Last week Moscow was visited by Saudi ruler Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud accompanied by an entourage of a hundred people carried out in order to hold meetings with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Several rounds of negotiations were held with the Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, the Minister of Energy along with the head of the sovereign foundation of the Kingdom who is in charge of Riyadh’s overseas investments. From the beginning it was clear as to why the Saudi king would decide to come to Moscow for the first time since 1926. Only two matters are of any importance to Riyadh today: Iran and its policies in the region and collective oil pricing. Everything else is treated as secondary concerns by Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis do fear Tehran, since they believe that Shia influence is growing across the region, as the Islamic Republic of Iran implements a plan to create a Shia arc that would unite Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia that is home to a Shia minority. Riyadh is truly concerned about the close bilateral relations that exist between Russia and Iran, especially in the field of military cooperation. For over a decade Riyadh has been trying to persuade Moscow to cut all military ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran in exchange for massive purchases of arms that were allegedly to be made by Saudi Arabia in Russia. When Moscow supported anti-Iranian sanctions within the UN framework in 2010 and refused to fulfill its obligation to deliver S-300 anti-air systems to the armed forces of Iran, Saudi Arabia failed to fulfill its own obligations. Predictably, there’s been no other investments from Saudi Arabia in other areas of the Russian economy.
In 2013, Russia was visited by the head of Saudi special services, Prince Bandar who promised President Putin to “neutralize” all terrorist threats during the Sochi Olympics and authorize the purchase of Russian weapons in Saudi Arabia, along with investing billions of dollars in the Russian economy. In exchange he wanted Russia to abandon its support of Iran, especially in Syria. Regardless, Russia’s south still saw an abrupt increase in terrorist attacks.
The development of economic ties with Saudi Arabia has been lobbied for by the Russian Direct Investment Fund under Vneshekonombank, which was created to attract investments from the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf (GCC). For six years, its head would travel across the six GCC member states, but all he was able to receive were empty promises from a number of officials, including those from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait. And it was not until early 2017 that Russia’s standing with the GCC states began to improve, primarily due to the agreement on the regulation of oil prices between Moscow and Riyadh that was struck within the OPEC framework. A big role in this was played by Russia’s Minister of Energy Alexander Novak who eventually helped arrange King Salman’s possible visit to Moscow. The visit was also triggered by an internal crisis within the GCC which broke out last June. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and a number of Arab countries abruptly broke all ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and extremism. The defeat that foreign-sponsored militants suffered in Syria has also played a role in this visit, as did the failures of the Saudi military coalition in Yemen, where the Iranian-backed Houthis have managed to organize fierce resistance. All of these factors continue draining Saudi Arabia’s treasury.
US President Trump stopped Riyadh from staging a coup d’etat in Doha, forcing Riyadh to play the Russian card yet again. Yet still, no serious analyst can believe that Saudi Arabia, whose security depends on the US, would seek any serious cooperation with Moscow. Washington has been keen to bring down Putin and the political order he represents at any cost, and it’s unlikely that it will allow Russia’s economy to be buoyed by financial investments from Saudi Arabia.
The strategic task of Saudi Arabia is the maximum isolation of Iran, which means that Riaydh is engaged in yet another attempt to lure Russian leaders with generous promises in attempts to achieve some sort of distance between Moscow and Tehran. To achieve this goal, the Saudis are ready for an enormous bluff. Most likely, they do not need Russian anti-air systems, which the Saudi king promised to purchase. But if the purchases may allow Saudi Arabia to achieve its main task – why wouldn’t they buy the S-400 systems? Moreover, the Saudis can also agree to a Russian zone of influence in Syria if Iranian elements are to be forced out of this state completely.
Saudi investments in the Russian economy is a part of the same attempts to lure Russia into turning its back on Tehran. The Saudi treasury is almost empty at this point and Riyadh still has to buy 100 billion dollars worth of arms as its officials promised to PresidentTrump during his visit to Saudi Arabia last summer. As of now, Riyadh promises to buy 3 billion dollars worth of weapons in Russia. If we are to compare this number with 110 billion dollars worth of US arms, one can notice that Saudi Arabia is planning to buy 30 times more weapons from US manufacturers. Similarly, while 10 billion dollars are allegedly to be invested in the Russian economy, Saudi Arabia is investing more that a trillion dollars in the US economy.
Yet, it should be admitted that the Saudis are allocating their funds quite rationally. For Russia, Iran is without a doubt a hindrance in the Syrian conflict. The long list of contradictions between Tehran and Moscow on the situation in Syria is rarely discussed in the media for obvious reasons. But without Iran and its allies like Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias and Afghan volunteers, Assad’s government would not survive longer than three months. It’s also true that all these forces would face an imminent defeat without Russia’s air power operating in Syria. In addition, Iran is an important part of behind-the-scenes negotiations regarding the so-called Turkish flow. The Turks are categorical in their unwillingness to grant Gazprom exclusive righst to exploit the pipeline. That’s why out of the four planned lines only two are still being discussed, although Gazprom is very persistent in its negotiations. In order for the Turkish flow to become real it must also transport gas from Qatar and Iran. This condition brought forward by Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan keeps Moscow on its toes in this sensitive matter.
But in any case, the visit of the Saudi king is important. This means that Moscow plays an important role in the Middle East, and that it is a force to be reckoned with. Yet, in the foreseeable future Riyadh will not turn its back on the United States, since any such attempt by Riyadh to pursue its own goals will be mercilessly stopped by its more traditional allies. But if Saudi Arabia invests in the Russian Federation at least the promised 10 billion dollars and starts buying weapons from Moscow – this would be a good enough result after ten years of empty promises, especially if Saudi Arabia ceases its support of the so-called Syrian opposition, which it has yet to do. So, in principle the visit produced positive results, although only in terms of positive rhetoric and promises. The only question left is if those promises are going to be followed by any real steps to fulfill them this time?
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”