The Saudi-Russian recent rapprochement is definitely not a coincidence and the decision to reset those relations had been made three years ago. It all started with King Salman taking power in Saudi Arabia in January of 2015. The newly assigned, aged and experienced King has been known for his reformist vision and thought. Therefore the world has sensed a new Saudi strategy in the past three years, whether in local, regional or global affairs. Rapprochement with Russia is not the only change, but the most interesting, with no doubt. This development can be added to each of, the Egyptian-Saudi rapprochement, the war in Yemen, the new car driving regulations and the ongoing arrests of “corrupt” royals and senior officials in Riyadh. I believe the decision to approach Moscow was mostly made by Saudis but very much welcomed by Russians.
Indeed, a lot has changed in the the world since 2015, not only the Saudi King. The Syrian conflict has de-escalated dramatically thanks to the Russian participation and diplomacy. Furthermore, Donald Trump came to power promising less US commitment to allies and specifically NATO. Also there is the signature of Iran Nuclear Deal by world powers. As follows, I will discuss each of the above and highlight their direct impact on Russia-Saudi rapprochement and future of Middle-East Politics in general.
The Russian direct participation in Syria’s conflict has changed rules of the game, and gave the Syrian government and its allies the upper hand by the year 2017. The Russian move was not as good news for the Saudis who have backed the anti-government militants for almost seven years. The US vague -Or undecided- stance towards Syria’s conflict left the Saudis without any tangible global support for their role in Syria. This is especially after Russia arrived to Syria. What further complicated the situation, for the Saudis, is the enhancement of Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syria and the start of Astana negotiation summits. Few months ago, the Saudis came to realise that they need to deal with Russia in Syria and that following the old strategy in militarily supporting the opposition is not going to bring any positive results. The balance of power has changed in Syria and Russia is not a regional player, it is a mighty military and global power, the Saudis understand this very well. This means that the Saudis must deal with Russia in order to achieve what they want in Syria, or at least preserve the minimum of their interests over there. The other Saudi option is to leave the Syrian field for Iran and Turkey and totally detach themselves from Syria and its ongoing war.
To Saudi Arabia, Russia is not an enemy nor a fierce competitor. It is the Iranian influence that Saudis fear the most, it is the historical enemy of Saudi Arabia, and both countries have waged proxy wars in each of Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. It is the modern “Cold War” of the Middle-East. One of the reasons Saudi Arabia did not join the Astana initiative is that Iran is a founder. The Saudis does not fear a Russian influence in Syria, but they rather fear an Iranian one. Plus, Russians and Saudis have a lot to discuss and cooperate such as Oil and Gas markets, they have to deal openly at some point. It is in none favour to go into a confrontation in Syria or the Middle-East. As a result, the Saudis had started to view the Russian role in the Middle-East as stability guaranteer. The Saudis also believe that Russia in Syria will definitely minimise the Iranian influence over there. In short, they prefer to negotiate with far, friendly and global power rather than a regional, close and hostile power. In addition to that, Russia and Saudi Arabia have proved -to each others- during the past three years they are capable of finding common grounds and pushing their cooperation higher. This is what Iran and Saudi Arabia failed to do in the past thirty years. It is, with no doubt, a result of ideological and non-ideological reasons.
Another major development in 2015 was the Iran Nuclear Deal. Apart from the other Global powers included in the deal, it proved that an Iranian-American rapprochement is possible. The signature made Saudis feel margined by the US -their most traditional and powerful ally in the world. It also made them feel that US might reconcile with Iran over time, and they are not as special regional ally as before. It practically showed how the US follows its interest in no harmonise with the Saudi one. Such a possible shift in US policy is to weaken Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Arab World and expand the International recognition of Iran. The Saudis decided not to wait and see it happen. This is why they decided to start a new chapter with Moscow and approach it as a rising global power shaping real Politics of the Middle-East. The Kingdom cannot purely rely on the US, not anymore, at least in the political and diplomatic spheres.
It is also important to say that Iran’s Nuclear Program had made it difficult for Obama administration to balance between Saudi regional Interest and US National Interest in terms of Iran’s growing Nuclear capabilities. It was not an easy decision for the US back then, but still this justification wont make the Saudis feel any better, or any safer. A defence alliance with the US is not enough for Riyadh, they eagerly want to see full commitment from US administrations. Later on and in October (2017) the Saudis wasted no time in praising Trump’s move when he took a harder line towards Iran and declined to certify Tehran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. But even though Trump is firmer than Obama with the Iranians, the Saudis know now that this might not last, and they need to approach Moscow to guarantee further international support, and also not to allow Iran to be as Moscow’s only friend in the Arab region. The Saudis need the Russians to balance the growing Iranian influence in the region and the Russians need the Saudis as a gate to fully retrieve their global role in Middle-East Politics. It is a win-win situation.
The King’s visit to Moscow is a result of three years of cooperation and preparation between the two countries. It started with the first visit of Saudi Crown Prince to Russia in June 2015, back then he met with President Putin in St.Petersburg. As widely expected, King Salman’s visit has been very successful and triggered further cooperation between the two nations. The latest indicator for that success is the deal of multi-billion energy and defence contracts signed last month in Moscow. The most interesting part of this deal is the Saudi interest to buy Russian-made arms. It is a strategical shift in Saudi’s Foreign Policy, with no doubt, at least in security and defence aspects. The Saudis have always bought arms from their traditional seller, the US. According to the Kommersant newspaper, agreement has already been reached on a $3bn deal to supply the Saudis with Russia’s most advanced air defence missile system, the S400 Triumph. There also may be other deals forthcoming on aircraft and helicopters.
From now on we have to keep an eye on the Russian-Saudi cooperation while analysing any event or development in Middle-East Politics. I believe those relations will get a further momentum with time. This is because the balance of power is shifting in the Middle-East -and maybe in the world as well- and the need for this momentum is available in both countries. I also believe the better are the inter-relations, the more stable the Middle-East will be. As a result, Politics and Economics of the Middle-East are not the same after King Salman’s historical visit to Moscow. The event is important and no less important than the Iran’s Nuclear Deal of 2015.