The mishap at the Moscow airport on Wednesday when the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz arrived on a historic visit, was a wake-up call that even the most carefully choregraphed enterprises may hold unpleasant surprises.
When Salman exited his plane and stepped out onto the special escalator he travels with, something went wrong. It malfunctioned halfway down, leaving the king standing awkwardly for about 20 seconds before he decided to walk the rest of the way. For ordinary mortals, this wouldn’t have been an uncommon occurrence but divinity ordains when a king is involved.
The Russian-Saudi entente is not going to be smooth. The climactic event last week drawing Saudi Arabia into President Vladimir Putin’s Middle East sphere of influence, must be assessed with a sense of proportions.
Salman had hardly departed from Russian soil when the Pentagon issued a statement announcing that the State Department had on Friday approved a possible US$15-billion sale of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems to Saudi Arabia. The statement recalled that Saudi Arabia had requested to purchase from America 44 THAAD launchers, 360 missiles, 16 fire control stations and seven radars.
The US officials confirmed that the sale was part of the $110-billion package of defense equipment and services initially announced during US President Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May. The Pentagon statement said, “This potential sale will substantially increase Saudi Arabia’s capability to defend itself against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region.”
The timing of the US announcement is highly significant. It comes in the wake of claims by Russian officials that Saudi Arabia had shown interest in buying the S-400 missile defense system from Russia. The Saudis have successfully pressured the Trump administration to approve the sale of the THAAD system. And Washington has signaled that the US will not let Russia make an entry into the Saudi arms bazaar.
The hard-nosed realpolitik in the Saudi-Russian entente had a dramatic start when the then Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited Russia and held a four-hour meeting with Putin at the latter’s dacha outside Moscow in early August 2013. According to media leaks from Russian sources, the Prince allegedly confronted the Kremlin with a mix of inducements and threats in a bid to break Russia’s support for the Syrian regime, which Riyadh was trying to overthrow.
Bandar’s package was riveted on the alluring proposal of a unified Russian-Saudi strategy to keep oil production quantities at a level that keeps the price stable in global markets via an alliance between the OPEC cartel and Russia. And, in return for throwing the Syrian regime under the bus – thereby leaving Iran to face the brunt of the ISIS threat – Bandar promised that Russia could retain the naval base in Taurus under a successor regime in Damascus and be assured of security from a ‘jihadi’ backlash.
The Kremlin apparently spurned the overture in a huff. At any rate, by the beginning of 2014, symptoms of a new Cold War began appearing in Russia’s relations with the West following the regime change in Ukraine. The year 2015 also saw a ‘transition’ in Saudi Arabia with the death of King Abdullah. Of course, the year ended with Russia’s military intervention in Syria.
However, the seeds left behind by Bandar began sprouting and with the Russian economy feeling the crunch from Western sanctions, the fall in oil prices on the world market assumed an existential overtone for the Kremlin. The challenge of the US oil shale industry also meant that Saudi-Russian cooperation became a practical necessity. The rest is history.
Agreement to cut oil production
Indeed, the hallmark of Salman’s visit to Moscow has been the pledge by the two countries to carry forward their agreement to cut oil production. Putin disclosed that the deal to cut oil output to boost prices could be extended till the end of 2018, instead of expiring in March 2018.
Putin described his talks with the Saudi king as “very substantive, informative and very trusting”. And Russian commentators have hyped up that Saudi Arabia is “leaning toward Moscow in solving the Syrian crisis”. The Russian reports mentioned that Moscow and Riyadh are eyeing cooperation on nuclear energy, space exploration, plus infrastructure and arms deals.
However, Bandar’s proposal on oil production still remains the leitmotif of Saudi-Russian cooperation, as apparent from the rise in oil prices this week – as word came that Saudi Arabia and Russia would limit oil production through next year. (Brent crude was up 70 cents at $56.50 per barrel on Thursday.)
The point is, how do the Saudis view their ties with Russia? Are they aiming at a geopolitical shift in the Middle East? Evidently, Salman’s visit underscores that the Saudi and Russian leaders have decided to shift their focus toward common interests rather than let disagreements crowd the centre stage of relations. But then, the THAAD deal signals that Saudi Arabia also has a ‘big picture’ of itself being a major regional and international player.
Suffice to say, the Saudis are shifting away from their special relations with the West to a balanced foreign policy by opening up with Russia and creating multiple options for pursuing national interests. To be sure, the Saudis hope to diversify their partnerships based on common interests. While disagreements remain with Moscow over Syria – and notwithstanding the close ties between Moscow and Tehran – the Saudis have adopted a realistic policy toward the Kremlin.
Most certainly, the Saudi expectation is that at some point, the prospect of lucrative business opportunities would encourage the Kremlin to balance Russia’s relations with Iran. Basically, Bandar’s overture to Putin remains the bottom line.