Despite Saudi Arabia's recent overtures to Russia, it is still too early to talk about close collaboration between the two countries due to the array of geopolitical and geostrategic differences in the Middle East.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, enter a hall for their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. Photo: AP
Judging by the report of the Russian Foreign Ministry, the visit paid by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir to Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov last week is another step in the ongoing rapprochement between the two countries. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
The Saudis visit Moscow again
It was the second visit by a top Saudi dignitary in a short space of time, following the appearance of Saudi Defense Minister Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June.
The tradition may be set to continue: the Kremlin has officially invited the Saudi monarch, King Salman, to visit Russia. It all points to an element of progress in Russian-Saudi relations, the political component of which in recent decades has been on ice, so to speak.
During the August 11 talks, the foreign ministers of Russia and Saudi Arabia touched upon a broad sweep of regional issues in the Middle East, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, the evolution of the Iran question, and the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.In global politics, the views of Moscow and Riyadh on the Middle East “agenda” carry a great deal of weight.
Saudi Arabia is a regional power with vast energy reserves and impressive finances. It claims leadership not only in the Arab world, but also throughout the entire Islamic world. But largely due to Riyadh’s foreign policy ambitions, Moscow finds it hard to see eye to eye with the Saudis over events in the Greater Middle East.
Saudi Arabia continues to pursue a reactionary foreign policy
It is fair to say that the events of the Arab Spring have increased Saudi Arabia’s regional influence even more. Other Islamic countries with claims to regional leadership (Turkey, Iran, Egypt) have experienced many internal and external problems in recent years. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, despite some “succession difficulties,” has managed to continue building up its economic and military potential.
The Saudis were actively involved in the processes that accompanied the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya. It was in their interests to see the fall of the regime of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, which had vied with the Wahhabi royal court for hegemony in the Arab world.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s accession to power in Egypt was not welcomed by the Saudi leadership; here too, Riyadh lent a hand in the overthrow of the legitimate president Mohamed Morsi through a military coup. Egypt’s new military leadership is now a regional partner of Saudi Arabia.
As head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia’s role in the Middle East is similar to that of the Holy Alliance in Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. The country has almost achieved its strategic objective of erasing secular authoritarian regimes of left-nationalist provenance. Only one serious obstacle remains — the Syrian Baathist regime.
And on this point Minister Adel Al-Jubeir is unbending: “For us, the matter is settled. Bashar al-Assad has no place in the future of Syria.”
Saudi Arabia continues to fund the activities of various rebel groups in Syria, many of which are far from being a democratic alternative to the Baathist regime.
In practice, when it comes to the fundamental issues of the Middle East context, Moscow and Riyadh appear to have convergent views only on the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
As Lavrov noted at a press conference after the talks: “[ISIS] is a genuine threat to Russia, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.”
Presumably the Saudi authorities do not underestimate its force. But at the same time it should not be forgotten that on most geopolitical subjects, Saudi Arabia itself continues to pursue a highly reactionary foreign policy, reminiscent at times of a leader that has burst into the modern world from the distant past.
Signs of economic cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia
The political “defrosting” of Russian-Saudi relations opens up the possibility for closer commercial ties between the two countries.
A few months ago the sensational news broke that the Saudi-owned Public Investment Fund plans to invest $10 billion in the Russian market to be spent on various infrastructure projects, agriculture, medicine and real estate.
During the visit of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi side expressed the wish to develop cooperation with Russia in investment, space exploration, residential construction and other areas.
Back in June, on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an agreement was signed on long-term bilateral cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
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Lastly, the Saudis are said to be interested in military-technical cooperation with Russia, in particular the purchase of Russian Iskander tactical missile systems.
None of these economic touch points, however, can conceal the fact that on such issues as the civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, as well as the “Iran question,” fundamental differences between Moscow and Riyadh persist.