The recent visit to Moscow of Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, didn't make many headlines. However, given the current developments in the Gulf with Qatar, the visit has acquired new significance.
Until recently, "America's hand" was seen behind virtually all events in the Middle East. Now that Moscow has raised its regional profile, “Russia's hand" is seen here and there: No sooner had the Qatar crisis erupted June 5 than some suggested the prince had discussed with the Kremlin the Saudis’ decision to shun Qatar — which is very unlikely.
President Vladimir Putin gave his guest a hearty welcome when the prince arrived May 30. Their public statements struck a particularly friendly note, as is usually the case at the meetings of high-ranking officials. Putin praised their rapidly expanding ties, stressing that since early 2017, economic cooperation has increased by 130%, according to state-owned Tass news agency.
As he touched on political and military contacts, Putin reminded journalists that the two states are searching for ways to resolve complicated situations, “particularly in Syria,” and that “energy agreements are very important for our countries.”
Salman also stressed energy cooperation with Russia, saying, “The main point is that we are building a solid foundation for stabilizing the oil market and energy prices and this is creating good opportunities for building our strategic future.” He also described the current stage in the bilateral relations as “one of the best.”
Indeed, today’s relationship contrasts sharply with the once virtually nonexistent economic ties, which were inhibited in the 1990s and 2000s. Both countries’ economies are driven largely by oil production and there wasn’t much opportunity for collaboration at that time.
Also, Russian Muslims hold the Saudi royal house in high esteem. The renewed emphasis on religion in Russia makes the reverence particularly significant. It is noteworthy that authorities from Russia's Muslim-majority regions pay regular visits to Saudi Arabia and meet with the country’s top officials in a bid to grow their stature in Russia’s Muslim community.
Yet the resulting state-to-state interactions have been somewhat bizarre in recent years. The friendly relations are underpinned by numerous agreements, but few of those have been implemented. Both countries aim to build trust, which they deem absolutely necessary. Moscow and Riyadh have had different perspectives on the international landscape and until recently, they found themselves on opposite sides of most regional issues.
However, the situation has changed, as life is teaching the two countries to be clear eyed about current developments. While Russia and Saudi Arabia continue to maintain opposing views on the Syrian peace process and Iran’s regional role, they have managed to find some common ground. Moscow toned down its rhetoric about Yemen and Bahrain, and it promotes cordial relations with Saudi-allied Egypt and cooperation with the kingdom on the ruptured Libyan government. Finally, both Russia and Saudi Arabia have faced similar economic problems caused by the oil price plunge, which prepared the ground for their rapprochement and a potentially promising “oil alliance.”
Notwithstanding their contrasting approaches to regional matters, Russia’s military campaign in Syria won Riyadh’s respect. Thus, the kingdom started to view Moscow in some ways as a potential alternative to Washington, which had proved unreliable under the administration of President Barack Obama.
In this context, the frequent encounters of the Saudi prince with Putin have special importance.
Even though Syria was officially the key item on the meeting’s agenda, no formal arrangements were finalized. What is more important, though, was the two sides refrained from rebuking each other.
Salman, according to some informed sources in Moscow who spoke with Al-Monitor, was supposed to spend far more time in Russia’s capital. Today, however, it is clear that the dramatic developments brewing in the Gulf regarding Qatar most likely led him to shorten his stay.
As the meeting failed to produce any serious deal, it allows for some speculation about the prince’s real agenda regarding Moscow. It seems quite evident that Salman intentionally arrived in Moscow soon after US President Donald Trump’s trip to the Saudi kingdom May 20-21. Even the red carpet welcome the Saudis gave Trump couldn’t close the credibility gap between them. Riyadh doesn’t completely trust Washington. Given the uncertain future of Trump’s presidency and his still-vague Middle Eastern strategy, putting all of the kingdom’s eggs into one basket would be an ill-conceived step, to say the least.
That’s where Egypt comes into this speculative scenario.
Some experts in Moscow assume the Egyptian government needs Russia’s weapons but is unable to pay the bill. However, Riyadh, capable of backing Egypt, is becoming involved in establishing security zones in Syria, which could emerge as a way to constrain Iran’s ambitions for control in Syria. Yet Saudi Arabia, a militarily weak state mired in the Yemeni war, would rather entrust a reliable ally, presumably Egypt, with a peacekeeping role in the security zones. This would give Egypt a chance to strengthen its regional stature and bolster popular confidence in its government, which is grappling with severe economic problems.
This interpretation fits current developments in the Gulf.
Russia is on good terms with Qatar and Iran — Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy. Qatar’s alleged ties to terrorism and Iran are the reasons it is being ostracized in the Gulf. Judging by statements from the Russian Foreign Ministry, Moscow is not willing to interfere in the crisis engulfing Qatar — which suits Riyadh but that in no way means Russia’s support for Iran is waning. What this could mean is that Russia wants to see Saudi Arabia as a leading representative of Arab Gulf monarchies’ interests — in which case Russia must satisfy the Saudis’ legitimate interests in the region.