By Bob Savic*
Former global energy competitors and geopolitical rivals in the Middle East and Central Asia, Russia and Saudi Arabia have been resolving their differences in order to build a long term strategic partnership.
Recent backdrop to Russia-Saudi relations
Following on from Saudi’s deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Prince Mohammed’s visit to Moscow, in early 2017, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was hosted, in Moscow, by President Putin, at the beginning of October. The visit was the first by a ruling Saudi sovereign to Russia, and was described by the Russian and Saudi foreign ministers, Sergei Lavrov and Adel al-Jubeir, as a “truly historic event”.
Salman had previously travelled to Moscow, in 2006, in his capacity as Prince of Riyadh. This visit set the stage for improving bilateral relations. Shortly afterwards, in 2007, Putin was invited to meet with King Abdullah, Saudi’s sovereign at the time. It was also the first visit by a Russian leader to the kingdom, since the founding of Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless little materialised in terms of economic or further political engagement.
However, since Salman’s ascension to the throne in 2015, there has been ongoing and increasing diplomatic activity between the two countries. To some extent, this had begun in 2013, when Russia was the first major power to supply Egypt’s new government, under President el-Sisi, with military weapons, and which was funded by the Saudis. Although the Syrian civil war, which started in 2011, essentially pitted Russia and Saudi on opposing sides of the conflict, relations between the two countries otherwise continued to improve, as Saudi refused to join the West in imposing sanctions on Russia, over the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Southeast Ukraine. After the death of King Abdullah, and the ascension of Salman, to the Saudi throne, relations were initially muted. The dramatic breakthrough in relations came towards the end of 2016, when the Russians and Saudis agreed to cuts in oil production cuts.
The agreement in output cuts, which was set out only as a short term arrangement lasting from January to June 2017, has subsequently become a longer lasting accord. Both countries, accounting for a quarter of the world’s oil production, agreed to prolong cuts up to March 2018. They now seem set on course for a further extension. As their cooperation deepens in oil production, a sector vital to both their national interests, especially for their government budgets, the more likely this cooperation will spill over into multiple other areas of policy making.
Historic preparations for an historic state visit
Along with the international media’s attention on the gold-coloured escalator that froze upon Salman’s arrival, as he stepped out of the plane to descend on to the runway at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, there was considerable media interest, especially, in Russia, on the lavish amounts spent, by both sides, in preparation for the visit.
In fact, the size of the Saudi delegation, numbering close to 1,500 officials and business persons, was designed to impress upon the hosts that the visitors were there with the serious intention of recognizing the high importance being attached to the new relationship.
In turn, the Russians were keen to demonstrate their appreciation of Salman’s visit. Parts of the Grand Kremlin Palace were rebuilt, to accommodate the 81-year old King, the first time in modern Russian history this was undertaken on behalf of a visiting foreign dignitary.
The talks between Putin and Salman took centre stage shortly after Salman’s arrival. The Russians emphasised the scope of the talks being undertaken in an “expanded format”, in other words, covering a broad array of policy sectors in defining their relationship. The Saudis were keen to stress the “institutional character” of the talks, in the sense of their development involving the participation of “all state institutions and structures”.
Agreements on principles and avenues in resolving the Syrian conflict
In Salman’s opening remarks, concerning Syria, he affirmed Saudi’s recognition of upholding the country’s territorial integrity. Moreover, Salman stated that the conflict, there, be resolved in accordance with the terms of the United Nations (UN)-led Geneva talks of 2012.
Poignantly, following on from Putin’s and Salman’s “intensive consultations”, as described at the foreign ministers’ press conference, subsequent to these high-level talks, the Saudis also declared their support for the Russian-Iranian-Turkish-led “Astana process” format which had, so far, failed to achieve a breakthrough between the Syrian government and Saudi-and-Western-led opposition.
Notably, the Astana talks have been described, in Western diplomatic circles, as an attempt by Russia to brush aside the Geneva talks. Nonetheless, the Saudis announced their intention to unite the opposition, in order to hold talks with the Syrian government under the Astana format, and in that context affirming their recognition of the “state institutions of the Syrian government”.
Significantly, while the Saudis reiterated their interest, during their consultations with the Russians, in removing the Iranian government from ‘its destabilizing interference’ in the Middle East region, even so, they accepted the Astana format talks, even though co-sponsored by Tehran, as a key mechanism in resolving the Syrian conflict.
Agreement on processes for other Middle Eastern and North African conflicts
The Russians and Saudis undertook in-depth and mutually beneficial exchanges of views on various ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Palestine-Israel and the Persian Gulf region. Both expressed an understanding of the necessity for mutually respectful dialogue between the various interests engaged in the conflicts. Specifically, they emphasised the involvement of broad national dialogues, in respect of each conflict, on the basis of the provisions in the UN Charter and the principles of international law.
In light of the history of non-realisation of the two governments’ joint declarations, on foreign affairs, both Putin and Salman charged their various respective government departments, represented at the multiplicity of bilateral talks being staged during the visit, with the full-time specific purpose of developing practical detailed implementation of the agreements reached, in principle, between the two leaders.
Institutional policy coordination at the national level for military and economic development
Both governments agreed to establish a commission for military-technical cooperation. The first meeting of the commission will be held before end-2017. Coordination on energy sector cooperation will also be intensified, involving meetings of the respective ministries of energy within the framework of the OPEC-plus arrangements.
Furthermore, there were agreements on joint coordination in non-traditional energy sectors including nuclear, outer space, agro-industrial and infrastructure, the additions of which are anticipated to elevate the Russian-Saudi partnership to a new “qualitative” level, according to the respective foreign ministries.
In order to support the implementation of these sectoral arrangements, in practice, both sides agreed to a process of governmental coordination, including the promotion of inter-parliamentary cooperation. To kick-start this process, representatives of the visiting Saudi delegation are to participate in an Assembly of the Inter Parliamentary Union, to be held in St Petersburg, later in October 2017.
Institutional coordination at sub-national levels
At the sub-national level, there was agreement for the development of contacts between provinces and cities of Saudi Arabia with those of Russia. At the talks, on the Russian side, these included the leaders of the mainly-Muslim regions of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Ingushetia and the Chechen Republic.
A number of intergovernmental agreements were concluded involving various government departments, from both sides, in addition to several large scale commercial contracts. Chief among those was the launch of intensive cooperation between Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russia Direct Investment Fund and Saudi’s Public Investment Fund, as well as between Russian state oil, gas and petrochemicals companies, namely Rosneft, Gazprom and Sibur, respectively, and Saudi Aramco, the country’s state-owned oil monopoly.
At the talks held between the Russian and Saudi governments, in early October 2017, both countries affirmed that their bilateral strategic partnership is characterised by mutually shared positions on a broad range of regional and international issues. According to al-Jubeir, this includes coordination in every policy area that contributes to strengthening the security and stability of both countries in the Middle East and globally.
To this extent, the historic visit, to Russia, of King Salman, established the format and foundations for both Moscow and Riyadh to build mutually beneficial cooperation in multiple and diverse areas of policy making. Moreover, in light of the history of failed outcomes that followed previous grand pronouncements, particularly in defence and co-investment promises that never materialised, the Saudis were particularly keen to demonstrate their intention of following up with detailed practical measures. These included not only high-profile deals in the military and energy spheres, but also cultural, intergovernmental, administrative, sub-national and humanitarian coordination, involving, from the outset, large numbers of officials and business persons, from both countries, in the negotiations and detailed implementation of the agreements established at the highest levels.
The multi-layered cooperation that appears to be emerging between these former geopolitical foes and rival energy suppliers, across multiple sectors, underscores both states’ objectives to integrate their relations on an enduring long term basis. The implications of this strategic partnership could be profound not only for their respective countries and surrounding regions, but also for global political and economic development.
*Bob Savic, Senior Research Fellow, Global Policy Institute, London, UK