Despite widespread media speculation about his attendance and even some inaccurate reports claiming it afterward, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud did not go to Russia’s MAKS-2015 air show last week or meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. What happened?
Putin invited Salman to Russia long ago and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accepted the invitation on the king’s behalf in a June meeting with the Russian leader. A few weeks later — fairly soon by normal diplomatic standards — Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir traveled to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. Speaking to reporters following their meeting, Lavrov acknowledged that there were “still some differences regarding specific ways to reach a settlement in Syria” and said nothing about the king’s visit beyond confirming Putin’s invitation to him to “visit Russia at a convenient time.” Nevertheless, Russia’s government-run Sputnik website soon encouraged its readers to think that Salman could attend the arms expo, citing a defense industry source. This story in turn produced many Western media reports about Salman’s purported plans.
Broadly speaking, there are three possibilities in this situation. First, Russian and Saudi officials may have never really discussed a trip by Salman at this time. Second, they may have discussed it, but did not agree to do it or perhaps could not agree on how to do it. Third, they may have agreed to plan the visit and then one side or the other withdrew from the arrangement.
The meeting of the two foreign ministers is critical in assessing these three possibilities. The fact that Lavrov and Jubeir met so soon after Putin’s meeting with the deputy crown prince makes it quite unlikely that the visit was not on their agenda. Conversely, the fact that Lavrov and Jubeir did not themselves announce the visit after their meeting (or arrange for Jubeir to see Putin briefly for this purpose) suggests that Russian and Saudi officials did not reach any concrete understanding about the king’s travel to Russia for MAKS-2015.
Still, it is unusual that some Russian media outlets were still reporting on the king’s expected arrival at MAKS-2015 as late as Aug. 25, its opening day. Other Russian press accounts describe the trip to the air show as “previously reported” but “postponed until the fall.” This could mean that the visit was actually postponed — meaning that it was scheduled and then delayed — but it could also reflect the Russian media’s slow and imperfect access to information from the Russian government. Either way, the episode is a good lesson for journalists, Russian and Western alike, in the value of confirming reports before publishing them.
Ruling out both no discussion at all and an agreement makes the remaining possibility — inconclusive conversations — the most likely explanation for unmet expectations that Salman would meet with Putin on the margins of MAKS-2015. Moreover, since Lavrov himself acknowledged “differences” on Syria, and the two sides have long had contending perspectives about the necessity of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure as a precondition for a settlement, it is not difficult to imagine that Saudi officials might have wanted to see more flexibility in Russia’s position before committing to a Putin-Salman meeting. In that case, Jubeir could have even come to Moscow with some possible dates for the trip (during the air show or more probably later) if the session with Lavrov went sufficiently well. And he might have said as much to Lavrov — which, if it leaked, could explain the media speculation about the trip.
It is also entirely possible that Jubeir was prepared to discuss the king’s visit, but that MAKS-2015 was too soon, for scheduling reasons (since, as noted, it was only two weeks away) or political ones. In view of Salman’s early September visit to Washington with the clear purpose of enlisting President Barack Obama’s help in containing Iran, the Saudis may have considered a high-profile meeting with Putin too provocative. This could have considerably increased what Riyadh would have needed from Moscow to justify a meeting.
Despite Salman’s absence, Middle East governments were prominently represented by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, each of whom met with Putin. While the meetings were symbolically important, none appeared to produce significant substantive outcomes related to Iran, Syria or the Islamic State — major preoccupations for all three visitors. Indeed, in Putin’s comments to the press following his meeting with Sisi, he concentrated overwhelmingly on bilateral economic issues — especially trade, investment, energy, agriculture and tourism — and offered only very general statements about regional issues. The Kremlin released very little about the other two meetings, sharing only brief public comments before the talks that did not go far beyond platitudes.
At the same time, Russia’s internationally oriented media reported that attendance at the MAKS-2015 air show was down substantially from the prior expo in 2013. Worse for Moscow, the most significant arms deals appeared to be sales to the Russian Defense Ministry, transactions that could be made public at any time and therefore look like face-saving announcements rather than important new accomplishments.
All in all, the event suggests that however frustrated some of the Americans' traditional allies in the Middle East may be, their relations with Moscow continue to lag behind their ongoing interaction with the United States. Still, Putin seems determined to raise Russia’s profile in the region, and many may welcome at least the appearance of alternatives to Washington to increase their own leverage and maneuvering room. Egypt’s Sisi may want more than that — his flattery of Putin following their meeting makes clear that he wants something. As for Salman, his long-awaited trip to Russia may take place later in the fall; only then will we see whether the new Russian-Saudi diplomacy is substantive or its own kind of show.
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