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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Saudi king to make historic visit to Russia

King Salman’s visit is the first time a Saudi monarch has ever travelled to Moscow in an official capacity

King Salman's state visit to Russia marks the beginning of a powerhouse alliance to ruffle up energy markets, according to analysts. Sergei Karpukhin/ AFP
King Salman's state visit to Russia marks the beginning of a powerhouse alliance to ruffle up energy markets, according to analysts. Sergei Karpukhin/ AFP

A historic visit by Saudi Arabia’s king to Russia in early October is timed to highlight the Kremlin’s growing political and military clout in the Middle East.

King Salman’s visit, expected to take place on October 4-7, is the first time a Saudi monarch has ever travelled to Moscow in an official capacity. Relations between the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia were so frosty during the Cold War that the two countries did not even have diplomatic missions in each other’s country. Ties were also strained by Riyadh’s support for fighters who battled the Red Army occupation of Afghanistan.

The main topic of talks in Moscow will be Syria, where Russia and the Saudis are backing different sides in the six-year-long conflict. President Vladimir Putin sent Russia’s military into Syria in September 2015 to prop up Syria’s leader, Bashar Al Assad, while the Saudis have been aligned with anti-Assad rebels. But since Russia’s military intervention appears to have assured Mr Al Assad’s survival by altering the balance of power in Syria, Saudi Arabia is pushing for talks with opposition groups.

“This isn’t the first time that Russia and Saudi Arabia have tried to agree on things in recent years,” Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads the Council on Foreign and Defence, a Kremlin advisory group, told The National. “Nothing has really come of this in the past. But now the situation has changed because Saudi Arabia realises that Russia is a much more serious player in the region than it was three or four years ago.

“Until Moscow proved itself a militarily-capable player in the region, the Saudis had a negative, disdainful attitude towards Russia." But now, he said, the Saudis are beginning to view Russia differently.

Despite what the Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank describes as “deep distrust” between Russia and Saudi Arabia, co-operation by the world’s two largest oil exporters, along with other OPEC member states, has been successful in driving up the price of oil. Russia’s economy is massively dependent on oil revenues: Mr Putin needs higher global oil prices to allow him to stem rising unhappiness that has been triggered in part by falling living standards.

The Saudi monarch’s groundbreaking trip to Moscow comes after Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, flew into Saudi Arabia for talks on September 10. Mr Lavrov met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi heir to the throne who oversees energy and defence policy. After the talks, Mr Lavrov said the Saudis had expressed support for so-called “de-escalation zones” in Syria, which were announced in May after a meeting between Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

Saudi support for the zones, which Mr Putin says are vital to ending the war, was previously in doubt because the Riyadh-backed Syrian opposition rejected any role for Iran as guarantor in any peace deal. The reality of the military situation on the ground in Syria has also seen western countries taking a more pragmatic position on the conflict, muting their previous demands that Mr Al Assad must go before any peace deal can be reached.

Russia may not have the ability to mount a direct challenge to the United States in the Middle East, but Mr Putin’s hardheaded approach to the Syria crisis has restored some of its Soviet-era influence in the region. Mr Putin’s support for Mr Al Assad in the face of international condemnation has proved he is willing to stick by his allies in the Middle East, a trait that will have been duly noted by leaders across the Middle East.

The Kremlin’s hand has also been strengthened by uncertainty over US president Donald Trump’s Middle East policies.

“The Saudis see the writing on the wall. They are hedging their bets, unsure whether the United States is committed fully to the region’s security,” says Vladimir Frolov, a well-connected Russian foreign policy analyst. “[But] Russia is not replacing the United States in the region, the resources committed are incomparable, it is trying to be a second choice.”

Although the Kremlin’s Syria strategy has proved to be a foreign policy success for Mr Putin and boosted Moscow’s standing in the Middle East, ordinary Russians have little enthusiasm for the war. A poll by the independent Levada Centre in early September indicated only 30 per cent of Russians want the Kremlin’s military operation in Syria to continue. That figure would be likely to slump even lower in the event of a large number of Russian casualties in Syria, says Mr Frolov.

On Thursday, ISIL announced it had captured two Russian soldiers in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province. If true, this would be the first time ISIL has taken Russian servicemen hostage. A Russian military spokesman denied the claim.

Moscow’s revived focus on the Middle East has also taken the Russian foreign minister to the Gulf region amid the continuing stand-off between Qatar and other Gulf states. In August, Mr Lavrov met with the leaders of Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar. Russian state media claimed his trip proved Russia was now “the chief negotiator in the Middle East”.

Qatar recently boosted ties with Russia via a $3 billion deal to purchase a stake in Russia’s Rosneft oil company. However, Russia is keen not to be seen as favouring any of the parties to the dispute. Mr Putin reportedly called off visits to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait this summer over fears that such a trip would be interpreted as taking sides.

Russia has also been staking out a position in Iraq, where it was the only major power not to oppose last week’s Kurdish referendum on independence. Russian state oil giant Rosneft recently announced a deal, thought to be worth more than $1 billion, to help Iraqi Kurdistan develop its natural gas industry. Rosneft is believed to have secured deals worth some $4 billion in total since it began doing business in Kurdistan in December.

According to a senior source in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, “Moscow has been effectively filling the gap as the United States has been pulling back from Iraq”.

Although Russia did not speak out against the Kurdish referendum, it has also been careful not to damage ties with Baghdad, calling this week for “a unified Iraqi state”, and urging the Kurds to achieve statehood through negotiations, rather than a unilateral declaration of independence. It’s a subtle juggling act, but one that sums up Russia’s increasing skill at promoting its interests in the Middle East.