Riyadh’s recent overtures toward Moscow underline a new diplomatic approach by Saudi Arabia toward regional and international issues, one that is rooted in pragmatism and realism. Historically, Saudi Arabia and the former USSR were at odds on almost every regional conflict, especially during the height of the Cold War. In a deeply polarized world, Riyadh chose to side with the West, the US in particular, which supported monarchical regimes across a volatile Middle East. Moscow had backed military coups that sought to build left-leaning, including Marxist-based, republics in various parts of the region, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. Moscow’s communist ideals had become anathema to regional conservative monarchies.
The two countries found themselves on opposite sides following the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan and Moscow’s decade-long occupation of that country. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1992, after a five-decade hiatus, but Riyadh and Moscow found little common ground. Political differences had narrowed but the two sides clashed over oil and gas production. Russia had become a major exporter of both and not being a member of OPEC meant that it could affect global prices through mass production.
It was not until the beginning of the new millennium that a different Russian role on the international stage began to emerge under Putin’s strong leadership. By that time, the Middle East had gone through a major transformation. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, had sent tremors across the region. The reverberations continue to shake the region today. Also, Moscow had reclaimed a leading role in international relations, and the conflicts gripping the Arab world in the wake of the Arab Spring, and the Syrian civil war in particular, had given it the opportunity to step in.
The late King Abdullah had the foresight to sense a change in US Middle Eastern policy under former President Barack Obama. The latter was seen to have abandoned America’s traditional allies, Egypt being a clear example, and had no clear policy on Syria and others. While Riyadh continued to safeguard its strategic alliance with Washington, King Abdullah realized the need to seek warmer ties with Moscow. That pragmatic approach in Saudi foreign policy continued under King Salman. The then-Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman paid a high-profile visit to Russia in June 2015, which marked a reset in Saudi-Russian ties. A number of deals were signed during the St. Petersburg meeting, the most important of which was an agreement allowing Russian investment in Saudi Arabia’s ambitious nuclear energy plans.
But, aside from these important deals, Prince Mohammed and Putin were able to lay the ground for close coordination between OPEC and Russia in the sensitive and highly unstable oil production market. It is believed that such cooperation resulted in a more steady oil market and prevented further drops in prices.
While Riyadh’s ties with Washington remain solid, the new Saudi-Russian entente will be essential in bringing stability to a region in turmoil.
In addition to fostering bilateral relations — Moscow sees huge investment opportunities in the Saudi market, especially under the Vision 2030 plan — King Salman and Putin will focus on regional issues that represent a challenge to both. During a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Riyadh last month, it was announced that Saudi Arabia now supports the Astana peace talks and the de-escalation zones in Syria. The two countries had conflicting visions on Syria, but are now working to create common ground. Riyadh is playing an important role in unifying the Syrian opposition with the aim of adopting a more pragmatic position in political negotiations, which both Saudi Arabia and Russia see as the only way to end the conflict. It is in this area that the Kremlin sees Riyadh’s value and role in ending the war in Syria.
King Salman and Putin will also be discussing Iran, where both sides have a different take on its role, especially in Syria but also in Yemen, where Riyadh accuses Tehran of backing a Houthi insurgency against the legitimate government. Other issues of mutual interest include the crisis with Qatar, where Russia had offered to mediate, the latest Kurdistan referendum and the Middle East peace process.
The historic visit will strengthen bilateral relations, but in addition will open communication channels between Riyadh and Moscow. The latter has become a key player in the region and, while Saudi Arabia’s ties with the US remain solid, the new Saudi-Russian entente will be essential in bringing stability to a region in turmoil.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010