ANDREI AKULOV | 30.11.2018
It has just been announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Argentina during the G20 summit. The meeting is scheduled on Dec.1. The parties will address a range of issues, including Syria and oil production. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi will also be on the agenda but it won’t top it. Moscow has not made any statements on the tragic event waiting for an official investigation to arrive at conclusions.
Russia’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia began 92 years ago. In 1926, the Soviet Union was the first state to recognize the young Kingdom and establish diplomatic ties with it. The two nations have struck a close relationship in recent years. King Salman paid a state visit to Moscow on October 4-8, 2017 – the first one of its kind. No incumbent monarch had done it before him. The program of his visit was extremely busy and included high-level talks. Saudi companies signed investment deals worth more than $3 billion during the event.
The two nations’ foreign chiefs liaise regularly in various formats, including on the sidelines of multilateral fora. President Putin is expected to visit Saudi Arabia at some point. Last year saw a notable leap ahead, with bilateral trade flow increasing almost twice as compared to 2016 and reaching $915.2 million. The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia has declared an intention to invest up to $10 billion in major projects across Russia. An investment of $1 billion has already been approved. The parties are exploring joint ventures in construction and upgrade of railways.
Saudi Arabia and Russia are discussing bilateral energy and petrochemical projects, including renewable energy and liquefied natural gas technologies. Minister Novak paid a working visit to Saudi Arabia in April. Russian oil giant Rosneft plans to participate in the privatization of Saudi state-owned Aramco. In 2016, Riyadh and Moscow, the largest oil exporters, forged a historic “OPEC-plus” agreement to continue the cooperation between OPEC, Russia, and other non-OPEC producers.
Defying US pressure, Riyadh has also agreed to purchase the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles system to end its total reliance on Western military equipment. During the King Salman’s visit last year, a $3.5 billion arms deal was finalized. It included the transfer of technology. The kingdom is interested in negotiating MiG-35 lightweight fighters, T-90 main battle tanks and also the tactical missile system Iskander-E. Saudi Arabia has set the goal of creating a modern defense industry of its own, with over 50% of procurements localized by 2030. Today, domestic procurements account for only 2% of the funds spent on arms purchases. Moscow has a special role to play in achieving the goal, especially after its weapons have demonstrated such an impressive success in Syria.
It was rather symbolic that the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow was opened by a match between the two countries’ teams.
There parties have pressing issues to talk about in Argentina. In January 2018, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally expressed interest in playing the role of mediator in Yemen. Actually, Moscow could attempt to host Astana-style peace talks between the conflicting fractions in an attempt to end the seemingly intractable conflict. It has an advantage of maintaining positive relations with a wide array of Yemeni warring factions.
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman has also made crucial personal contribution to the development of bilateral relations, which can hardly be overestimated. He has repeatedly visited Russia and met personally with President Putin. The crown prince advocates the modernization of the country.
The plans include reducing the role of the clergy in state affairs and lowering the national economy’s dependence on oil exports. He aims to cooperate with Russia wherever possible. Russia is as a partner in Riyadh’s far-reaching ambitious plans. During his visit to Moscow in 2017 he stressed that bilateral relations were “experiencing one of their best moments ever.” Prince Muhammad is the author of the Saudi Vision 2030 long-term development program launched to move the Kingdom from oil profits and dependency on the US to diversified modern economy and strong military potential, allowing it to implement independent foreign policy. Saudi Arabia demonstrated that the Kingdom was eager to keep balance in its ties with other countries.
The crown prince is in two minds when it comes to cooperating with Russia on foreign policy issues. The parties view differently the situation in Syria. On the other hand, both support the Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In particular, Egypt’s arms deals with Moscow have been made possible thanks to Saudi financial assistance. The prince seems to appreciate Moscow’s restrained position on the Yemeni issue.
Importantly for Saudi Arabia, there is not a single state in the region that Russia has a conflict with. Moscow has not taken sides in the current dispute between Qatar and the GCC. It puts it in the position to act as a mediator and a communications channel between Riyadh and those who support Doha, including Iran and Turkey. Moscow’s desire for stability in the Middle East is sincere because the regional security is related to its southern borders.
Riyadh acknowledges the importance of Russia as a major global player and a regional power that can talk to all sides and thus significantly contribute to keeping the Middle East away from the abyss of conflict and instability. Neither partner shares the so-called “Western values’. The upcoming Russia-Saudi meeting at G20 summit demonstrates that both countries are set for a much closer relationship with new poles of power playing an increasingly larger role in international affairs. Despite the well-known differences over Syria and Iran, the contemporary Russian-Saudi relations are at an apex and this relationship has a promising future.