In October of 2017, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to visit Moscow. A visit that began with the Saudi King getting stuck on the golden escalator designed to help him alight from his jet ended with discussions about a possible Saudi purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system while in the wider aftermath of the meeting, Russia and Saudi Arabia solidified the OPEC+ format where by Saudi Arabia as the de-facto leader of OPEC and Russia as the largest oil and gas producer from outside of the cartel have decided to take mutual decisions regarding cuts and expansions in energy production.
Thus, while the last year has seen a history making strengthening of Russo-Saudi ties that has been largely ignored even by Russian and Arabic media, the events of the last two months have served to essentially push the Russo-Saudi partnership to stratospheric levels. Russia’s Turkish partner (whose relations with Moscow are also rapidly growing) has a clear grudge against Saudi Arabia that is largely mutual. Schisms originating in a dramatically different view regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, to competing interests in Syria and finally the Qatar crisis in which Turkey sent troops to the small GCC state being boycotted by Saudi Arabia and its partners, all served to create a discordant atmosphere between Ankara and Riyadh. Finally, when Saudi Arabian officials murdered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – it represented the straw that broke the camels back not only in respect of Turkey’s relations with Riyadh but in respect of Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s divergent soft power in the wider Sunni Muslim world.
Thus, while Turkey’s star shines brightly above the Sunni Muslim street, Saudi Arabia is quietly re-positioning itself into a more pragmatic role that focuses less on creating a grand anti-Iranian alliance in the region to one which prioritises economic growth and diversification away from the oil trade. While a would-be Erdogan-MBS (Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman) meeting at the recently concluded G20 summit may have formally established these realities, clearly both sides were unwilling to conduct such a tense meeting at this point in time.
It is at this stage where Russian relations with Saudi Arabia become all the more crucial. When it comes to a genuinely non-ideological partner for Middle Eastern powers that harbours no sustained grudges against Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the one side nor against Turkey, Iran or Qatar on the other, Russia fits this description perfectly. The warm greeting that MBS and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchanged at the G20 summit was a clear optical signpost that will likely be used to visually represent the Russo-Saudi partnership for the foreseeable future.
To many people’s surprise, the greeting exchanged between Putin and MBS was in fact far more lively than the more serious salutations offered between Putin and his other major Arab partner Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Yet while the “Russian street” tends to emphasise Russia’s partnership with its Soviet era Syrian friend while ignoring Russia’s growing modern partnership with Saudi Arabia, the reality is (whether ordinary Russians or Arabs want to admit it or not) that Moscow’s relations with Riyadh are far more important to overall geo-economic and geopolitical trends than are Moscow’s relations with Damascus. The reason behind this is that while Syria requested Russia’s military assistance in 2015 from an objective position of weakness, Saudi Arabia approaches Russia from a position of economic strength.
The fact remains that in spite of the Khashoggi affair, MBS’s position in Riyadh looks to be secure while his popularity among young Saudi’s has not been impacted by the scandal. Yet while the anti-Trump elements of the US political system, many in Canada and many in Europe would ideally like to see the young, reformist and allegedly brutal MBS replaced by one of his older, more predictable and less politically intense siblings, Russia is all too happy to encourage MBS to go further down the path of multipolarity by offering Saudi Arabia the same kind of anti-ideological economic and intelligence insurance policy that it offered Bashar al-Assad’s Syria in respect of a military insurance policy.
I other words, just as Russia ‘had Assad’s back’ in exchange for Syria offering Russia a long term presence in the Mediterranean region that has been vital for Russia’s survival since the 18th century, so too is Russia offering Saudi Arabia a long term win-win economic and security partnership in exchange for further influence in the wealthiest regions of the Arab world. Furthermore, just as Russia provided the Turkish President with life saving intelligence during the FETO terrorist coup of 2016, as it is clear that some elements of the Saudi deep state may well attempt to move against MBS in a similar fashion, Russia clearly ‘has MBS’s back’.
And thus it becomes clear that just as Russia is able to maintain good relations between Assad’s Syria and Erdogan’s Turkey simultaneously, Russia will also be able to master good relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Iran, Turkey and Syria simultaneously. What’s more is that MBS knows this and clearly the politically mature President Erdogan realises this too. While Iran is the most ideologically driven state in the region, ultimately Iran’s leadership know it too. Thus, while Russia was late to the game in Syria (entering a 2011 era conflict only in 2015), when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the hard-won balance that Russia secured through its diplomatic relations with rivals including Turkey, Israel, Iran, and even the US (via Israel), means that an attempt at ‘regime change’ in Riyadh might well be over before it has had the chance to begin.
In this sense, by taking a non-ideological position with all the major powers of the Middle East that prioritises economic growth and balanced security cooperation, Russia is now the ultimate ally for most Middle Eastern powers. While the US still has its economic and military might to bolster its regional credentials, politically speaking, if the difference between the US being a friend or foe of MBS is the difference between Trump watching a positive segment about his Presidency on Fox News and bad news coming out of the Mueller investigation – clearly Russia is by far the more stable, sustainable, predictable and consequently more useful long term partner not just for Saudi Arabia but also Saudi’s Turkish, Qatari and Iranian rivals.
The fact of the matter is that MBS is now a wealthy version of Bashar al-Assad in terms of his relations with Russia and consequently his relations with some in the west and seemingly with Turkey also. This means that he may be ignored and castigated by some, but as someone who now has the open backing of Russia, he is clearly not going anywhere. The fact of the matter is that while some in the Russian and Arabic media are stuck in the Cold War, the actual Russian state has moved well beyond this and is as happy to partner with MBS, Sisi and Netanyahu as it is to partner with Rouhani, Assad, Abbas and also Erdogan and al-Thani.