Russia sees Saudi Arabia as ‘gatekeeper’ to Mideast
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Paul Saunders

Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest.

Is Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud planning an early October visit to Moscow or not? After multiple public invitations from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the answer to this question still remains unclear. Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s apparent determination to arrange such a trip clearly conveys Moscow’s assessment of the kingdom’s pivotal role in the Middle East.

The Russian government insists that Salman is indeed coming to Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has confirmed preparations for the visit, as has top Putin foreign policy assistant Yuri Ushakov. Following Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent meeting with Salman in Jeddah, the Russian Foreign Ministry released an official statement saying that the visit “is scheduled for early October.”

Nevertheless, the Saudi government does not appear to have issued its own parallel statement after Lavrov’s meeting with the king. Nor did Lavrov mention the visit in a joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, as he concluded his stay in the country. While Moscow’s official transcript presents only Lavrov’s remarks, as is the Russian Foreign Ministry’s typical practice, there is no other reporting to suggest that the Saudi minister mentioned Salman’s travel to Russia either. Earlier Russian media reports cite only one anonymous source in Riyadh as confirmation that Saudi leaders have agreed to the visit. The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news site has noted strictly that “billboards with Saudi King Salman’s photos were installed in Moscow to welcome his expected visit” (the billboards publicized a Russian magazine with the king on its cover); curiously, the report carefully said, “The Kremlin expects the [sic] King Salman’s visit to be scheduled soon,” without referring to Saudi plans or expectations.

Russia’s interest in Saudi Arabia is multidimensional. Economically, Russian-Saudi understandings on oil production and oil exports can significantly affect global markets, Russia’s economy and the Russian government’s federal budget, which still depends heavily on oil-related tax receipts despite declining energy prices. Moscow also sees Saudi Arabia as a potential source of investment, something of growing importance in the face of enduring Western economic sanctions. Riyadh has cultivated this investment idea, including through a pledge to invest $10 billion in the Russia Direct Investment Fund, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund. Economic conditions in Russia in turn shape Russia’s domestic political environment, where many are disappointed at a sense of stagnation as Vladimir Putin approaches a 2018 presidential election.

Then there are foreign policy considerations, including Saudi Arabia’s role as a leading sponsor of opposition groups still fighting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, the kingdom’s tense relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s privileged position as a key US ally and its control over some of Sunni Islam’s holiest sites, which in turn elevates the country among other Sunni Arab states. Dmitry Suslov, the deputy director for research at Russia’s prestigious Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, told Al-Monitor that the conflict in Syria remains the leading “tactical” element of Russia’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and sees the possible visit as “a symbolic manifestation of the success of [Russia’s] strategy” in Syria. Most important, Suslov said, the meeting would happen on “Russian, not initially Saudi terms.”

“Riyadh has altered its initial demands of immediate departure of Assad in Syria and drastically reduced its criticism of Russian actions in Syria,” Suslov said. “If Moscow and Riyadh find a compromise on Syria, it would be a breakthrough for ending the war and reaching resolution on the Russian terms or closer to the Russian terms.”

This could contribute importantly to what Suslov described as Russia’s “strategic” objective “of strengthening its role as an independent great power globally and in the Middle East in particular.” Suslov, also a senior lecturer at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and a program director at the Valdai Foundation, argues that Russia’s government “is viewing the Middle East as a pioneer region of multipolar international order and governance, where several centers of power, both global and regional, engage in complex relationships and determine development of the region together, without any one of them imposing its model of development or hegemonic system.” In other words, the Middle East’s increasingly complex geopolitics will soon become global geopolitics, and a major Russian role there will buttress Moscow’s position as a global geopolitical force.

In this context, Suslov described Saudi Arabia as a de facto gatekeeper that can unlock the Middle East for Moscow. “For Russia to play a role of accepted independent great power in the region,” he said, “positive relations with Riyadh are necessary. Saudi Arabia remains one of the leaders of the region with huge influence on the majority of Sunni Arab countries.” At the same time, better Russian-Saudi ties “would allow Moscow to have good relations with all the regional powers of the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Israel and Egypt” — putting Moscow in a better position than Washington, “which has confrontational relations with Iran and increasingly problematic relations with Turkey.” Russia could simultaneously correct what Suslov termed an imbalance in its regional relationships that connect Moscow more closely to non-Arab states than Arab ones; this has prompted speculation that Russia is “in the ‘Shiite camp.’”

From this perspective, the Kremlin has a great deal riding on Salman’s possible visit. Indeed, so much so that the Saudi monarch may have considerable leverage of his own, notwithstanding Russia’s strong position on Syria’s battlefields — a position that may seem much less imposing if a political settlement leaves Russia and Iran as the sole financial sponsors of a wrecked and desperate nation. If Saudi leaders are seeking to use their leverage as potential supporters of a new (post-Assad?) Syria to get what US President Donald Trump might call “a better deal” in Syria, this could well explain Riyadh’s relative silence in the face of Moscow’s insistence that Salman will visit Russia in the coming weeks. Only time will tell.