King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud became the first Saudi monarch to visit Moscow, and this trip has been hailed by both governments as historic. The relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia have often been strained in a geopolitical lens on issues like Syria and Iran.
However, the two countries signed agreements on weapon sales, trade, oil, energy, and have also pledged to work together to resolve Middle East regional issues peacefully. Even though Moscow and Riyadh are on opposing sides in the War in Syria, relations have improved in recent years. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has held several meetings with President Vladimir Putin that can help expand peace and prosperity for both countries.
King Salman’s visit to Moscow highlights Russia’s growing power in the Middle East. The Saudi king is not only trying to find a political supporter after the defeat of the Islamic State, but he is also looking for a military market that can drive out the last remaining strongholds of DAESH.
Since the continuing fall of oil prices in mid-2014, Russia and Saudi Arabia, along with OPEC and non-OPEC members, agreed to extend production cuts of around two million barrels a day. Moscow and Riyadh’s increasingly growing ties can allow them to cooperate on stabilizing the global oil market.
One of the interesting focal points of Moscow’s diplomatic role in the Middle East has been its ability to maneuver with its partners as not only a regional power, but a global power. So far, Russia has been able to hold a lot of stake in the security and political dimensions of the Middle East’s growing powers like Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
The visit by King Salman creates a new opening for Russia to economic and security interests in the gulf. The million-dollar question many analysts would ask is how Russia can shape the global content of the future for the Middle East? Well, Russia has always acted as a balancer in the sectarianism around the region between Sunni and Shia, and it has fully analyzed the many differences between the regional power, for example, areas like GCC issues between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The reality on the ground in the Middle East is that Russia is being trusted more by the regional players than the United States. Because Russia has a lot of partners in the Middle East, despite overlapping competitive geopolitical/geostrategic interests in the region, Russia could play some role in narrowing differences, and having a stake in thorny issues like the Iran-Saudi rivalry, the Syrian war, and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
As a result of Russia’s role in the Middle East, regional players are looking for alternatives away from the west that can balance the order in the region, and this is why the US role in the Middle East is declining.
What the Russians have been trying to do in the Middle East is establish contact with all sides, and talk to everybody involved in these conflicts. For example, in Syria, Russia has talked to Iran, Syria, and Turkey through the Astana talks, the Russians have even talked with close US allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel because they have so much maneuverability to listen to all players in the region. The Russian aim in the Middle East is not to reconcile everyone’s differences, but to create a realistic approach towards the region that not only goes along with their own national interests, but also working towards a higher degree to preserve regional stability.
Saudi Arabia has its own problems at home and abroad. Currently, Riyadh is facing serious financial deficits, and it needs a partner like Russia to stabilize the oil market which is an absolute necessity for Saudi Arabia. Over the last few years, it has been made clear that the Saudis cannot ride out the falling oil prices to the extent that many people thought it could.
Riyadh must also look at the international dimensions of where its foreign policy has backfired. Saudi Arabia gambled and invested very heavily on regime change in Syria, which has ultimately failed. Saudi is also tied up in an overdue campaign in Yemen which has not going very well either. Instead of operating foreign policy adventures into the region, or playing the role of hegemon, Saudi Arabia needs to start rethinking its foreign policy objectives and look for partners it can talk to.
Russia can be one of these countries, and that is why King Salman is the first Saudi monarch to go on a formal visit to Russia, which is a global power that is re-emerging in the Middle East that can help the Saudis on issues like oil, the war in Syria, and future relations with other countries in the region where Saudi Arabia has so many difficulties.
Cooperation on Syria is crucial for Russia and Saudi Arabia. What happened in Syria was that Saudi Arabia came out against Russia and Iran on opposite ends in the conflict, and the Saudis have recognized that they did not achieve their objective of overthrowing the Assad government. The Astana process has not been something the Saudis wanted to see, but they have been shown time and time again, how effective the talks in Astana have been in creating de-escalation zones and taking out DAESH strongholds. Officials in Riyadh need to be taught the lessons of Syria, the lessons of Yemen, and come up with a realistic approach to cracking down on Wahhabi movements in the region and within Saudi Arabia itself to find a way forward.
The only way to achieve peace in the Middle East is an ultimate rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran. The Middle East has been torn by sectarianism, endless wars, and massive bloodshed, but it is time for a change, and the only way to end these constant conflicts is for Saudi Arabia and Iran to find some common ground to pave the way for peace.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Russia re-established diplomatic relations. A lot of Syrian war politics have been throne into the discussions, and Moscow’s growing influence in the Middle East has been something Riyadh has been monitoring very carefully. Oil has also been a giant factor to the renewed Russia-Saudi ties.
In the past, Russia and Saudi Arabia have been rivals in competition for oil market share, but recently, Moscow and Riyadh did sign an agreement last December to cut output and bring prices up since the collapse of oil prices in mid-2014.
And lastly, there have been some defense agreements on air defense systems, military training, and some talk of building a Saudi nuclear complex that is second to Iran. Given the uncertainty of US leadership and foreign policy objectives from the Trump Administration, the Saudis would like to balance their relationships with Moscow and Washington. King Salman’s visit to Moscow not only marks a rapprochement between Russia and Saudi Arabia, but it also marks a new chapter in Russia-Saudi Arabia relations.
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