Riyadh: Between Moscow and Washington
The high-level Saudi interest in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Kingdom says many things, and worldwide interest in it is expected amid ongoing transformations in international relations. It may be going too far to say Saudi Arabia is shifting away from its historical and strategic relations with the West, but it is no secret that there is political change afoot.
Is there a new alliance in the making? Are there regional agreements between Riyadh and Moscow? So many important and rational questions are being asked amid the uncertain situation in the region, shifting alliances and the slow American withdrawal.
Putin’s visit was scheduled a while ago, so it is not a result of the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia or of the Astana framework for the Syrian conflict. There are joint tasks that Riyadh and Moscow are far more capable of achieving than any other party, such as managing oil prices and production. The Russians and Saudis have the greatest influence in this regard and, with their agreement, it has been possible to avoid price wars.
Moscow has decided to play an active role in the Middle East, and Saudi-Russian understandings have prevented a policy misalignment against Riyadh. Even though Moscow stands against all of Washington’s positions, Russia finds common ground with the US on some issues such as Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Iraq.
Regarding Syria, Saudi Arabia will not take unrealistic decisions, and will not operate against the consensus. Syria’s neighbors — Jordan, Iraq and Turkey — have all taken their respective positions based on new developments on the ground. Today, Turkey’s concern is focused on three things: Getting rid of 3 million Syrian refugees, preventing armed Kurds from assembling near its border, and controlling Syrian territories that contain oil.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Washington is still strong but is no longer exclusive
Saudi Arabia is happy to see Russia preventing Iran from occupying Syria. So the policy has become to save Syria from Iranian dominance, limit Hezbollah’s presence, and prevent the Turks from occupying strategic parts of the country. In this context, we saw Russia playing an important role, especially in light of the American regression.
What about Russia’s good relationship with Iran? Saudi Arabia wants to take advantage of this relationship because Tehran cannot antagonize both Russia and the US at the same time. Even though Moscow has a good relationship with Tehran, the two sides do not look at all issues in the same way.
Iran has feared Russian ambitions within its borders since the era of the tsars. Moreover, there are maritime, oil and geographical disputes between the two countries. And Moscow does not totally agree with Tehran on the Syrian issue.
Iranian media and religious figures have often attacked Russia and accused it of conspiring with Israel against it, just because Moscow prevented Iranian expansion and disabled its radars during Israeli attacks on its forces and militias. On Yemen, Russia has adopted a good position, broadly consistent with the Saudi Arabia’s.
Putin has proved to be excellent in dealing with regional crises and has been clear in his perception of the relationship with Saudi Arabia, which was considered the closest Arab ally of the US. Riyadh’s relationship with Washington is still strong, but is no longer exclusive.
When Putin chose Riyadh to open the first foreign office of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, he intended to deliver a message that the Saudi capital is more than just a destination for a single visit.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel and former editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Twitter: @aalrashed