A flurry of deals signed this week between Russia and Saudi Arabia pointed to increasingly warm commercial ties, despite enduring political differences within the region — principally crystallized around Moscow’s support for the Assad regime in Syria and its growing relationship with Tehran.
But some analysts see the apparent conflict of interest as a distraction from a diplomatic relationship that is increasingly defined by pragmatism, expediency and an ability to agree to disagree.
“A popular geopolitical image of the Middle East and North Africa is a region divided starkly into opposing camps,” wrote Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House. “But as the Saudi king’s unprecedented visit to Moscow this week indicates, these days most players prefer to hedge their bets, balancing different relationships and avoiding over-aligning with any single power.”
In an interview with Arab News this week, Russian diplomat Konstantin Kosachev acknowledged that ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia have developed “unsteadily and discontinuously.”
He contrasted Moscow’s diplomatic approach during the Soviet period, in which relationships with other countries were based on ideology, with that of the modern era where pragmatism is a more important driver for the Kremlin.
For a country battered by international sanctions that have hit export industries hard, pragmatism has encouraged Russia to seek closer economic ties with Gulf states.
Both have been hurt by the decline in oil prices and the rise of American shale oil production and so have common cause in working together to try to support prices.
The huge arms industry of Russia is also looking to the Gulf states, which have stepped up military spending in the face of a deteriorating regional security environment.
In the exhibition halls of regional arms fairs in recent years, Russian military hardware has been highly visible and visits by Russian trade and military manufacturing chiefs have been frequent — seeking to sell everything from MiG fighter jets to Kalashnikov assault rifles.
The visit by Saudi King Salman to Russia this week featured the signing of a number of preliminary military deals including the sale of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.
Yesterday the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that other countries should not worry about discussions over military cooperation between the pair.
“The improvement of military cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia is not directed against a third party and we believe it’s groundless to express concern about this issue,” he told reporters.
Chatham House’s Kinninmont believes that closer ties between the pair may reflect some uncertainty about the future influence of the US in the Middle East.
“There is a widespread perception in the Gulf that the US will eventually wind down its long-term security presence in the region. This perception may be premature and exaggerated, but it is certainly there,” she wrote.
The visit of King Salman to Russia this week has led to some discussion about whether it denotes a reset of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Riyadh.
“None of this means Saudi Arabia is changing sides. It has said it will cooperate with Russia on energy and joint investment projects, and might even sign some arms deals,” wrote Kinninmont. “The two countries will try to find ways to accommodate each other in Syria, where Saudi Arabia hopes that Russia’s alliance with the regime will at least prevent Assad from being entirely dependent on Iran.”
Alexey Malashenko, the research director of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute believes that while the visit is significant, it may not denote a significant shift in foreign policy.
“It is exciting,” he said. “But will it lead to an improvement in relations between the two countries? I don’t know. This is not about contract signings — it’s about real affairs.”