By Peter Lvov
Last week Moscow was visited by Saudi ruler Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud accompanied by an entourage of a hundred people that was carried out in order to hold meetings with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. A couple of separate rounds of negotiations was held with the Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, the Foreign Minister of the KSA, the Minister of Energy along with the head of the sovereign foundation of the Kingdom, who is in charge of Riyadh’s overseas investments. After all, from the very beginning it was clear why would a Saudi king decide to come to Moscow for the first time since 1926. Since only two matters are of any importance for Riyadh today: Iran and its policies in the region and collective oil pricing. Everything else is treated as secondary concerns by Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis do fear Tehran these days, since they believe that Shia influence is growing across the region, while the Islamic Republic of Iran is implementing a plan to create a Shia arc that would unite Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia that is a home to a Shia minority. Riyadh is truly concerned about the close bilateral relations that exist between Russia and Iran, especially in the field of military cooperation. For over a decade Riyadh has been trying to persuade Moscow to cut all military deals with the Islamic Republic of Iran in exchange for massive purchases of arms that were allegedly to be made by Saudi Arabia in Russia. But when Moscow supported anti-Iranian sanctions within the UN framework in 2010 and refused to fulfill its obligation to deliver S-300 anti-air systems to the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia would simply back off without any explanation. Predictably, there’s been no other investments from Saudi Arabia in other areas of Russia’s economy.
Then, back in 2013, Russia was visited by the head of Saudi special services, Prince Bandar that promised President Vladimir Putin to “neutralize” all terrorist threats during the Sochi Olympics and authorize the purchase of Russian weapons in Saudi Arabia, along with investing billions of dollars in the Russian economy. In exchange he wanted Russia to abandon its support of Iran, especially in Syria. Back then he was demanded politely to leave, but still Russia’s south saw in abrupt increase in the number of terrorist attacks.
The development of economic ties with Saudi Arabia has been lobbied by the Russian Direct Investment Fund under Vneshekonombank, which was created to attract investments from the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf (GCC). For six years, its head would travel across the six of the GCC member states, but all he was able to receive were empty promises from a number of officials, including those from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait. And it was not until early 2017 that Russia’s standing with the GCC states began to improve, primarily due to the agreement on the regulation of oil prices between Moscow and Riyadh that was made within the OPEC framework. A big role in this was played by Russia’s Minister of Energy Alexander Novak that when the matter of King Salman’s possible visit to Moscow was brought up. The visit was also triggered by an internal crisis within the GCC, that broke out last June. Back then Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and a number of Arab countries abruptly broke all ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and extremism. The defeat that radical Islamists suffered in Syria has also played a role in this visit, as did the failures of the Saudi military coalition in Yemen, where the Iranian-backed Houthis managed to organize tough resistance. All of this factors continue draining Saudi treasury.
Then US President Trump stopped Riyadh from staging a coup d’etat in Doha, forcing Riyadh to play the Russian card yet again. Since no serious analyst will believe that Saudi Arabia, which security depends on the US, will seek any serious cooperation with Moscow. Washington has been kin to bring down Putin at any cost, and it’s unlikely that it will allow Russia’s economy to be saved by financial injections from Saudi Arabia.
The strategic task of Saudi Arabia is the policy of maximum isolation of Iran, which means that Riaydh is engaged in yet another attempt to lure Russian leaders with generous promises in attempts to achieve some sort of cooling in Moscow’s relations with Iran. To achieve this goal, the Saudis are ready to bluff big time. Most likely, they do not need Russian anti-air systems, which the Saudi king promised to purchase. But if their the purchase may allow Saudi Arabia to achieve its main task – why wouldn’t they buy these C-400. Moreover, the Saudis can also agree to a Russian zone influence in Syria if Iranian elements are to be forced out of this state completely.
Saudi investments in the Russian economy is a part of the same attempts to play Russia into turning its back on Tehran. Saudi treasury is almost empty at this point and Riyadh still has to buy a 100 billion dollars worth of arms as its officials promised to Trump during his visit to Saudi Arabia last summer. As of now Riyadh promises to buy 3 billion dollars worth of weapons in Russia. If we are to compare this number with 110 billion dollars worth of arms, one can notice that Saudi Arabia is planning to buy 30 times more weapons from US manufacturers. Similarly, while 10 billion dollars are allegedly to be invested in the Russian economy, Saudi Arabia is investing more that a trillion dollars in the real sector of the US economy.
Yet, it should be admitted that the Saudis are allocating their funds quite rationally. For Russia Iran is without a doubt a hindrance in the Syrian conflict. The long list of contradictions between Tehran and Moscow on the situation in Syria is rarely discussed in the media for obvious reasons. But without Iran and its allies like the Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militants and Afghan volunteers, Assad’s government would not survive longer than three months. It’s also true that all those forces would face an imminent defeat without Russia’s air corps operating in Syria, but still. In addition, Iran is an important part of behind-the-scenes negotiations on the so-called Turkish flow. The Turks are categorical in their unwillingness to grant Gazprom an exclusive right to exploit the pipeline. That’s why out of the four planned strings only two are still being discussed, although Gazprom is very persistent in the negotiations. In order for the Turkish flow to become real it must also transport gas from Qatar and Iran. This condition brought forward by Tayyip Erdogan keeps Moscow on its toes in this sensitive matter.
But in any case, the visit of the Saudi king is important. This means that Moscow plays an important role in the Middle East, and that it is a force to be reckoned with. Yet, in the foreseeable future Riyadh will not turn its back on the United States, since any Riyadh’s attempts to pursue its own goals will be brutally suppressed. But if Saudi Arabia invests in the Russian Federation at least the promised 10 billion dollars and starts buying weapons from Moscow – this would be a good enough result after ten years of empty promises, especially if Saudi Arabia ceases its support of the so-called Syrian opposition, as it hasn’t until now. So, in principle the visit produced positive results, although in the form of promises and declarations of intent. The only question is are those promises are going to be followed by any real steps this time?