Our Analytics 22 june — 11:08

New Era in Saudi-Russia Relations: Why Now?



The visit of Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg is extraordinary and politically significant. The Saudi delegation to Russia was impressive including Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, Minister of State and Member of the Cabinet Khaled bin Abdurrahman Al-Essa, and the President of General Intelligence Khalid bin Ali Al-Humaidan.

The Saudi visit is a sharp departure from the late March 2015 Saudi comment at the Arab League that accused Putin of hypocrisy for telling the Arab summit that he should not express support for the Middle East while fuelling instability by supporting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

In St. Petersburg, the Kingdom and the Kremlin signed multiple broad-ranging agreements across a number of important sectors that are important for the Kingdom’s future economic growth and development – as well as discussing the regional security environment. The Saudi delegation also met with other Russian Federation elites including the Acting President of Tatarstan. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman will visit Russia later this year; Putin is going to the Kingdom too.

The key question is why now?  Why is Saudi Arabia reaching out to the Kremlin at this juncture? As usual, there are foreign and domestic necessities that are behind Riyadh’s calculus.

Primarily, Saudi Arabia needs Russia’s help now. With Saudi operations going awry in Yemen along with the ongoing proxy battles in Syria, the Kingdom is reaching out to the Kremlin. The Iranian file is also part of the Saudi calculus given that, traditionally, Moscow has acted as a backdoor to Tehran. That door existed under King Abdullah with visits by Prince Bandar bin Sultan; now the visit by Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to re-open that door. Unlike Prince Bandar’s approach, Arab and Russian interlocutors are noting that Mohammed bin Salman is approaching Moscow in a weakened position. Notable is the quick nature of the Mohammed bin Salman-Putin meeting as well as the low-key official greeting committee upon Mohammed bin Salman’s landing in St. Petersburg according to an Arab official.

Saudi Arabia, under the so-called Salman Doctrine, is facing increasing challenges.  An Arab official told me that, in his opinion, the Houthis are increasing their ‘presence’ in the Kingdom’s southern provinces of Najran and Jizan, and that Houthi SCUD missiles are making their way through the defensive shields provided by the Americans, notably the PAC-3 system. To the North, Saudi proxy fighters in Syria are facing complications because of Turkish and Qatari support networks. That Riyadh sees Moscow as a necessity now is a geo-political reality. Putin knows this fact and said as much to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stop playing ‘a double game’ when they met in Baku last week.

The Saudis are waking up to the fact that the Kremlin’s influence in Iran, Syria and Yemen is a strategic asset. Another Arab official told me that the Kingdom is in strategic over-stretch and not receiving the support it needs from the United States. To be sure, America is providing intelligence for Saudi air strikes but the Obama Administration is clearly withdrawing from the region on a political level, uncommitted to any serious action in the Arab world.

Hence, the Saudis see Russia in the role of negotiator on all political questions. Russia’s relations with multiple sides in the Yemen and Syrian conflict is of utmost importance. If successful, Russia stands to gain substantially at the expense of the United States. The Kingdom’s engagement policy with the Russians may indeed produce peace dividends and further alter the geopolitical landscape.

For Russia, the Kremlin sees her historical mission coming to fruition by rushing into the debacle of the Levant and coming up with solutions that will perhaps firmly place the Middle East within Moscow’s orbit and influence. The move is smart and timely. As such, the status and prospects for the Saudi-Russian bilateral relationship are growing, and both the Kingdom and the Kremlin stressed their readiness to intensify it, including trade, economic and energy cooperation which has a solid potential for growth. Last year, there was talk about such linkages but now there is a real crisis across the Middle East and Northern Africa region that is promoting a renewed urgency for bilateral ties. Saudi Arabia cannot ignore Russia any longer.

Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Russia is also notable for Saudi domestic requirements. It is important to note that Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for social and economic policy in the Kingdom. He is chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA).  Mohammed bin Salman is now pushing for – and got – the Russians to hold a meeting in October 2015 of the intergovernmental Saudi-Russian commission, which has not been hold for five years. That fact is a big shift in Riyadh’s outlook on the Kremlin.

Consequently, an agreement in the field of nuclear energy is notable particularly for the building of nuclear energy reactors and providing services in the nuclear fuel cycle, for nuclear power stations and research reactors. The agreement includes handling spent fuel and radioactive waste, and the production of radioactive isotopes and their application in industry, medicine and agriculture. It also concerns the training of staff. The agreement was signed as part of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum between King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE) President Hashim Yamani and Russian state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom Director Sergey Kiriyenko. The Russian nuclear energy effort in Saudi Arabia will complement earlier agreements signed with the Republic of South Korea.

Housing and related infrastructure are also a major Saudi-Russian pursuit during Mohammed bin Salman’s visit. Housing ministers from Russia and Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding for the two countries to cooperate in the housing sector. They aim to exchange experiences and work together in the construction and design of buildings. Within the framework of the memorandum of understanding, the two parties will discuss topics including successful experiences in the implementation of housing policies and the use of modern technologies and building materials. One Arab official noted that Russia is very good at building the necessary structures that serve both civilian and military requirements.

It is also significant to point out that just prior to Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Russia, that the Saudi-Russian Business Forum (SRBF) held a meeting. That the SRBF occurred also sends signals about joint Saudi-Russian cooperation in the field of food security, infrastructure development, power generation, inter-bank cooperation, tourism, petrochemicals, and oilfield services. During the visit, the Saudi delegation signed intergovernmental agreements on cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, space exploration, and sharing of the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system. In addition, the relevant ministries of the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on the development of cooperation in agriculture, as well as in the sphere of housing and communal services.

Importantly, the Saudis and the Russian are exploring joint ventures on building the construction and upgrade of railways and building underground railway systems.  The Kingdom plans to build metro systems in four cities in the near future.

Another salient Saudi group that visited Russia this past week was from Mohammed bin Salman’s Ministry of Defence. The Saudi military delegation went to the Kubinka international military-technical forum ‘Army 2015.’ The Saudis are interested in negotiating both defensive and offensive weapon systems including the S-300 and/or the S-400 air defence systems and also the Russian tactical missile complex Iskander-E. Russian sources told me that the Saudis seem desperate to buy new systems from a reliable seller. But at the same time, such orders will not be ready until 2017. Nevertheless, the discussion initiated by Mohammed bin Salman’s Ministry of Defence is notable given the timing with other regional events and trajectories for future procurement requirements. It will be some time before any possible deal – if at all – is ironed out.

Finally, Saudi Oil Minister Ali bin Ibrahim Al-Naimi also accompanied Mohammed bin Salman to meet Putin. The two sides agreed on the creation of a working group to develop joint energy projects where both Riyadh and Moscow will create new partnerships in oil and gas cooperation. This intention, if seen to fruition, is a major concession to Russia and an indicator that Saudi Arabia is noticing the shift of international energy politics shifting to the East. Perhaps the Kingdom’s use of low oil prices as a political tool to hurt Russia has now totally backfired and Riyadh is recognising that action must be taken to fix the damage.

Overall, the Saudi-Russian relationship is taking off in a new direction of cooperation. But it is clear – for now – that the Saudis need Russia more than the other way around. That is a significant change that guarantees that the Kremlin will be a major player in the future security and economic development of the Middle East, whether the West likes it or not.  Cooperation is across almost every major sector and it is likely to extend to mitigating a mutual nightmare for both countries:  ‘The Islamic State.’ Stay tuned.

Latest news