What is the Putin Trip to Riyadh All About?

Published October 16th, 2019 - 08:05 GMT
Putin (L)  paying attention to Saudi King (AFP File Photo)
Putin (L) paying attention to Saudi King (AFP File Photo)

President Vladimir Putin's trip to Saudi Arabia yesterday, which was his first since 2007, is illustrative of Russia's ascendancy in a volatile Middle East. 

Moreover, the visit underscored the extent to which Moscow and Riyadh's partnership has strengthened while the Kingdom continues diversifying Saudi Arabia's global alliances and friendships beyond its traditional western allies.

In recent years, the Russians and Saudis have deepened their cooperation in order to protect global crude prices while capping oil output. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is the top foreign investor in Russia, with investments worth $US 2.5 billion in the country.

After landing in the Saudi capital on Monday, a mounted guard escorted Putin to the Al-Yamamah palace where he met with King Salman.

The two had a conversation broadcast on Saudi state television and discussed regional issues, chiefly the wars in Syria and Yemen. Dmity Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, hailed the talks as a "substantial exchange of opinions… on regional problems, on the situation in the energy markets, on oil prices."

Additionally, Putin met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Putin affirmed that Moscow sees the "expansion of friendly and mutually beneficial ties with Saudi Arabia as particularly important" and King Salman stated that the Saudis "look forward to working with Russia to achieve security and stability and fight terrorism."

Indeed, the leadership of both countries are likely to consider Putin's visit to Saudi Arabia a major success. Also while Putin was in Riyadh yesterday, Russia and Saudi Arabia signed 20 bilateral deals across a host of sectors, including energy, culture, health services, tax administration, agriculture, tourism, petrochemicals, artificial intelligence and aviation.

Russia's head of state came to the Kingdom at a sensitive time in the Middle East.

The chaotic fallout of President Donald Trump's decision to essentially green light Turkey's incursion into northern Syria to combat the People's Protection Unit (YPG), along with the US administration's sanctions against Ankara for its military campaign will have ramifications that are yet to become clear.

Yet major concerns are already arising in Riyadh and other Arab capitals, about how the Middle East's geopolitical fault lines are shifting against the backdrop of the American president continuing to function as a loose cannon.

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Russia and Saudi Arabia signed some 20 agreements and contracts worth billions of dollars during Putin's visit to Riyadh http://ow.ly/6Lzi50wLs24 

Russia, Saudi Arabia seal key oil deal during Putin visit

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The implications of Trump's unpredictable and contradictory foreign policy decisions, which are truly all over the map, create grave concerns for those of Washington's allies such as Saudi Arabia, who have operated under a US security umbrella for decades.

Indeed, last month's Saudi Aramco attacks did much to expose the Kingdom's vulnerabilities to Riyadh's regional adversaries. Furthermore, the missile and drone strikes on the oil installation at Abqaiq and the Khurais oil field highlighted how, despite the billions of dollars which Riyadh has spent on America-sourced defense systems, King Salman and MbS can no longer continue to view the US as Saudi Arabia's security guarantor.

The 3,000 additional troops that Washington is deploying to the Kingdom in an effort to strengthen deterrence against the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot change this fact.

The Kremlin is delighted to take advantage of many opportunities that Trump's actions have created for Russia. Trump's policies in Syria and elsewhere advance two narratives that Moscow's foreign policy decision makers are constantly keen to push.

First, Russia, unlike the US, is a power which stands by its friends. The Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015 was a major gamechanger in Moscow's Middle East policy as it enabled the Kremlin to send a powerful message to all Arab states that during the post-Arab Spring era, the Russians stand by their beleaguered allies (notwithstanding the exception of Libya).

Second, Ankara's launch of 'Operation Peace Spring' could benefit Russian interests by pushing more Arab League members toward reasserting the Syria's Baathist government's legitimacy.

In order to counter what Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and other Arab capitals see as a "neo-Ottoman" threat to the Arab world, regional states that oppose Turkey's foreign policy agenda will see siding with Damascus against Ankara as mandatory.

This will be especially so if the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) clashes with the armed forces of Turkey and Ankara-backed Syrian rebels amid a messy power struggle in northern Syria.

Russian leadership has spent years attempting to push Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states towards restoring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's legitimacy. Although the future of Damascus-Riyadh relations is uncertain, if the Syrian Arab Republic's embassy reopens in Saudi Arabia at some point soon, such a development would definitely be tied to Putin's visit.

Doubtless, the perception of Trump as an unhinged leader who abandons his allies is causing more regional states to hedge against the US by investing in stronger relations with the Kremlin.

For the Saudis, this a pragmatic approach for addressing foreign policy challenges which stem from the lack of credibility and strategic blunders on the US' part. Such thinking was on full display when Putin came to Saudi Arabia yesterday. 

Read more: Will Aramco attacks draw Saudi Arabia closer to Russia?

None of this is to say that the Kingdom is on the verge of abandoning its alliance with Washington. But Moscow and Riyadh's moves closer to each other provide the Saudi leadership greater leverage when dealing with America.

The day before Putin arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir responded to questions about the Kingdom's deepening relationship with Moscow possibly undermining the Riyadh-Washington partnership, he replied:

"We don't believe that having close ties with Russia has any negative impact on our relationship with the United States… We believe that we can have strategic and strong ties with the United States while we develop our ties with Russia."

So easily caught up with Trump's outbursts on Twitter, many government officials and members of the foreign policy establishment in DC might be failing to notice major changes taking place in the game of great power and geopolitical competition.

There has been a major transfer of clout from Washington to Moscow in the Middle East that is making Russia's foreign policy in the region increasingly important to Arab statesmen.

Put simply, American influence in the Middle East and North Africa continues to steadily decline while Russia's geopolitical influence in the region has been cementing ever since 2015.

Both the US "retreat" from northern Syria and Putin's high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia this month were two strong indicators of this trend. More will come in the weeks and months ahead as the White House gives Riyadh more reasons to hedge and look to Russia as an alternative power that is driving the formation of a new security architecture in the Arab world. 

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.


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