Beginning of a new chapter
King Salman’s visit to Russia signals a shift in Saudi foreign policy.
The four-day historic visit of Saudi Arabia's King Salman to Russia not only reflected the opening of a new chapter in their bilateral ties after being on opposite sides on many regional issues for decades but also signalled recalibration of its foreign policy.
It also highlighted that the 81-year-old monarch wants to reduce the Kingdom's reliance on the United States and diversify international engagements. The US had been Saudi Arabia's most important ally and the two countries have worked closely on issues confronting the Middle East for more than half a century.
Changes in the Saudi regime as also its fears about US reliability because of Donald Trump's Middle East policy appear to have left the Kingdom to diversify and recalibrate its foreign policy, observers say.
Besides being an acknowledgement of Russia's increasing influence in the Middle East by Saudi Arabia, the visit is also seen as a rapprochement between the two countries as relations between them in the past have often been strained.
During the Cold War times, Saudi Arabia helped Afghan rebels fighting against the Soviet invasion. Saudi Arabia also supported anti-Kremlin rebels in the restive republic of Chechnya.
In the conflict in Syria, while Russia along with Iran is supporting the regime of President Bashar al Assad in Syria, Saudi Arabia is supporting the factions opposed to him. Russia, which has considerably good relations with Iran, is also against Saudi Arabia's military action in Yemen.
However, relations between the world's two largest oil producers, began improving in the recent past particularly after King Salman's heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has held several meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In 1926, the then Soviet Union was the first country to officially recognise the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia created by King Abdul Aziz. However, no Saudi King ever visited Kremlin so far. In 2007 Putin made his first official state visit to the Kingdom.
"This is the first visit by a Saudi Arabian monarch in the history of our relations and that in itself is a landmark event, Putin said as he welcomed King Salman in an ornate gilded Kremlin hall last Thursday. "I am sure your visit will boost the ties between our countries," the Russian leader said.
Over 15 cooperation agreements worth billions of dollars were signed ranging oil, military and space exploration. Saudi Arabia also signed a preliminary agreement to buy S-400 air defence systems from Russia. It is also set to purchase Kornet anti-tank guided missile systems and multiple rocket launchers under the deal.
The two countries also signed an agreement to create USD one billion joint investment fund. They also announced a plan to manufacture Russia's famous Kalashnikov rifles in the kingdom as part of its budding military industry.
On the political front there appeared to be no significant development on the issues such as Syrian and Yemen conflicts that divided the two countries. King Salman on his part demanded that Iran, an ally of the Kremlin, must stop meddling in the Middle East politics.
"We emphasise that the security and stability of the Gulf region and the Middle East is an urgent necessity for achieving stability and security in Yemen," the King told Putin. "This would demand that Iran give up interference with the internal affairs of the region, to give up actions destabilising the situation in the region," the King said.
Saudi Arabia and Russia are heavily dependent on oil exports and the global plunge in the price of crude that began in 2014 lashed both of their economies. The two countries, together providing about a quarter of global oil output, were the driving force behind the unprecedented production agreement between the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the non-OPEC oil producers, which stabilised the global energy markets.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal.)