Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi
RUSSIA and Saudi Arabia will look to bolster bilateral ties beyond 2018, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told CNBC on January 24. Saudi Arabia Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih commented in Davos that cooperation between OPEC and non-OPEC producers should continue — in some form or another.’’ Nostalgically, Saudi king Shah Salman’s state visit to Russia in Oct, 2017 ushered in by a new heraldry of founding friendship— between the world’s largest crude exporters that underpins a global agreement that has helped prop up — a relationship previously marked by mutual distrust has been replaced by strategic co-operation bound by economics, trade, and geopolitics.
The ties between Riyadh and Moscow have gradually warmed since Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated, and as its influence in the Middle East has deeply risen following its intervention in the Syrian conflict. The day before King Salman arrived, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused troops from the US, Saudi Arabia’s staunch ally, of carrying out “bloody provocations” against Russian soldiers in Syria. “The activities of US-led forces raise many questions … In some cases, these forces have indirectly encouraged other terrorists to attack strategic positions rightfully regained by Damascus, or they have deliberately engaged in bloody provocations against our forces,” Mr Lavrov said in an interview with the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al Awsat. The Russian Foreign Minister appeared to be referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the US-led coalition is backing in a drive against IS in eastern Syria, mainly in the city of Raqqa.
Russia accused the SDF of trying to sabotage a separate offensive by its ally, the Syrian military, against IS around the city of Deir Ezzor, where Russia lost one of its own generals in late September. Though as has been expected that on the political front, there seems no sign of any substantial breakthrough on the issues that have had long divided Moscow and Riyadh, including the fact that they back rival sides in Syria’s war. Russia and Saudi Arabia, despite their differences, have been drawn together by a common interest in propping up flagging world oil prices, and by the fact that Moscow, since its military intervention in Syria, has clout in ME that other players in the region cannot ignore.
Following the incorporation of the ambitious Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has started a new chapter in its history, turning itself from a US dependent indecisive closed shadow-country to the mighty power of the Middle East, with enormous potential, strength, opening its doors to the whole world step by step. The vagueness creates a mistrust an estrangement which is finally converted into a rivalry. In this backdrop, one can see that the changing structure of the balance of Power, Saudi Arabia is not wrong in resetting its ties with Moscow. The kingdom seems to have been using current strategic culture as a bag of venturing opportunities thereof taking a new path and succeeding in it its proactive bilateral approach towards Moscow. Though it befittingly diversifies its investment flows by putting money in different baskets, it attracts foreign technologies that assist with boosting innovation in the kingdom, and it lays the basis of its independence from natural resources. It significantly invests money in youths, their studies in Western countries, in order to bring a transformational change of the future of Arabian posterities via knowledge and enlightenment.
Russia is one of the partners of the kingdom in its far-reaching ambitious plans is, however not such an evident one. Bilateral ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia are permanently developing the last couple of years opening new opportunities for both countries and their business circles, but not moving as fast as they really could. Potential of bilateral relations development is extraordinary. But in past this potential is not opened and not properly used. For Riyadh, Russia’s close partnership with Iran is a reason for strong worries as it is considered as a threat to national interests. Mostly it is perceived as Moscow’s refusal to build on strong cooperation and friendship with the kingdom. This approach to the analysis albeit not right, however, its roots are quite understandable.
Moreover, the Saudis have been sceptic about Russian purposes in Syria. Why does Russia declare that its military contingency in Syria is to fight terrorism, but IS stays, mostly unhindered by Russian fighter planes, Palmyra is lost again, but Russia announces ending its military contingency in Syria after the fall of Aleppo? Despite the fact that these questions rarely receive properly articulated answers, the Kingdom objectively approached towards discovering new avenues in its relations with Moscow. It will be not wrong to estimate that the Syrian and the Iranian factors in their relationship could not deter the scope of prospective partnership as both sides seem determined to look beyond their past policy narratives.
And yet, all these policy-drives moved the kingdom to curtail its dependency on the US – an ally that is becoming less reliable and less predictable. So diversification of political dynamics equipped with the changing geopolitical and geo-economic culture of the region in a particular, and the globe, in general, is also an important consideration of curating country’s future policy directions based on objective appraisal and analyses. It is in this context that the Saudi diplomacy has adopted its dynamic approach towards Moscow. Nonetheless, positions of the two countries on many issues are common and can lay the perfect basis for an intense bilateral boost. Russia and Saudi Arabia both stand strong against terrorism. Notably, the Moscow-Riyadh growing bilateralism would play down the US influence in the Middle East.
— The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Karachi, is a member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies.
Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi