In a world where power and influence are increasingly shifting into Moscow's orbit, Saudi Arabia is realizing the importance of diversifying its relationships outside of the US embrace.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia, recently visited the Russian capital Moscow, describing it as a historic visit, since it was the first visit of a Saudi monarch to the Russian Federation.
The ideological differences between the two countries are clear. While Saudi Arabia leads the Sunni Muslim world, Russia is the heir to the ‘Communist’ Soviet Union, which collapsed in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Despite the international media spotlight on this visit, and attempts to make it ‘extraordinary’, it comes as a culmination of visits, in 2015 and 2017, by the Saudi Minister of Defence and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of the Saudi monarch, to Russia.
Arguably, these visits prepared the ground for Saudi–Russian relations in accordance with the country’s new vision of international relations based on mutual interests - which arose after the descendants of the founder of the third Saudi state reached the foremost leadership ranks.
After the visit of US President Donald Trump to the Saudi capital Riyadh in May this year, and the resultant multi-billion dollar deals and contracts between the two countries in all fields, the Saudi king’s visit to Russia confirms Riyadh’s determination to diversify its alliances beyond its traditional ally, the USA. This is despite the Saudi leaders’ assertion that the relationship with Washington will remain strategic, far-reaching, and irreplaceable.
Certainly, Moscow and Riyadh’s visions differ on issues of conflicts raging in the Middle East, especially in Syria. While Saudi Arabia supports some opposition factions seeking to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Moscow supports Assad and his regime, contributing its soldiers and equipment in his fight for survival, having found a foothold on the Mediterranean coast.
On the other hand, since 2015, Saudi Arabia has led an Arab military alliance to confront the Houthis and the forces of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, allied with Houthis, and Russia is turning a blind eye to the war in Yemen. Arguably Moscow and Riyadh concur on playing a role in the region while steering clear of a collision course.
Russia and Saudi Arabia have a number of shared interests, perhaps the most important of which are Iran and energy. Moscow has had distinguished relations with Tehran for decades, and both countries have mutual interests in various parts of the Middle East, especially in Syria.
By contrast, Saudi–Iranian relations reached a turning point after Riyadh cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2016. This followed the burning and ransacking of Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad by angry Iranian demonstrators, after Riyadh executed the Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. Therefore, Russia’s potential role in easing tensions between Tehran and Riyadh is understandable.
On the other hand, energy is the mainstay of the economy in both countries. Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading exporter of oil. Russia is the world’s leading exporter of gas, and it also has large oil reserves. It should be noted that the December 2016 agreement between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and a number of oil-producing countries outside the international organisation, including Russia—to reduce oil production globally—contributed greatly to alleviating the oil financial crisis, which began in mid-2014, when oil prices dropped to less than $30 per barrel.
In addition to Iran and energy, two key factors are behind Riyadh’s quest to strengthen ties with Moscow. The first is the imbalance of power in the Middle East since the signing of the nuclear agreement with Tehran by the P5+1 in July 2015. This has destabilised the confidence of Gulf governments in general, and decision makers in the USA in particular, who see the agreement as favouring Tehran at Riyadh’s expense. Consequently, Saudi Arabia is trying to restore the necessary balance to achieve its interests by diversifying its alliances.
Another factor behind Saudi openness to Russia is the Saudi leadership’s awareness that the world is no longer unipolar, as was the case after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
After Moscow entered the war in Syria as a key player, in September 2015, a ‘bipolar world’, with Russia at one end, began to take shape.
It is no secret that the Saudi leadership is paving the way for the accession of the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Therefore, key players in the international community are being cultivated.
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