Are Saudis turning to Moscow to find them a way out in Yemen and mediate with Iran?
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Perhaps it was a coincidence that this week’s high profile visit to Moscow by King Salman of Saudi Arabia fell on the second anniversary of the deployment of Russian forces to Syria — overturning the balance of power on the ground and spelling the beginning of the end of the American project for the country. Two years on, the situation has been transformed: the so-called Islamic State (IS) has been reduced to a few small enclaves in Deir az-Zour and ar-Raqqa, the central government has recovered some 90% of the territory it lost, and Turkey has gone from being Russia’s fiercest opponent in Syria to its strategic ally. Now we see Saudi Arabia – following in the footsteps of arch-rival Iran — extending the hand of friendship and cooperation to President Vladimir Putin.
The ‘historic’ royal visit, the first at this level since the Saudi kingdom was founded 85 years ago, would have been unimaginable two years ago when the two sides stood in opposing trenches in the Syria war. But circumstances have changed. Saudi Arabia now tacitly accepts Bashar al-Asad remaining in power and acknowledges that he cannot be forced out by militarily means. And it has lowered its expectations with regard to obtaining Russian guarantees that Iranian influence in Syria will be contained, or that the Saudi-backed opposition given a role in the country’s future
Putin is a smart operator who thinks in terms of his country’s strategic interests. He wants to forge alliances with the principal sates in the Middle East – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Egypt – and challenge the waning influence of the US, thereby enabling Russia to be a powerful and pivotal player in managing the region’s many crises. It is from this strategic perspective that he seeks to lure Saudi Arabia, the last real holdout in the region, into the Russian tent too. Hence the spectacularly lavish reception he laid on for the Saudi monarch and his massive entourage, complete with welcoming banners in Arabic and Russian lining the road from the airport to central Moscow.
The visit was about making deals, both political and commercial. The Russians are keen to attract Saudi investments and commercial deals. The Saudis are open to that – the king brought one hundred Saudi businessmen with him to Moscow with their cheque-books at the ready – but seek political and military favours in return.
On the economic front, the two sides agreed to keep oil production levels at present levels until March in order to stabilize prices, deploying their clout as the biggest producers inside and outside OPEC respectively, and signed a number of energy-related investment agreements.
The big surprise, however, came on the military front, with the announcement the Russia had agreed to sell Saudi Arabia advanced S-400 air defence systems as well as other weaponry and equipment.
The political dimension of this is important. Saudi Arabia wants to diversify its sources of armament along with its sources of income, and develop a partnership with Moscow that goes beyond routine cooperation in the oil sector. Russia feels the same way. The payback sought by Saudi Arabia is two-fold: preventing the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, and finding a way out of the disastrous war it launched on Yemen two and a half years ago.
The Saudis want Russia’s help in finding a political settlement in Yemen due to its ties with the three key components of the anti-Saudi alliance there: the Houthi Ansarullah movement, former president Ali Abdallah Saleh and his General Peoples’ Congress (GPC) party, and Iran, which backs both from afar. What matters most to Saudi Arabia is for the balance of power in Yemen not to tilt further to Tehran’s advantage.
Whatever one’s view of Saudi Arabia, the visit could herald important changes in its regional policies and, as a consequence, in the Middle East as whole. Riyadh has recently u-turned on a number of issues, breaking former taboos. This reflects a change of approach made necessary by a succession of Saudi policy failures and by altered circumstances: above all the regional ascendancy of Iran and its allies, the on-going war of attrition in Yemen, and growing mistrust of the credibility of Saudi Arabia’s traditional ally, the US – not least due to the prospect of being hit with devastating effect by the JASTA law.
It is too early to judge how far Riyadh’s rapprochement with Russia could go. It may prove to be a temporary expedient, partly to help ease Crown Prince Muhammad bin-Salman’s formal ascendancy to the throne. The agreements announced during the royal visit were mostly in the form of preliminary understandings, and the actual deals signed were of limited value. They certainly pale into insignificance compared to the $460 billion worth of deals that Donald Trump took back with him to Washington after he visited Riyadh. Nevertheless, if Trump was watching the Saudi monarch being feted to Moscow, he will not have been pleased by the visit or the agreements signed during it.
To gauge the political outcome of the trip, the key thing to look out for in the coming is signs of Russia becoming more active on two fronts: Yemen and Iran – in both cases in the role of mediator.