When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was welcomed in Moscow, on October 5–8, both Russian and Saudi media sources rushed to call his visit an important milestone in bilateral relations (TASS, October 8). But with the initial euphoria from Salman’s trip to Russia now fading, it is useful to provide an objective assessment of its outcome.
The visit of the Saudi king to Russia was, indeed, historic: this was the first official trip of a ruling Saudi monarch to Moscow since the foundation of the Kingdom. Before this, none of the members of the House of Saud visited Russia in the capacity of a king. The agenda of Salman’s visit was also intense. He conducted negotiations with both President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, managed to talk to the leaders of the Muslim regions of Russia, and met with Russian muftis. During negotiations, Moscow emphasized discussions of existing economic issues. Thus, the Kremlin was primarily interested in dialogue on the prospects for Saudi investments in the Russian economy as well as bilateral cooperation in hi-tech, military-industrial, infrastructure and nuclear spheres. Moscow also wanted to talk about the future of the oil-production-cut agreement with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and options for Russian oil giant Rosneft to participate in the privatization of Saudi state-owned Aramco. King Salman, in turn, came to Moscow to discuss political issues such as the situation in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, as well as Saudi concerns about Iran’s regional policies. The domestic situation in Saudi Arabia was another factor that brought King Salman to Moscow: he also wanted to introduce his son, Muhammad bin Salman, as successor and, thus, to secure Russian support in this question (as he did with the new administration in the White House) (RBC, October 9).
Nevertheless, in spite of their different priorities, the two sides seemed to come to an understanding on a large number of issues. They signed around 15 agreements on cooperation in areas including space, nuclear energy, telecommunications and culture. Russia confirmed the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) leading role in settling the Yemeni crisis. The Saudi leadership supported the Astana process of the Syrian settlement, while Moscow assured Riyadh that the Kingdom will play one of the key roles in forming the delegation of the Syrian opposition at the future Geneva talks (TASS, October 8). Gazprom, Sibur and Aramco signed agreements on cooperation. The Saudi Public Investment Fund and Russian Direct Investments Fund agreed to finance joint oil, natural gas, and petrochemical projects, as well as scientific and technological research; and they promised to invest in Russian transport infrastructure (TASS, October 8).
Yet, it is too early to speak about a breakthrough in Russian-Saudi relations. First of all, on the political track, the sides merely confirmed unofficial agreements that existed between them since June–July 2017, when Moscow traded its silence on Saudi actions in Yemen for Riyadh’s support of the Astana process (RBC, October 9). No serious efforts were required to reach a bilateral understanding on this matter. Moscow had no vital interests in Yemen, whereas Saudi support at the negotiation table in Astana and Geneva was needed. Riyadh, in turn, was interested in international backing for its efforts in Yemen; whereas, continued confrontation with Moscow in Syria could only deprive the Saudis of any substantial role in the post-conflict future of this country (Iimes.ru, October 20).
The Saudi king failed to come to terms with Russia on another serious issue: Iran’s presence in the region. Riyadh wanted to persuade Moscow to decrease its cooperation with Tehran in exchange for the development of economic ties and political dialogue. However, Moscow only suggested playing the role of a mediator between Tehran and Riyadh. Consequently, the Iranian factor still remains a serious constraint for the development of a closer dialogue between Moscow and Riyadh. The cool-down in Moscow’s relations with Tehran is a traditional precondition set by the Saudis. Yet, Russia will hardly agree to abandon Iran (Iimes.ru, October 20; see EDM, October 16).
The future of the economic relationship between the two countries is also unclear. Most of the documents signed during King Salman’s trip were non-obligatory memorandums of understanding. The sides still have to negotiate the practical details. For long-time observers of Russian relations with the Middle East, this raises a strong feeling of déjà vu. In past years, Moscow and Riyadh periodically made bold declarations about their ambitious intensions. However, the track record of their practical implementation remained negligible. The volume of potential joint investments also does not appear to live up to the potential of the two countries. While Russia and Saudi Arabia are only planning on investing up to $2.1 billion in joint projects, Qatar has already invested up to $2.5 billion in the Russian economy. Moreover, Riyadh clearly refused to discuss with Moscow prospects of Russian participation in the privatization of Saudi Aramco (TASS, October 8).
The biggest questions revolve around the apparent agreements reached between Moscow and Riyadh in the military-industrial sphere (see EDM, October 11). The two sides reportedly signed an agreement on the sale of the S-400 air-defense missile system to Saudi Arabia, but it remains unclear whether the deal was finalized. Rather, it seems the Saudi side simply expressed its intent to discuss the purchase of S-400s during the forthcoming meeting of the bilateral commission on military-industrial cooperation, later this month. Meanwhile, an agreement on cooperation in the military sphere, also signed in Moscow during King Salman’s visit, was mostly related to smaller arms produced by the Kalashnikov consortium: the Russians plan to provide Saudi Arabia with the assembly line. This will help the Saudis arm their proxies in the region (probably in Yemen) and save money on buying Kalashnikov machine guns in Eastern Europe. However, the volume of the deal ($1–1.5 billion) looks small if not negligible against the volume of military contracts that Saudi Arabia signed with the United States only this past May ($110 billion) (RBC, October 9).
All in all, Salman’s visit was important for Moscow, but its practical results are, so far, too limited to call it the beginning of a new chapter in bilateral relations.