Wednesday,24 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Wednesday,24 April, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Saudi Arabia’s new ally

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz visited Russia for just a few days, but it was one of the most significant recent political pivots in the Middle East, writes Haitham Nouri


Salman and Putin
Salman and Putin

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Naturally, Saudi media, those close to Riyadh, and the Russians all viewed it as a historic visit. It was the first by a Saudi monarch to Moscow, even though King Faisal had previously visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s when he was foreign minister to his father, the founder of Saudi Arabia.

The two countries are the largest exporters of crude oil and coordination between them is critical for the global oil market, which is suffering a drop in oil prices. At the same time, Riyadh and Moscow are key players on Middle East issues, most notably the Syrian crisis on which each is the polar opposite of the other.

But these are not the only reasons why the king’s visit to Moscow is “historic”. Russia is a close ally of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archenemy, and Moscow and Tehran have had extensive economic, military and political ties for decades. Iran and Russia are also key supporters of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad since the crisis began in March 2011 and evolved into a civil war, pitting the regime in Damascus against Sunni Islamist groups supported by Riyadh and its Gulf allies. Overthrowing Assad was not a goal in itself for Riyadh and its Gulf peers; the aim was to curb Iran’s influence in Syria and the region.

The main goal of Salman’s visit to Moscow was also to limit Iran’s influence through strong economic ties, forcing Russia to rethink its alliance with Tehran in order to maintain trade relations with Riyadh. So far, trade between the two is no more than $500 million, $350 million of which are Russian exports to Saudi Arabia. During the visit, which took two years to plan, several agreements and deals were signed worth $10 billion, including creating an investment fund worth $1 billion, more than $1 billion investments in the energy sector, and another $1 billion in infrastructure projects in Russia. Riyadh also agreed to buy air defense systems from Russia.

The BBC reported that according to the Saudi military industry, Saudi Arabia “will receive the latest (military) technology”, explaining it will receive the S-400 defense system — the same delivered to Iran, Egypt and Turkey over the past two years. Russian Arabist Gregory Cousac told Russian newspaper Argumenti i Facti that “Saudi Arabia has plenty of US and Western weapons, but they say we can buy what you are selling to Iran. The most important thing is not to export it to Iran. In return, Russia knows that good relations with the Arab world begin in Saudi Arabia, which is why Putin insisted on joining the OIC in 2005.”

Cousac noted Saudi Arabia’s very successful relations and cooperation with China, which reduced tensions significantly.

Saudi Energy Minister Khaled Al-Falih said the agreement reached between Russia and Saudi Arabia contributed to the stability of the oil market and will be extended until the end of 2018. On 5 October, the price of oil stabilised at $56 per barrel amid expectations that production will remain at low rates in Russia and Saudi Arabia.

During the visit on 4-8 October, the Saudi giant Aramco signed agreements with Russia’s Gazprom, Gazprom Neft, Sibur and Litasco. The two sides also signed agreements on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, military production, shipping and railroads.

Iran — the main political and strategic goal of the visit — was at the forefront, especially since Salman repeatedly accused Tehran of interfering in the domestic affairs of Gulf and Arab states. Saudi-Russian economic cooperation could make Russia into another point of pressure on Iran. Russia wants to expand its influence and resources, and it can do this by strongly and clearly cooperating with Saudi Arabia. This would eventually bring calm to the Gulf region.

Also, both Saudi Arabia and Russia are fighting terrorism, which Riyadh has suffered over the years, causing it to reduce if not entirely eliminate funding to Islamist groups in Syria and elsewhere as it gradually changed its position on the Bashar Al-Assad regime.

Recently, Saudi’s Interior Ministry announced the death of a terrorist who attacked a royal guard position at the west gate of Al-Salam Palace, the palace of government, in the coastal city of Jeddah. The attack, which is believed to be the first of its kind against the royal headquarters, killed two royal guards and injured three. The attacker, a 28-year-old Saudi, stepped out of his car and began shooting at the guards and was eventually shot dead. The Saudis believe that victory for Assad’s regime would undermine the power of terrorist groups. This is another reason for Salman’s visit to Russia.

Saudi Arabia is willing and wants to recognise Bashar Al-Assad politically and re-establish trade relations with Damascus, whether or not he remains in power. It also wants to invest in Syria to weaken the latter’s ties to Iran and reverse them to pre-2011 levels.

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