First Published: 2017-10-10

Saudi king's visit highlights Russian power in Middle East
While Saudi Arabia, Russia are usually on opposing sides of regional conflicts, Riyadh has had to come to terms with Moscow's increasing influence.
Middle East Online

Saudi Arabia is looking to diversify its diplomatic relationships as US regional influence wanes.

RIYADH - Saudi King Salman swept into Moscow with a vast entourage for a first ever visit that underscored Russia's growing power in the Middle East, despite deep differences between the two oil giants over Syria.

The Saudi king brought 1,500 people to Moscow and had a plane fly in fresh food supplies from Riyadh every day during his four-day visit last week, the first by a Saudi monarch.

President Vladimir Putin welcomed the king in a lavish Kremlin ceremony and Moscow was covered in billboards greeting the monarch in both Arabic and Russian.

For decades, Riyadh and Moscow have been at loggerheads over conflicts in the Muslim world, from Afghanistan to Chechnya.

Now, the two oil producers find themselves backing opposite sides of the Syrian civil war.

Saudi Arabia supports the Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad, while Moscow has teamed up with Riyadh's nemesis Iran to save the Damascus regime.

While the Saudis blame Assad for a conflict that has left over 330,000 dead since 2011, the visit was a sign that Riyadh has come to terms with the major role Russia now plays in the Middle East.

"For Putin, the king's visit showed that he acknowledges this role," Alexander Shumilin of the Middle East Conflicts Centre in Moscow said.

Moscow's air campaign in Syria, launched in 2015, was widely seen as a game changer in the conflict that -- at least for now -- appears to have secured Assad's grip over his war-torn country.

Now, the Kremlin is seeking support for a political settlement in Syria that guarantees Assad's role.

At the same time, Moscow wants the Saudis to help fund reconstruction projects in Syria, giving Russian companies beneficial deals, says Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst based in Moscow.

- US less involved -

Traditionally a US ally, Saudi Arabia has sought to diversify its global relationships since Washington has reduced its role in the region.

"America has become less interested in the Middle East and Russia is taking advantage of that," says Fyodor Lukyanov, of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy in Moscow.

Saudi Arabia's grievances with Washington date back to the Barack Obama era.

Like other US allies in the region, Riyadh wanted regime change in Damascus and became disillusionedwhen Obama refused to take decisive action against Assad.

"America discredited itself, and Russia is coming out of a long period of stagnation," says pro-Kremlin analyst Alexander Filonik of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Moscow could also act as a convenient partner in supporting change inside the Saudi regime.

While Russia will not replace Washington as the region's primary security provider, Frolov says, the Saudis could look to Moscow as a more reliable ally in case of an Arab Spring-inspired popular uprising.

"They saw the US betray their ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in the name of promoting democracy," says Frolov.

- Dispute over Iran -

For the Saudis, the visit to Moscow was also an attempt to sway Putin to use his position to diminish Iranian influence in the Middle East.

"For Saudi Arabia, not letting Iran get stronger in the region is a priority," says Shumilin.

"Nobody knows how Putin will act on this, he is in the middle of major players heading in different directions," he adds.

Frolov suggests Russia is too dependent on Iranian boots on the ground in Syria to afford a serious rupture with Tehran.

"The Saudis will be disappointed with Putin on this and it might affect their economic deals with Russia," he says.

Despite their clear differences, Salman's visit confirmed the Kremlin's military campaign in Syria has secured its long-term role as a serious player in the Middle East.

 

More strikes hit E. Ghouta as UN delays truce vote

Russia pours cold water on UN bid to condemn Iran over missiles to Yemen

Egypt presidential race starts with Sisi likely to win

Saudi Arabia to boost entertainment in next decade

Blatter supports Morocco bid for 2026 World Cup

Turkey says US embassy Jerusalem opening in May 'extremely worrying'

Lebanon says both suspects in Kuwait murder of Filipina maid held

38 dead in Mogadishu car bombings

Morocco police arrests prominent newspaper publisher

Syria regime continues to pound Ghouta as world stutters

UN rights commission wants S.Sudan war crimes charges

Iran grounds airline's ATR planes after crash

Turkey summons Dutch diplomat over Armenian 'genocide' vote

Turkey navy threatens to engage Italian drillship near Cyprus

Iran police shoving headscarf protester sparks social media storm

UN Security Council to vote Friday on Syria ceasefire

Dubai says Djibouti illegally seized African port

Dutch parliament recognises 1915 Armenian massacre as genocide

Heavily bombarded Eastern Ghouta awaits UN resolution

Russia says Syria rebels rejected offer to evacuate E. Ghouta

UN diplomats press for Syria ceasefire without Russia veto

Iranian minister’s presence at UN rights meeting angers critics

Iran warns it will leave nuke deal if banks cannot do business

Qatar to plant thousands of trees to ‘beautify’ World Cup venues

Pro-Kurdish party says Turkey lying about 'no civilian deaths' in Afrin

African migrants protest Israeli detention policy

Egypt sentences 21 to death for planning attacks

Israeli handball teams in Qatar spark furious outcry from locals

UN report highlights S.Sudan journalist treatment

Palestinian dies after being shot by Israeli soldiers

Gulf states urge Syria to end Ghouta violence

Wanted Bahraini militants die at sea en route to Iran

Iran's Ahmadinejad calls for immediate free elections

Merkel calls for end to 'massacre' in Syria

Iraq urges FIFA to lift ban on hosting internationals

Carnage of Ghouta's bombs breaking families

Blockaded Gaza Strip forced to pump sewage into sea

African migrants start hunger strike over Israel expulsion

UN chief 'deeply alarmed' by Eastern Ghouta violence

Three militiamen killed in Libya car bomb attack

Russia denies ‘groundless’ accusations of role in Ghouta killings

Turkey says whoever helps YPG is 'legitimate target'

Morocco dismantles IS-linked terrorist cell

Turkey urged to end gas standoff with Cyprus

PKK attack near Iraq kills 2 Turkish soldiers