Last week I attended a closed seminar organized by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the US capital. It was mainly about the crises in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The looming nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran dominated the discussion, since it represents an important political turning point. Some of the participants asked about reactions toward this deal and its potential political and military consequences. Others anticipated that the deal would provoke countries in the region, encouraging them to work on their own nuclear programs, “without stopping to get what Iran got in the nuclear deal.”
This explains the great interest in Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Russia last week. From the visit, it was clear that Saudi Arabia has decided to move into the nuclear club, by building 16 nuclear reactors, while giving Russia the biggest role in operating the reactors. This does not necessarily mean that the Kingdom’s focus is on armament, but it surely means that Riyadh has decided to enter the nuclear scene. Last month, the Saudi education minister signed off scholarships for 1,000 students to study energy technologies, including nuclear energy.
In my opinion, the most important feature of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit was that it was not customary; it took place at a time when the US and its European allies decided to economically boycott Russia, sanctioning Moscow over events in Ukraine. This time, the Saudi government took an unusual step and decided to do the opposite: Rekindle its relations with Moscow; grow business ties and sign agreements and deals in vital fields such as gas and nuclear and military technologies. This is one of the rare times that Riyadh takes an opposing line to Washington. But the reason is clear: The Saudis who supported the western position to boycott Iran for 20 years discovered that Washington betrayed them when it decided to collaborate with Tehran, without coming to an understanding with its partners who had joined the initial boycott! Of course, we shouldn’t read into any new developments outside political frameworks, because I can hardly imagine that Saudi Arabia has decided to turn against its alliances — but it probably wants to get out of the narrow US corner and expand its options.
Russia has always been an important country. It has recently decided to be an active key player in the region, at a time when the current US administration chose to shrink its engagement policy, and adopt a policy that contrasts with the Gulf countries that were facing difficult circumstances. The US supported Baghdad despite its sectarian policies and left the Assad regime in Syria to commit the greatest tragedy in the history of the region — 250,000 deaths and the displacement of 10 million. It seems that the negativity generated by Washington’s side and the dangerous outcomes resulting from its policies, made the Saudis think about expanding their choices and political investments in the East and West.
Although Saudi Arabia reinstated its relationship with Moscow nearly 14 years ago, it has remained limited. No important promises of cooperation had been implemented so far: Saudi Arabia did not buy Scud missiles as agreed and Russia did not get anything out of the gas deals. However today, it appears that the Moscow-Riyadh road has become more active. Russia’s Ambassador to Riyadh Oleg Ozerov has said that Russia has been granted an area of land to build the new headquarters of the embassy in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter. In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin reiterated his call to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman to visit Russia. Putin has also received an invitation to visit Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia wants Russia, which is a key player in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, to be on its side. Russia plays an important role in the military balance with Iran, a task that will need intensive and incessant efforts.