In 1926, after Moscow recognized King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud’s conquest of the Hijaz, formal diplomatic ties were established, but they did not advance much. The goal of exporting the communist, atheist model worldwide, often via local proxies, inevitably made the Soviet Union an enemy of Saudi Arabia, which naturally drifted toward the pro-US camp during the Cold War.
Among other conflicts, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union found themselves on opposing sides of North Yemen’s civil war between royalists and republicans in the 1960s, and later during the decade-long Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Soviet support for Arab nationalist regimes in Egypt, Iraq and Syria, as well as a Marxist insurgency in Oman, and the rise of a Marxist state in South Yemen, made the communist threat look very real from Riyadh.
Only the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the obvious failure of various Marxist projects in the Middle East, defused the natural incompatibilities between the two states. But considerable disagreements remained around such issues as oil production policy, the conflict in Chechnya and Russia’s support for Iran’s nuclear program.
Under Russian President Vladimir Putin and the late King Abdullah, bilateral relations gradually reached steadier ground, partially due to Putin’s pragmatic foreign policy approach. Over the last three years, unprecedented progress was made toward what both sides have seen as untapped economic potential to be explored.
In June 2015, then-Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman visited Putin in St. Petersburg, accompanied by a high-profile delegation including various ministers. Numerous deals were signed across different sectors, including investment, support for developing Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy plans, and partnerships in oil and gas.
The years 2015 and 2016 saw much debate about a Saudi-Russian oil battle over market share in Europe, then compared to what had happened over the Asian market a few years earlier.
Against this background, an agreement between Prince Mohammed and Putin on the sidelines of a G-20 meeting in China in September 2016 is rumored to have paved the way for the deal between Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) over production cuts later that year.
Prince Mohammed, the chief architect of Vision 2030 — a wide-ranging reform program representing an opportunity for Russian economic interests and investments — visited Russia again earlier this year. During that visit, Putin said Russian-Saudi economic exchanges had registered a 130-percent increase since the beginning of the year.
The expected meeting between King Salman and Vladimir Putin should not be interpreted as a Saudi rebuff of its alliance with the US but instead a Saudi recognition of the significant role Russia is now playing in the region.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
Despite Russia’s ruthless military backing for the genocidal Assad regime, and Saudi support to the Syrian opposition, there are signs that both sides have learned to live with their disagreements on this critical issue. With the advancement of the Russian-led plan for “de-escalation zones,” and the Saudi stance that the Syrian opposition ought to unite and negotiate, some kind of compromise seems within reach.
As Prince Mohammed said while in Moscow in May: “As for the points on which we have differences, a clear mechanism exists to overcome them and we are progressing at a quick pace in this respect.”
The expected meeting between King Salman and Putin should not be interpreted as a Saudi rebuff of its alliance with the US, and it ought to put to rest the idea that Russia is a privileged partner of the so-called “axis of resistance.”
Instead, it attests to a pragmatic Saudi recognition of the significant role Russia has carved out for itself in the region over the past few years, from Libya to Syria and Iran to Yemen. From Moscow’s perspective, with close ties to all other regional powerhouses, a deeper working relationship with Riyadh on key areas such as trade, energy and security is long overdue.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida