Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on October 4. It is the first state visit to Russia by the Saudi monarch and marks a new level of relations between the countries.
Following the meeting, the two countries launched a joint energy investment fund worth $1 billion. The fund could include investments in natural gas projects and petrochemical plants.
Having shown interest in becoming the second nation in the Middle East after Iran to build nuclear power stations, Saudi Energy Ministry and Russian state atomic corporation Rosatom signed a nuclear energy cooperation agreement. Russia previously helped Tehran complete the Bushehr power station.
Vladimir Putin and King Salman are expected to focus on extending the commitment to cut crude oil output production, which has helped prop up oil prices.
On October 6, the Saudi King will meet with the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to discuss some economic issues, including major infrastructure projects.
King Salman’s heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — a modernising and ambitious proponent of more aggressive foreign policy — has held several meetings with Putin.
The relationship between the two countries could have been described as rocky. During Cold War times, the Saudis helped arm Afghan rebels fighting against the Soviet forces. A more recent point of contestation is the war in Syria, in which Russia had backed Syrian President Bashar Assad while Saudi Arabia had supported his foes.
However, the relations have begun to change in recent years, partly due to the successes of Russian-led advance by the Assad government in Syria, and the consequent military losses for the Saudi and the US-backed opposition, forcing Riyadh to pragmatically cast its lot with the Russian-Iranian-Turkish formation of the de-escalation zones in Syria. Saudis no longer demand Assad’s immediate removal from power and do not oppose Russia’s military operation that has entered its third year. A new meeting of the Syrian opposition in Riyadh is due in the middle of October in a bid to unify the Syrian opposition and restructure its political demands.
This signifies Russia’s presence in the region as a power to be reckoned with. Fearing a long-term presence of Iranian forces in Syria, Riyadh aims to improve the relations with Russia in a bid to dissuade the Kremlin from too close a partnership with its main rival. Israel raised the same concerns as Riyadh, though to no avail.
While Riyadh has maintained its strategic alliance with the US, this development clearly confirms Moscow as a major independent force in the Middle East, having established firm alliances with Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and now Saudi Arabia.