expectations that Rosneft and Aramco will be signing huge projects on this visit. Russia’s sovereign wealth fund is also involved in the final stage of negotiations with Saudi partners on major Russian projects in the kingdom, which includes establishing a new investment platform in energy and infrastructure sectors. Saudi Arabia has signed a preliminary agreement for nuclear cooperation with Russia in 2015. The kingdom has recently announced plans to build its first nuclear power plant with a capacity of 2.8 GW.
Russian leaders look forward to gaining strategic leverage in order to enable them to curb any polarization in the Middle East, even though this is difficult to change in a short time as many Arab countries are pro-West, since they gained their independence in last century with the exception of Syria.
The King’s visit to Moscow at this critical time indicates that Russia has proven its presence in the Middle East and for its part is giving due importance to Riyadh’s political and strategic status in Russia-Arab relations.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME.