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Russia-Saudi Arabia: Visit by the “gatekeeper to Mideast”

King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Saudi Press Agency

King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is visiting Russia within the coming days. The first reports on the visit of the 81-year-old Saudi monarch to Moscow came yet two years ago. Then, a representative delegation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived at the 19th Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum. Russian President Vladimir Putin received the Saudi Crown Prince on June 18, 2015. This gave a start to talks for upcoming “landmark visit” by the Saudi king and even certain rapprochement of Moscow and Riyadh.

This temporary rapprochement has not resulted in any breakthrough either in the bilateral relations or in any joint economic projects or military-and-technical cooperation. The sides seek a high level of cooperation but things have not gone beyond memorandums of intentions yet.

Nevertheless, one can see rather an intensive and promising high-level trust-based dialogue in the relations of Saudi Arabia and Russia. The key person in that dialogue on the Saudi part is Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman. The king’s favorite son keeps concentrating power in his hands and demonstrates foreign partners with who they should deal with.

After the St. Petersburg Economic Forum 2015, President Putin and Prince Mohammed held another three personal meetings: on October 11, 2015 in Sochi, on September 4, 2016 in Guangzhou (China), and on May 30, 2017 in Moscow. There was a meeting with King Salman too on sidelines of G20 in Antalya, Turkey, on November 16. 2015. The Saudi monarch’s visit to Moscow has quite different political weight, indeed.

Along with more frequent and substantial interstate contacts, Riyadh has actually stopped criticizing Russia’s actions in the Middle East region. During the first months of the Russian counter-terrorist operation in Syria (since Sept 30, 2015), Saudi Arabia along with its allies in the Middle East was driving at diplomatic boycott of Moscow. The Saudi foreign ministry made several tough statements on Russia’s “destructive role” in the Syrian conflict, its interference into internal affairs of the Arab world. One can vividly remember the anti-Russian statements by the largest Arab monarchy leaders at the League of Arab Nations.

Saudis were indignant at Russia and Iran for supporting Bashar al-Assad government. Much has changed since then. Riyadh no longer speaks of Assad’s removal from power, has left out the word “destructive” applicable to Moscow from its diplomatic rhetoric. Meantime, its enmity towards Iran and its “destabilizing policy” in Syria and other hotspots of tension in the Middle East has just grown.

With Donald Trump coming to power and Israel’s enthusiasm with the anti-Iranian policy of the new U.S. Administration, Riyadh has felt encouraged too. U.S. and Iran speak different languages now, not the one they spoke at the previous White House Administration angering Israel and Saudi Arabia.

It appears that Saudis have quite serious concerns over Iran’s “destabilizing role” in the Middle East processes and will try to express their concerns to the Kremlin during the king’s visit. Particularly, Riyadh worries, as Iranians try to team up the Palestinian Hamas movement again.

The Syrian conflict even more separated Sunnites and Shi’ites. The Sunni Hamas broke away from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah after 2011 by supporting Damascus’ rivals. Headquarters of Hamas political bureau was located in Syrian capital and moved to Qatar. Victories of Syrian troops over their enemies with the substantial support of Russia and Iran made many, including Hamas to revise their previous approaches. Damascus has already opposed possible return of the Hamas Political Bureau saying it is ready to normalize relations with the Palestinian movement at the same time.

Saudi Arabia is against such changes in the region. Iran has already “gained over” Qatar. If Hamas is the next, Saudis have reasons for concern. Iran keeps winning part of the Arab world (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Qatar) from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the center of the Arab world.

Russia-Iran close dialogue on Syria perplexes all the geopolitical rivals of Iran. U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, the heavyweights in strategy of deterring Iran cannot be reckon with the Moscow-Tehran ties that have gathered momentum. Russia built the first power units of NPP on the territory of Iran, supplied S-300 aid defense missiles to Tehran, supports the nuclear deal with Iran, which is torpedoed by the above “heavyweights.” Al-Saud family does its best to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, to bring suspicion into the relations of the two neighbors.

Iran’s authorities will be following King Salman’s visit to Russia perhaps more than others will do. The King and specifically the Crown Prince will make deals, unprecedented with their expensiveness, just to make Tehran worry. Meantime, Iran “decoded” the algorithm of Riyadh’s game yet long ago and learned to respond to empty words of Saudis with specific actions to rapprochement with Russia.

Saudi Kingdom has not gone beyond promises to make generous military deals with Moscow and multibillion investments in economy of Russia. This July, when King Salman accepted President Putin’s invitation to visit Russia, Moscow hinted that it would be good for Saudis to move beyond worlds.

Russia and Saudi Arabia made an arrangement for supply of weapons worth $3.5billion, according to Sergey Chemezov, Head of Rostec State Corporation. “Saudis set a condition: the contract will come into effect if we provide them with part of technologies and launch production in the territory of the Kingdom,” Chemezov says.

He explained how difficult it is to deal with Saudi Arabia as a business partner. “Five years ago, we signed contracts for 20billion dollars, but things did not go beyond intentions. Riyadh bought nothing then. Let’s call things with their proper names: Saudis just played with us promising to buy our tanks and other military hardware if we refuse to supply S-300 missile systems to Iran,” Chemezov complained.

There are some more recent examples of Riyadh’s game amid military and technical cooperation of Russia and Iran. Before the June meeting of the Russian leader and the Saudi Crown Prince in 2015, Riyadh took an interest in Iskander-E short-range ballistic missile systems. In response, Rosoboronexport, the sole state intermediary agency for Russia’s exports/imports of defense-related products, technologies and services, expressed readiness to supply the missile systems. Though Iran would not be happy, if Russia had supplied Iskanders then. (1)

Neither had Saudi Arabia made the promised multibillion investments in Russia’s economy. In 2015, Russian Direct Investment Fund and Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia made an agreement on $10 billion capital investments (over 25 projects in various sectors of Russian economy), but there are problems at least with promptness of the investments. It was reported in April that joint projects for $3 billion will be launched under the given agreement by the end of 2017. So far, only $600 million have been invested out of the promised $10 billion.

The only area where the sides made specific actions is perhaps the global pact to reduce oil recovery. Experts suppose that the world’s two biggest oil producers will start out from this very point when seeking for more areas of cooperation.

Some western analysts even link Russia’s successful entry into the Middle East region with relevant permission by Saudi Arabia, which is called the “gatekeeper to Mideast” (2). They say Riyadh may decide to open that “Gate” and “let Moscow in.”

No need to go into the weak points of this theory. Suffice it to say that Russia did not “enter” but returned to the Middle East in 2015 and perhaps against the will of the Saudi monarchy. Besides, the role of Saudi Arabia in the current geopolitical processes in the Greater Middle East is certainly overestimated. Crisis around Qatar made Riyadh realize the need to settle the problems inside the Arab world and stop cherishing illusions about “holding the keys to” the region. Moscow has built close relations with the key actors in the Arab world without the help of Riyadh. At least look at the current level of Russia’s ties with Egypt, Jordan, UAE and others.

The Russian-Saudi relations have reached a certain “growth limit” and it is time for Riyadh to create more conditions for a breakthrough. Meantime, Saudis prefer well-thought and slow actions when it comes to the interests of Big Powers. Actually, the “landmark visit” by King Salman will not lead to any significant changes either in the bilateral relations or in the geopolitical situation. There are still too many external obstacles to real partnership of Russia and Saudi Arabia and the sides seem not ready to eliminate them yet.

(1) During the last 20 years, Saudi Arabia several times requested large lots of Russian arms. The first time they did it in 1996, requesting arms for $1.5 billion (given repeated inflation, that amount is equivalent to $10 billion now). In mid-2000s, Rosoboronexport management announced a package of deals for several billion dollars. Saudis had an intention to buy Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, BMP-3 armored vehicles, and T-90 tanks. The advanced model of the Russian tanks was successfully tested at Saudi polygons. In 2007-2009, Russia prepared a big package (about $4 billion) of proposals for supply of Saudi Arabia: 150 pieces of T-90C tanks, 30 helicopters Mi-35M and Mi-28NE, 120 Mi-17 transport helicopters, up to 250 BMP-3 armored vehicles, and missile systems (S-300PMU-2 Favorit, BukM2-E and Pantsir-S1).

2) Paul J. Saunders, Russia sees Saudi Arabia as 'gatekeeper' to Mideast // Al Monitor, September 17, 2017.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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