Abstract: King Salman’s visit to Russia, the first ever by a Saudi monarch, shows that Moscow and Riyadh are switching gears from competition to cooperation. This rapprochement is guided by pragmatism and overlapping interests: boosting global oil prices, finding a compromise in Syria, and developing defense ties at a time of uncertainty in the Middle East and worldwide. However, there are certain limits as to how close Russian-Saudi ties can become. While Russia’s alliances with Iran and the Assad regime do not tie Vladimir Putin’s hands in conducting multi-vector diplomacy in the region, it does obstruct the deepening of commercial and diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf. Equally, the hopes for a windfall of investment into the Russian economy and large-scale purchases of arms by Riyadh could prove difficult to fulfil.[/box]

Russia and Saudi Arabia never enjoyed a cordial relationship.  Back in the early Cold War era, while the Soviets sided with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and other secular nationalist regimes, the Saudis led a rival coalition of conservative monarchies in league with the west. Later, the Saudis, together with the Pakistani security services, bankrolled and assisted the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan. In more recent times, Russian authorities have viewed Saudi Arabia, with whom they re-established diplomatic ties in 1990 after a hiatus of 52 years,[1] as the exporter of extremist Islam to Muslims in the Northern Caucasus and other parts of the federation. The pro-Kremlin media never miss an opportunity to blast the U.S., the self-proclaimed advocate of democracy and human rights, over its longstanding alliance with the Saudis. Not to forget the war in Syria, in which Moscow and Riyadh are on opposite sides. Furthermore, Russia’s direct military involvement since September 2015 on the side of the struggling Assad regime has strengthened its security links with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival in a contest straddling the Middle East. When confronted with the grave humanitarian consequences of the Russian campaign, the Kremlin propagandists point at the civilian deaths and devastation caused by the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in Yemen.[2] There is speculation that Russian hackers and fake news triggered Saudi Arabia’s spat with Qatar, driving a wedge within the Sunni bloc that is opposed to Assad.[3] In short, there are a legion of contentious issues.

Now, however, with an unprecedented three-day visit by King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Moscow, it seems we have arrived at a turning point.  King Salman had been to Russia before – as a governor of Riyadh in 2006.  Putin, too, travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2007.  But, as then–king Abdullah never returned the gesture,[4] Salman’s visit is the first of its kind.[5] To mark the occasion, Moscow hosted a week of Saudi cultural events. Salman was welcomed by Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and even Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, the self-appointed leader of all Muslims in the Russian Federation.[6] The visit broke news about major deals: a $1.1 billion project for the Russian petrochemical company Sibur to build a plant in Saudi Arabia, a $1 billion joint technology investment fund, and another $1 billion financing vehicle geared towards energy projects. Saudi investment to the tune of $200 million may flow into Russian toll roads, including a new one in Moscow. There is also talk of Islamic banking projects to benefit the large Muslim population of the Russian Federation.[7]  Last but not least, a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation declared that an agreement had been reached for the sale of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to Saudi Arabia.

This trip to Moscow did not come out of the blue. It had been in the works since the first time King Salman and President Putin talked on the phone in April 2015. Much of the groundwork of was laid by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi family go-between with the Kremlin.[8]  In September 2016, months before Mohammed’s promotion to first place in the line of succession, he and Putin negotiated Russia’s accession to the OPEC-agreed oil production limits.  A preliminary arms deal, estimated at $3.5 billion by state-owned industrial corporation Rostec, followed suit in July 2017.[9] In parallel, the Saudis and the Russians have been chalking up progress over Syria.  A meeting between Russia and Saudi-backed Syrian opposition in Cairo yielded agreements over the rebel-held enclaves of East Ghouta and Rastan.[10]   As Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the Defence Minister, put it some time ago, “relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia [were] going through one of their best moments ever.”[11]   His father’s presence in the Kremlin presents the ultimate proof of this.