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Does King Salman’s historic visit to Moscow herald a new era?

Giorgio Cafiero

The road to Russia for Saudi has been a long one, is this however the beginning of a new era or mutual resentment by other means?

As the first King of Saudi Arabia to visit Moscow, King Salman’s recent four-day trip to Russia was a landmark moment in Saudi-Russian relations. While the King was in Moscow, the Saudi and Russian governments signed 15 cooperation agreements in fields of defence, technology, energy, space, and the agricultural sector among others. Saudi Arabia also announced its plans to purchase Russia’s S-400 defence system.

Although there is no sign that Saudi Arabia intends to fully pivot away from the United States, it is clear that Riyadh seeks to diversify alliances at a time when Washington’s incoherent foreign policy is leaving Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members with new concerns.

At the same time, in pursuit of better relations with the Kremlin, Riyadh is attempting to wedge itself between Russia and Iran.

Since the Cold War, the Al Saud rulers and the Kremlin’s Soviet/Russian occupants have had a tense history of relations. Staunchly anti-Communist and solidly in the West’s camp, for decades the Saudis worked closely with Washington to counter the USSR’s influence in the Middle East and other regions, most notably in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Yet, whereas in the past looking East was always a taboo idea in Saudi Arabia, King Salman’s watershed visit to Russia indicates how much Riyadh’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Moscow has changed in the post-Cold War era – particularly since Russia’s stepped up military intervention in Syria beginning in September 2015.

For reasons beyond a shared interest in stabilising global energy markets it is logical for Saudi Arabia to invest in more cooperative ties with Russia despite decades of substantial friction in relations. This is underscored by Washington’s failure to bring America’s GCC partners to the negotiating table in order to reach a settlement to the months-old Qatar crisis. US influence in the Middle East is also showing signs of waning and local actors are responding accordingly. To varying extents, the six GCC members, which all rely on America as a security guarantor, have also turned to Russia, Turkey, and Iran at varying degrees in order to establish better relations with the powers perceived as being on the rise regionally.

Saudi Arabia views Iran as the top threat to regional stability, giving Riyadh an interest in seeing Russia gain an upper hand in its competition with Tehran for influence in crisis-ridden parts of the Arab world, despite Riyadh and Moscow’s disagreements.

Regarding Syria, officials in Riyadh have adjusted their policy from pushing for regime change to attempting to position Russia, as opposed to Iran, as Damascus’ dominant non-Arab patron if the war winds down. Saudi support for “de-escalation zones” brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran and the Astana process highlights this shift on Riyadh’s part.

Moscow selling Riyadh the S-400 air defence missile system after having sold Iran the S-300 version may suggest that Russia is testing how far it can peel Saudi Arabia from the US orbit with tempting acquisitions of one of the top missile defence systems in the world and other associated weapons.

As Dr. Mark Katz wrote, “even if Riyadh cannot stop Russia from cooperating militarily with Iran, the Saudis can undermine Iranian confidence in Russia.”

Although Russia and Iran share a basic interest in protecting the Assad regime, Moscow and Tehran have supported different actors in Syria, which may lead to more competition between Russia and Iran. Yet Riyadh’s efforts to sufficiently capitalise on friction between Moscow and Tehran to achieve Saudi Arabia’s goal of creating substantial space between Russia and Iran will face major challenges.

Based on Russia’s quest to promote Moscow as an indispensable mediator in the Middle East, the Kremlin must maintain good relations with all major actors in the region, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Judging by Russia’s offer to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran amid their January 2016 standoff, Moscow sees its interests best advanced by serving as a diplomatic bridge between the two countries even if such Russian efforts proved futile last year.

Moreover, given the extent to which Russia and Iran share interests in the Arab world despite frictions which impact bilateral relations, it is difficult to imagine Riyadh convincing Vladimir Putin to take action against Iran’s expanding clout sufficient to meet Saudi Arabia’s satisfaction. The future of the S-400 deal, which may fall through, will likely be a key indicator of Saudi Arabia’s true level of confidence in Russia.

Ultimately, Riyadh has no reason to abandon its close alliance with Washington.

Indeed, since the Trump presidency began, Washington has aligned more closely with the kingdom against Iran in Yemen and elsewhere. Rather than leaving behind its Western allies for the Kremlin, Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its relationships as well as enhance its leverage with rising powers in the region, as America’s hand in the Middle East proves less influential.

In accepting Russia’s growing clout in the region, even if somewhat bitterly so, the Saudis have determined that Moscow’s increasing role in the Middle East offers Riyadh a realistic opportunity to prevent Iran from consolidating more influence in the Arab world.

What remains to be seen is how Putin approaches Syria and the rest of the tumultuous Middle East in the upcoming months, and whether or not officials in Riyadh see Russian actions as too closely aligned with Iran’s for King Salman’s historic trip to serve as a foundation for substantial growth in Saudi-Russian relations moving forward.

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