Analysis - Political Transformations

Balanced Alternatives

What is the Significance of King Salman’s Visit to Russia?

Tuesday، October 10، 2017
Balanced Alternatives

King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s visit to Moscow, the first-ever by Saudi monarch to Russia, holds paramount significance. The visit is an important indicator of the changing Saudi foreign policy and its approaches in dealing with Russia, after a long period of relative reservation or caution in the openness of Riyadh towards Moscow. The visit indicates a Saudi desire to have more balanced options in its relations with super powers, especially the US.

Bolstering Bilateral Relations

The history of Saudi-Russian relations is marred by decades-long tense stages. Even this visit has been postponed several times, which means that conducting it in this particular time was significant, not only for Saudi Arabia but for Russia too.  

In this context, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “We hope that this visit will give a new powerful impetus to the development of bilateral relations, because the potential of our relations is much richer than the de facto situation, and we want to develop our dialogue in every possible way.” 

Tracking the major stages of the bilateral relations reveals that they were sometimes strained with some kind of hostility, due to the conflicting international and regional alliances of both parties until the end of the eighties of the last century. Remarkably, the Soviet Union was the first country to officially recognize Saudi Arabia in 1926, which was called “Kingdom of Hejaz and Sultanate of Najd and its Dependencies.” Later, the Soviet Union announced the closure of its diplomatic mission in Jeddah and severed its ties with the kingdom in April of 1938, after the Soviets recognized that the Kingdom would not embrace anti-western stance.

Diplomatic ties were restored once again on September 17, 1990, due to the participation of the Soviet Union in the international coalition, which drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The Saudi-Russian relations have developed further, and officials from the two countries exchanged official visits, including the visit of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to Moscow in 2003 (then Crown Prince), and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Kingdom in 2007.  

The visits of Prince Mohamed bin Salman (Deputy Crown Prince then) to Russia, in June and October 2015, achieved remarkable progress. Agreements were reached to invest USD10 billion in a partnership between the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF).

The moves towards cementing trade and economic cooperation between both sides have gathered momentum, as bilateral trade volume increased from USD 235 million in 2005 to USD 926 million in 2016, according to Saudi Arabia Foreign Ministry website.

Multiple Bets 

Despite the traditional alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia, resembled in President Donald Trump’s choice of the Kingdom to be his first leg of foreign tour as President of the US, the kingdom’s foreign policy aimed to diversify its allies. That is due to the alarming US policies. The US administration policies were marred by "confusion," particularly with regard to the commitments of allying with Saudi Arabia. On top of that comes the shrinking US role in the Middle East during Obama era at the expense of Saudi interests. 

Despite that Russia and Saudi Arabia were at loggerheads in most major regional conflicts, ranging from the war in Afghanistan, the Russian position towards Iran, down to the Syrian issue, some factors pushed both sides to seek rapprochement. The Kingdom is reconsidering its total reliance on the US due to several developments, including the US stance regarding the Iranian nuclear agreement, and the strained Saudi-American relations because of the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)

Riyadh found that the solution is to diversify its diplomatic alliances to strike balance in the region, including establishing communications with strong powers, even those who were previously reluctant to deal with such as Russia. This comes at a time where regional crises are growing, combined with the US reluctance in handling such crises.

The initial deal, announced by Saudi Arabia and Russia, to sell Riyadh S-400missile systems, is one of the most important outcomes of the visit. As the Congress continues to put impediments and obstacles to delay the delivery of the weapons to Saudi Arabia, which President Trump signed during his visit to Riyadh, this agreement was signed with Russia. The agreement ensures manufacturing the weapons in the Kingdom, in addition to selling Kornet-EM anti-armor systems, TOS-1A rocket launchers, the AGS-30 grenade launchers and the Kalashnikov AK-103.

Moreover, the two parties agreed to set up a project to manufacture S-400 air defense system and its maintenance in the Kingdom, thus securing the transfer of the know-how to the Kingdom. 

Interrelated Issues 

The kingdom is adopting a new policy that aims to provide itself with balanced options. Yet, the remaining question is; what are the implications of the Saudi-Russian rapprochement? Particularly that Moscow has leverage over the region’s conflicts, and that the kingdom seem to be aware of the influential Russian role in the region, which can be illustrated as follows: 

1- Syrian conflict: The Syrian conflict is one of the prominent issues that could be affected by developing stronger relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Speculations suggest that the visit may narrow the gap between both sides, as Russia has not changed its position towards Syria, especially regarding its support for the Assad regime. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia does no longer talk much about the need to oust Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s backing for Assad regime and its military intervention to prop up him were among the core confrontational issues between the two countries. 

According to some analysts, the Kingdom may convene a meeting of the Syrian opposition in mid-October in Riyadh, to urge them to restructure their political demands and unify their ranks.

2- Iranian policies: The Russian stance towards Iran is a thorny issue in the relationship of the two countries. Accordingly, one of the motives behind Saudi Arabia rapprochement with Moscow is to try to detach Russia as much as possible away from Iran, to restrain the growing Iranian influence in the region.  

The Kingdom tried to change Russia’s supporting position to Iran in 2015, by pumping investments estimated at USD 10 billion in Russia. Nevertheless, it did not make a breakthrough. The Royal visit may contribute to change that situation to serve the Saudi interests. The kingdom bets on getting Russia’s help in its attempts to curb the Iranian influence in the region, whether in Syria or Yemen or elsewhere.

3- Oil production: Oil is an important issue that can reinforce the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Russia. The two are the largest oil producers in the world and agreed in 2016 to cut the overall production by about 1.8 million barrels per day. The agreement was extended till the first of March 2018. The success of the two countries in reducing the global oil surplus, which pushed crude oil prices to the lowest level in 13 years, is a significant step in strengthening their relationship.

Overall, it would be wrong to view the Saudi-Russian rapprochement as a substitute for the Saudi-American relations. It was not a coincidence that the announcement of the visit of King Salman to Russia was followed also by announcement of the King’s visit to the US early next year. Yet, the kingdom is clearly keen to develop a more balanced policy in the region, based on its national interests. Divergence in policies is expected to continue between Moscow and Riyadh over a number of regional issues, including Iran. Yet, King Salman’s visit to Russia at such time is certainly a significant strategic move.

Keywords: Saudi ArabiaRussiaUSKing Salman