King Salman paid the first official visit to Russia by a Saudi monarch on 4–8 October. The visit attests to the growing commonality of interests between the two countries, as well as to at least a tactical surmounting of differences on regional security issues.
Soviet Russia was the first country to recognise the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (in 1926), but no Saudi monarch had ever visited Russia. This first meeting is a result of improved relations in the last couple of years. The improvement was led by the Saudi king’s son, the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is de facto running Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. Better relations with Russia can serve the young prince, whose decisions are contested within the royal family.
The flywheel of better Saudi-Russian relations was collaboration in the oil sector, a key policy area to both countries. Since late 2016, Saudi Arabia and Russia have been cooperating on reducing the global oil supply (OPEC+ agreement). Economic collaboration has temporarily proven more important than differences in policies vis-à-vis Syria and Iran.
More than a dozen trade and investment agreements and memorandums of understanding were signed in areas such as outer space cooperation, energy, defence industry, and agriculture, altogether worth more than $3 billion. A $1 billion joint energy investment fund will be established. Petrochemicals company Silbur is to build a plant in Saudi Arabia ($1 billion) while Saudi investments in Russian transport should exceed $100 million. Cooperation in the oil and nuclear sectors also is to expand—Rosatom wants to build a plant in Saudia Arabia.
Contracts for Russian military hardware were announced (S-400 anti-aircraft systems and the production of AK103 Kalashnikovs in Saudi Arabia), as well as prolongation of the OPEC+ agreement till the end of 2018. Despite the scale and value of the contracts signed, the volume of bilateral trade is only a hundredth of the Saudi-American trade.
Policy towards the war in Syria remains a contentious issue: Russia supports the government in Damascus and Saudi Arabia, the opposition. The Saudis may find cooperation with Russia beneficial if Russia can guarantee a place in the future power sharing arrangement to the Syrian opposition. In turn, Saudi Arabia could ensure the participation of a unified Syrian opposition in the Russian-led talks in Astana.
The bigger and key contentious bilateral issue is Iran. Russia’s partnership with Iran could be useful to Saudi Arabia only in as much as Russia can limit Iran’s influence. It could have been agreed in Moscow that the Saudis will not fight to remove Syria’s Assad from power in return for Russia’s acquiescence on Saudi policies in the Arabian Peninsula that target Iran.
Russia and Saudi Arabia have traditionally partaken in rival geopolitical factions: the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on the one hand vs. Russia and Iran on the other. Despite a temporary improvement in relations with the U.S., the Saudis are disillusioned with American reluctance to take prime responsibility for regional conflicts, as demonstrated by the Obama administration and continued under Trump. A Russia that can influence both Assad and Iran is a more convenient partner to Saudi Arabia in solving regional and economic problems.
In contrast to the U.S. and the EU, the Russians do not scrutinise the undemocratic systems of Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt. In the long term, the greatest risk to the EU is the possibility that Russia will become the linchpin of interests of key Middle Eastern states, which could form an undemocratic and anti-Western alliance.