The visit to Russia by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud – the first ever by a Saudi King – illustrates how much the balance of power in West Asia has altered in the last three years or so. From a position of visceral hatred for President Assad, Saudi Arabia appears to have now dropped his departure as a precondition for a Syrian settlement. Like other major actors in the region (and even, to some extent, the Americans), it recognizes that Russia holds many of the keys to a settlement. Its Crown Prince’s ambitious economic restructuring plan requires support for oil prices – and this is an area where recent Saudi-Russia cooperation has yielded satisfactory results. Their two oil majors, Rosneft and Aramco – bitter rivals until recently, when they were bidding for the Essar Oil deal in India, which Rosneft won – are now reported to be contemplating cooperation in third markets in Asia. Most importantly, in its acrimonious standoff with Iran, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to ignore the fact that Russia has important interests in that country.

The economic agreements, though involving billions of dollars, were overshadowed by the defence agreements. They included the S-400 air defence system and missile systems. Reports talked about further plans of acquisition of fighter aircraft. It remains to be seen whether these agreements will actually be implemented, since they would introduce systems into the Saudi armoury totally different from its Western weaponry, requiring operational and inter-operability adjustments (which US and other Western arms suppliers could be expected to resist). From the Russian perspective, the announcement of the deals itself was a coup vis a vis the West. In his freewheeling conversation in the Valdai Club, President Putin was asked whether this Saudi shift to Russia was temporary, because of its close connections with the US. His response was that, in a changed world, Russia and Saudi Arabia had a number of shared economic interests, including energy. On defence cooperation, he said though the US had multiple billions of dollars of arms supplies to Saudi Arabia, Russia was willing to start in a small way and work its way up. Russia, he said, offers predictability and reliability in its foreign policy, which is appreciated by partners. Putting his tongue even more firmly in his cheek, he added that between Russia and the US, the Saudis had more to fear from the US, which was trying to bring democracy in the Kingdom. Russia, he added (to laughter and applause) had nothing to worry, since it was already a democracy!

 

 October 30, 2017

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About the Author

Ambassador PS Raghavan

Former Ambassador of India to Russia; Convener, National Security Advisory Board

Born in 1955, Ambassador Raghavan holds a B.Sc. (Honours) degree in Physics and a B.E. in Electronics & Communications Engineering. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1979. From 1979 to 2000, he had diplomatic assignments in USSR, Poland, United Kingdom, Vietnam and South Africa, interspersed with assignments in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi. From 2000 to 2004, he was Joint Secretary in the Indian Prime Minister's Office dealing with Foreign Affairs, Nuclear Energy, Space, Defence and National Security. Thereafter, he was Ambassador of India to Czech Republic (2004 - 2007) and to Ireland (2007 - 2011).

He was Chief Coordinator of the BRICS Summit in New Delhi (March 2012) and Special Envoy of the Government of India to Sudan and South Sudan (2012-13). Ambassador Raghavan conceptualized and piloted the creation of the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) in MEA, which implements and monitors India’s economic partnership programs in developing countries, with an annual budget of $1-1.5 billion. He headed DPA in 2012-13. From March 2013 to January 2014, he oversaw the functioning of the Administration, Security, Information Technology and other related Divisions of MEA. Since October 2013, he was also Secretary [Economic Relations] in MEA, steering India’s bilateral and multilateral external economic engagement. Ambassador Raghavan retired from the Indian Foreign Service in January 2016, after serving from 2014 as Ambassador of India to Russia. Since September 2016, he is Convenor of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India.

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