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