The ties go back almost a century. In 1926, the former Soviet Union was the first country to establish full diplomatic relations with what was then the Kingdom of Hejaz and Najd.
“His Majesty’s visit to Russia will be historic because it will symbolize the extent of the relationship and consultations that take place between the two countries,” the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said.
“Our two countries are much more closely allied than some of the analysts, I would say, try to portray. We are both oil producers, we share an interest in a stable oil market. We have enhanced Russian investments in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi investments in Russia. We have cultural, educational and scientific relations that we are developing. We are also working very closely in the area of security to counter extremism, to counter terrorism.”
The two countries will give new impetus to their existing understandings on oil production and oil exports, to keep the world market stable. The large size and high level of the Saudi delegation reflects the importance of the visit to Moscow, which regards Riyadh as a potential source of investment to help Russia weather the economic sanctions imposed by the West.
During previous visits by Saudi officials, Riyadh pledged to invest $10 billion in the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The Kingdom will also be looking to enhance its food and water security by investing in Russian land to boost its strategic reserves, benefiting from Russia’s relative political and economic stagnation.
The Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov said Saudi Arabia played a major role in Arab affairs and relations between Arab countries, and was a leader in the Arab world. Russia would be seeking to bolster dialogue, he said, with discussions on the situation in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular.
The conflict in Syria will be a major topic of discussion between King Salman and the Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Russia is a key backer of Bashar Assad’s regime, Saudi Arabia has been a leading supporter of the opposition. However, Riyadh has adjusted its policy, and has asked opposition leaders to start thinking about how to stabilize their country.
Saudi Arabia appears to have reached a judgment that it is the Russian intervention in the conflict, not that of the US, which has finally managed to establish de-escalation and cease-fire zones in a country that has been at war for more than seven years; a symbolic manifestation of the Russian strategy in the MENA region.
Strained relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will also be on the agenda. Riyadh should not put all its eggs in one basket; it can have prosperous relations with Russia in terms of economy, energy, investments and military, away from regional political complexities, as Russia is not going to change its view of Iran.
King Salman’s unprecedented visit to Russia will solidify ties that go back almost a century.
Nevertheless, there is no reason why this should affect the mutual interests of Russia and Saudi Arabia. There are opportunities for joint ventures in petrochemical industries, liquefied natural gas and other technologies. The two countries’ major oil companies, Rosneft and Aramco, have said they would consider joint projects in Saudi Arabia.
There is no doubt that the Qatar crisis will also be discussed, since the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain imposed a trade and travel boycott on Qatar in June over its support for extremist groups. Russia has not publicly taken sides in the dispute, but it still views its relations with Doha as non-negotiable.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a frequent visitor to Russia, met President Putin at the Kremlin in May, when they agreed to enhance cooperation on oil and energy, and to narrow the gap between them on the Syrian conflict. That visit followed US President Donald Trump’s trip to Riyadh and his meeting with Arab and Muslim leaders.
Astutely, Saudi leaders are looking both east and west to safeguard the country’s interests. They can benefit from Russia’s growing influence in the region, and its role as a superpower at the international levels.
There is optimism that King Salman’s visit comes at at the right time, as the MENA region undergoes critical and significant changes. However, it will take time for concrete outcomes to emerge, because of the type of joint projects and ventures the two countries are seeking to establish. Nevertheless, Moscow and Riyadh are on the right track to achieve results that serve the people of both countries.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme