Russian President Vladimir Putin has accepted the invitation of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to pay an official visit to Saudi Arabia. The invitation was made on October 5, when the two leaders met in Moscow at the first ever Russia-Saudi summit. It was the largest ever foreign delegation to Moscow. The event put an end to the era of non-committal agreements. The two powers signed dozens of documents to enhance cooperation in many spheres.
The visit had been expected for a very long time since Putin invited the king to visit Russia in 2015. The event had been rescheduled several times. The Soviet Union was the first country to recognize the independence of Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic relations were established in 1926 to break down in 1938. They were reestablished with Russia in 1991. A Saudi king never visited the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation, until October 4.
The parties have good prospects for boosting cooperation. Russia ranks 12th in the world in terms of GDP and 6th globally in purchasing power and the world’s largest natural gas reserves. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter, the second largest oil reserve in the world and a leading member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Both countries are members of the G20, which includes the world’s 20 largest economies.
The countries don’t see eye to eye on many international issues but realize how important it is to cooperate and exchange the views. In Syria, Saudi Arabia played an important role in the signing of the Cairo agreements, which foresaw the establishment of a full ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta. The Saudi King specifically touched upon the Syrian issue, saying Riyadh intends to achieve the resolution of the crisis in the war-ravaged country in accordance with Geneva decisions and UN Security Council resolutions.
The summit may be a start for the influx of Saudi investment into Russia. The parties agreed joint investment deals worth several billion dollars, ranging from oil, military and space exploration. It was agreed that the Saudi Public Investment Fund, which is to invest up to $100 million in transport projects in Russia, would launch its representative office in Russia following the results of the meeting. The two countries also signed a deal to set up a $1 billion joint investment fund. Another memorandum of understanding was signed, under which Russian petrochemicals firm Sibur would explore cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
A memorandum of understanding was inked on the purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Russia to mark a shift for Saudi Arabia, which until now has been purchasing arms from the United States and Great Britain. If the deal goes through, the kingdom will be the third country to acquire S-400s. China was the first buyer with a contract inked in 2014. The deliveries will start after 2018. Last month, Turkey concluded an agreement to receive the systems after 2019.
Along with the S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, Saudi Arabia is also set to buy Kornet anti-tank guided missile systems and multiple rocket launchers under the deal. A plan to manufacture Russia’s famous Kalashnikov rifles in the kingdom as part of its budding military industry was also announced. These agreements are “expected to play a pivotal role in the growth and development of the military and military systems industry in Saudi Arabia,” Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), the kingdom’s military industries firm said. The memorandum of understanding includes the transfer of technology for the local production of the Kornet anti-tank guided missile systems, advanced multiple rocket launchers and automatic grenade launchers.
Saudi Arabia has set the goal of creating a modern defense industry of its own, with over 50% of defence procurements localized by 2030. Today, domestic procurements account for only 2% of the funds spent on arms purchases. With the impressive success of Russian weapons demonstrated in Syria, Moscow has a special role to play in achieving the goal.
For more than half a century, Saudi Arabia has looked to the United States as its most important ally. The alliance is still there but reality makes the kingdom diversify its foreign policy partners. “Is there really anything in the world that’s absolutely permanent?” Putin told an energy forum in Moscow on October 4, in response to a question about whether Saudi Arabia will always align with the US on geopolitical issues. “It seems to me, on the contrary, that everything’s changing.”
The king’s visit acknowledges Russia’s increasing clout in the Middle East. A new geopolitical configuration is being built in the region with Russia playing a leading role. The Saudi king’s visit was a major breakthrough in Russia’s relations with the Sunni world. Moscow does not take sides in the Sunni-Shia conflict, which makes it well suited to playing the role of mediator between the Gulf States and Iran.
Russia enjoys good relations with all countries of the region. No other country has such an advantage. Moscow is friendly with Iran, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. There is not a single state in the region that Russia has a conflict with. Moscow’s desire for stability in the Middle East is sincere because the regional security is related to its southern borders. Despite differences over Syria and the Iranian nuclear deal, contemporary Russian-Saudi relations are arguably at an apex, both in terms of shared interests and mutual understanding and this relationship has a promising future.
-The writer is an expert on wars and conflicts