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Saudi king seeks thaw in ties with Russia

King Salman's trip, the first state visit by a Saudi monarch, is a sign of the shifting dynamics in West Asia as Russia assumes a greater role.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman at the Kremlin in Moscow. The visit highlights efforts by King Salman to shift away from his country's historic reliance on the United States and diversify its international partnerships. REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman at the Kremlin in Moscow. The visit highlights efforts by King Salman to shift away from his country's historic reliance on the United States and diversify its international partnerships. REUTERS

President Vladimir Putin of Russia warmly welcomed King Salman of Saudi Arabia under the gleaming chandeliers of the Kremlin last Thursday, signalling a rapprochement between two longtime rivals who have faced off in some of the world’s thorniest conflicts.

King Salman’s visit, the first by a Saudi monarch, sought to cement growing ties between the world’s two largest oil producers, which have coordinated efforts to stabilise crude prices, lift their economies and end the war in Syria.

The visit highlights efforts by King Salman, since he ascended the throne in 2015, to shift away from his country’s historic reliance on the United States and diversify its international partnerships, analysts said.

The visit also acknowledges Russia’s increasing clout in West Asia, and the kingdom’s tacit acceptance of the enduring rule of President Bashar Assad in Syria, whom Saudi Arabia had opposed and Russia had intervened to save.

“We cannot ignore that Russia has become a key player in West Asia, particularly due to the Obama doctrine that saw the US role in the region shrink,” said Faisal J Abbas, editor-in-chief of Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, who was in Moscow for the visit. “Russia, with its financial and military might, stepped into the equation.”

The recalibration of the kingdom’s foreign relations comes as it ushers in domestic reforms that could alter its socially conservative society. King Salman, 81, removed the power of arrest from the country’s religious police,and announced last week that the ban on women driving would be lifted. Other reforms, such as repealing the ban on cinemas, are expected soon.

For more than half a century, Saudi Arabia has looked to the United States as its most important ally, working closely with successive administrations on economic, political and security issues across West Asia.

For much of that time, Saudi Arabia remained hostile to the Soviet Union, backing Islam as an antidote to communism and contributing to far-flung Cold War insurgencies.

In the 1980s, it partnered with the CIA and Pakistan against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Salman, then a young prince, led a committee that raised money from wealthy Saudis to support the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets.

More recently, Saudi Arabia supported anti-Kremlin rebels in the restive republic of Chechnya. The kingdom maintains ties with Russia’s predominantly Muslim regions, including Chechnya, where the conflict was brutally ended by Putin and his local ally, Ramzan A Kadyrov, leader of the Chechen Republic.

The symbolism of the Saudi king travelling to Moscow just months after President Donald Trump flew to Riyadh and lavished praise on his Saudi hosts, spoke volumes about changing relationships in West Asia.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia and Russia were at odds in Syria, where the kingdom partnered with the United States and other countries to back rebels seeking to overthrow Assad. Russia, Assad’s longtime ally, sent forces in 2015 that turned the tide, and now Assad’s future appears secure.

As the Saudis have given up on the possibility of regime change in Damascus, their stance toward Russia has changed. Russia is likely to seek Saudi support for its efforts to establish “de-escalation zones” to bring down the violence, analysts said. And Saudi Arabia is likely to seek Russian help in pushing back against Iran, its regional nemesis.

But analysts doubted that Russia would take the Saudi side against Iran, given its battlefield partnership with Iran to help Assad in Syria.

“Definitely, Russia’s operation in Syria put Moscow into the front line of Middle Eastern politics,” said Grigory Kosach, an expert for the Russian International Affairs Council. “Saudi Arabia believes that they now have to build relations with Russia because it plays a significant role in their home region. However, Russia is acting there in tandem with Iran, which worries the Saudis.”

Oil has brought them closer, too. After the sharp drop in oil prices in 2014, both nations faced similar perils: budget deficits and the need to diversify their exports. Being the two biggest oil producers, they were the principal backers of an oil production freeze agreement that stopped the price fall.

“This deal has opened a new page in the Russian-Saudi relations,” wrote Marianna Belenkaya, a West Asia analyst, in a commentary for the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Both sides saw that dialogue is possible.”

While agreements with Russia may not directly affect the kingdom’s interactions with Washington, they could give Russia leverage to interfere.

“American preferred access to Saudi oil, and the two countries’ close cooperation, has been the bedrock of the American-Saudi relationship since its inception, which in turn has been a pillar of US strategy in West Asia,” wrote Firas Maksad, deputy executive director of the Arabia Foundation in Washington. “Putin now has a greater ability to influence, and potentially disrupt, that relationship than ever before.”

Putin hinted as much when asked about the US-Saudi alliance during an economic forum in Moscow this week. “Is there anything permanent in the world?” he said. “I think, on the contrary, the world is changing all the time.”

Multiple deals
Critics note that previous efforts toward rapprochement between the two nations have foundered, and it remains unclear whether the memorandums of understanding signed last week will result in concrete projects.

The two countries agreed to move toward deeper cooperation on space programmes, weapons deals and other issues, and signed an agreement to create a $1 billion joint investment fund. They also announced a plan to manufacture Russia’s famous Kalashnikov rifles in the kingdom as part of its budding military industry.

Russia’s economy is much smaller than that of the US and is hurting from sanctions, some applied by the US and Europe after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and others added by the US in response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

Russia’s military, too, is dwarfed by that of the US. Decades of cooperation would make it difficult for the Saudis to separate from their US ally, and they have expressed no intention of doing so.

Moreover, increased Russian-Saudi ties need not contradict American interests, said Theodore Karasik, senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based consultancy.

“The idea that Russia and Saudi are working together to rework the region across a spectrum of issues can be an American interest, but there needs to be an awakening of what the true relationship is between the Russian Federation and the countries of West Asia,” Karasik said.

The Saudi investment in closer ties was clear on last Thursday. About 1,000 people joined the king’s delegation, Russian news media reported, taking over the Four Seasons and other luxury hotels near the Kremlin.

International New York Times

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