Russia and Saudi Arabia have long been enemies, but that might now be changing. On October 5, King Salman of Saudi Arabia visited Moscow, the first time that a sitting Saudi leader has gone to Moscow in the history of the two nations, signaling a new day in Saudi-Russian relations. During the visit, the leaders signed a $3 billion weapons deal which includes the Saudi purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, anti-tank weapons, and multiple-rocket launchers. As part of the agreement, Russia will help Saudi Arabia develop its weapons industry by localizing the production of the S-400 air defense system and Kalashnikov automatic rifles. President Putin and King Salman also discussed how the countries could collaborate to meet their respective economic and geopolitical goals.This meeting was a stark departure from history.
The enmity between the two countries dates back to the Cold War when Saudi Arabia worked with the United States to stymie Russia’s geopolitical goals in the Middle East. Riyadh encouraged Sunni extremism as an antidote to communism throughout the region. In the 1980s, Riyadh backed the Mujahideen, a group of Islamist guerilla fighters, against the Russians in Afghanistan. More recently, Saudi Arabia financed Chechen rebels in their ongoing insurgency against Moscow. However, Putin and the Saudi monarchy are overlooking their past animosity now that they see potential economic and geopolitical gains through cooperation.
Both Russia and Saudi Arabia have seen circumstances change in recent years. Between low oil prices and Western sanctions, Russia’s economy is struggling. In purchasing $3 billion of Russian weaponry and technology, Saudi Arabia is giving Russia much needed foreign investment. Yet this deal will be just as beneficial for the Crown Prince bin Salman’s vision for the Saudi economy. By stipulating that Saudi Arabia will produce the S-400 air defense system and the Kalashnikov rifles domestically in addition to acquiring rights to the military technology intelligence, Riyadh is using the deal to advance Prince Salman’s goal to diversify the Saudi economy, known as Vision 2030.
Moreover, the Saudi monarchy is aware that Washington is not the reliable ally it once was. Riyadh is willing to invest heavily in Russia largely because it sees improved relations with Moscow as geopolitically essential. Under the Obama administration, Washington was unwilling to fully support its autocratic ally; under the Trump administration, Washington’s policies are too chaotic to be reliable. Saudi Arabia must diversify its allies, and better relations with Russia are a step towards that goal.
Furthermore, King Salman wants to use Russia as a way of increasing his son’s low domestic popularity. When Crown Prince Salman succeeds his eighty-one-year-old father, he will be the youngest king in the Saud dynasty’s recent history. There is skepticism among the Saudi people that this will not be a smooth transition, especially after he entangled Saudi Arabia in the conflicts in Yemen and Qatar. Forging a new relationship with Russia is his way of proving himself to be a competent diplomat, which will, in turn, increase his support at home. Throughout the Syrian War, he made sure Riyadh and Moscow were communicating with each other even though they were backing opposing forces. His efforts were integral to bringing his father to Moscow to talk to Putin, and he will continue to use his influence to improve relations between the two countries. Forming a new and better relationship with a rising power broker in the Middle East would prove his leadership abilities to his people.
Already the countries are moving towards pragmatic solutions in the conflict zones that currently divide them. Previously, the two powers were at odds in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is backing the internationally recognized Yemeni president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, while Russia’s close ally Iran is supporting the Houthi rebels. However, Putin recently signalled that Russia is siding with Saudi Arabia in the conflict by accepting Hadi’s ambassador to Moscow as the official representative of Yemen.
In Syria, Saudi Arabia had been backing the forces rebelling against the Russia-backed dictator Bashar al-Assad. Last July, however, they worked together to de-escalate fighting in Ghouta, a war-torn suburb of Damascus where Assad’s forces have been fighting various rebel groups, including the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam. Russia organized the talks in Cairo that led to the ceasefire. Further, Qasim al Khatib, a leading member of the al-Ghad Movement, a Syrian opposition party, said that Saudi Arabia encouraged Jaish al-Islam to participate in the talks.
Iran’s reaction to this emergent relationship will be crucial. In recent years Moscow and Tehran have developed an alliance that is important to both of their economic and geopolitical interests. They have worked to raise oil prices, traded with each other in the face of Western sanctions, and signed arms deals that have benefited the Russian economy and enhanced the Iranian military. The countries have worked together in Syria and Iraq to limit Western influence in the Middle East and advance their own regional power. Rather than allowing Saudi Arabia, its enemy in a decades-old cold war, to make gains by working with one of its allies, Iran may try to use its influence on Russia to stop the rapprochement.
To make Russia the central power broker of the Middle East, Putin will have to maintain conflicting alliances by only working with Iran and Saudi Arabia on a conflict-by-conflict basis. He must prove Russia capable of filling the power vacuum left by the reduced role of the U.S. in the region. If he can manage the nuances of maintaining good relations with such staunch enemies as Iran and Saudi Arabia, he will prove that he is capable of taking on this role. As Russia amasses more power in the region, its allies will object less to Russia cooperating with their enemies; Russia will be too valuable a friend to cut off
Claire Potter is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.