Saudi King’s unprecedented visit to Russia Wednesday has unleashed a barrage of speculations about the real intentions driving the trip at a time the region is experiencing fresh developments. Despite the fact that Moscow and Riyadh have a relatively long history of diplomatic relations, Salman bin Abdulaziz is the first Saudi Arabian monarch to pay a visit to Russia.
The Saudi leader’s trip to Moscow came after a long way of highs and lows in the two countries’ relations in recent years. In March 2015, when Saudi Arabia led an Arab military coalition and waged a devastating war against the neighboring Yemen, the Saudi king called the Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss regional developments. During the phone call, the king was invited by Putin to visit Moscow to negotiate West Asian issues. At the time, many analysts speculated that the Russian leader wanted to warn the Saudis against the consequences of the anti-Yemeni campaign, and to show his discontent with the aggression against Sana’a. The trip was not made, however, as the Russian officials intensified their critical tone on Riyadh and its allies’ military action. But now with his trip the Saudi ruler wants to send a message that the Saudis have decided to negotiate with the Russians though the Kremlin officials have maintained their criticism of the military campaign in Yemen, now in its third year.
The media have made their suggestions on the visit, some talking of trade and others of military drives behind it. They maintain that Saudi Arabia intends to take to its side Russia in policy making for the oil market. Also, they talked about Saudi military purchases, including a $3.5 billion various weapons deal signed between the two parties.
But King Salman’s goals of travelling to Moscow go much beyond simply signing economic and military agreements. Even the Saudi buying of the cutting-edge S-400 missile defense system from Russia is described as carrying political messages to Riyadh’s closest ally Washington rather than having a deterrent nature militarily. The Saudi leaders are well aware that the White House will not be happy with their military purchases from Moscow. But they have the conviction now that they need to reduce their exclusive reliance on the Americans in favor of diversification of their directions and alliances in their foreign policy.
However, sending the political messages through the arming deals with Moscow is not the only reason why the monarch went to Russia. Since the beginning of the Yemen war, Russia shared stances with Iran in condemnation of the Arab alliance’s aggression against the Yemenis. Now and after over two years of the war, Saudi Arabia and allies are resorting to the Russian help as they have fallen into despair amid their costly campaign yielding no palpable outcomes. The request from Moscow is now apparently demanding for help to move out of the Yemeni quagmire, though Moscow does not appear to have solutions other than pressing Riyadh to cease its military operations across Yemen for an exit from the crisis.
It is not only Yemen where the kingdom has met its failure. In Syria, too, the developments clearly run counter to the Saudi interests and goals. In the present conditions, the Syrian government, backed by Iran, Russia, and Lebanese Hezbollah is in far better conditions than in the initial years of the conflict. Unlike in 2014 that vast swaths of Syria were seized by ISIS, now the terrorist group holds less than 10 percent of the Syrian territories. Other terrorist groups, initially source of Saudi optimism to see the Syrian President Basher al-Assad overthrown, are now highly fragile militarily and close to their obliteration. These Syrian circumstances signal fall of the Saudi power to play a role in the conflict, pushing the Saudis to rush to the closeness to Moscow in a bid to garner influence in Syria’s future.
Saudi Arabia and Russia stood on the opposite sides of the Syrian crisis and now visit of the highest Saudi official to Moscow might indicate that the kingdom is poised to accede to the Russian demands in Syria. Having in mind that maintaining the rule of President Assad is the paramount objective of Russia, can it be understood that Saudi Arabia has accepted stay of the central Syrian government in power?
Well, Saudi Arabia has no other option especially that the Syrian president has obtained a reliable level of political stability. Saudi leaders are presently devoid of options empowering them to challenge Assad’s stay in power. Their ally Trump is increasingly shifting attention to support of the Kurdish militants rather than Arab allies of Riyadh in Syria. Some European powers like France now talk about the need to prioritize fighting ISIS to struggling to oust the Syrian leader. With regard to these events, Riyadh looks more prepared than ever to agree to the Syrian government stay and coordinate with Moscow to obtain some of its goals in Syria. The softening of stance on Syria was publicized by the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir who during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last month voiced advocacy to the Syrian de-escalation zones. He further said: “Saudi Arabia and Russia both support a united Syria.”
But the fact is that only accepting continuation of the Assad leadership is not the sole reason justifying the monarch’s Russia trip. Raising an argument about what he called Iranian meddling in regional affairs, Salman urged Iran to stop intervention. So drawing gaps between Tehran and Moscow, two strategic allies, by persuading Russia to put strains on Iran is another important trip goal.
But the Saudis are far way from achieving such a goal. The same anti-Iranian goals were already sought by Israeli regime. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister, travelled to Russia in late August and piled up accusations against Tehran in meeting with Russian leaders. To Netanyahu’s dismay, Kremlin rejected those charges against the Islamic Republic.
For the Russians, Iran is a reliable ally not only in Syria but also in many fields. For Tehran and Moscow, previous alignment in various regional cases like Afghanistan, Iraq, and even the Central Asia bears a valuable and durable pattern of joint work. Unlike the West and even China, Iran not only presents no rival to Russia in the Central Asia but also makes a trustable partner eying security, political, and economic consistency rather than elimination. The two countries’ last year joint industrial exhibition, dubbed “Expo-Russia Armenia plus Iran” was indicative of Tehran-Moscow interest in developing partnership.
On the other side, the Russians are well aware of the fact that closeness to Saudi Arabia will facilitate promotion of fundamentalism in the Russian territories and in neighboring regions under the cover of cultural links, a policy pursued by the Saudis for years in other countries. This will make Moscow take very conservative steps towards interaction with the kingdom. The Russian officials are concerned abot radical groups’ moves in the Central Asia as the country has already witnessed their attacks against the Russian interests in the region.
Therefore, the Saudi Salman’s visit must be seen as a step to establish short-term, occasional ties with Moscow mainly motivated by Riyadh need to the Russian help, rather than deep and long-term relationship. With the Saudi foreign policy being constantly pro-Western, the two countries’ relations are far from enhancement to decisively strategic levels.