Three cheers to King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz for steering Saudi foreign policy in the right direction and making it more robust and dynamic, reflecting the changing pace of the world.
His recent four-day visit to Moscow has been successful on all counts, building bridges and constructing new foreign policies for a Saudi Arabia facing the 21st century with open arms, spirit and with much innovation. King Salman’s sojourn to the Russian capital, the first ever by a Saudi monarch, is one that is paved with good intentions, heralding a new era in international relations and designed to turn global politics on its head based not on one superpower, not two, but a multi-polarity of nations.
The visit by King Salman, heading a large entourage of around 1,500 people, including around 200 businessmen, is deemed to open a new chapter of foreign policy relations aimed at all parts of the world, including the United States and Europe, Saudi Arabia’s traditional friends. Saudi Arabia, a great and traditional friend of the US and the West, is now eyeing the Russians as outlined in the 14 agreements signed between them in energy, armaments, trade, technology transfer, deals regarding space, in addition to the joint investment ventures, causing many observers to talk about shifting geopolitical sands and realities in the Middle East.
But these realities should be interpreted as new Saudi thinking about a complex, more inter-connected world and not as playing one party against the other. The US is seen as having “Middle East fatigue” and no longer interested in engagement in the region. And who can blame them, mainly in view of their debacle in Iraq during the first decade of the millennium. However, Saudi Arabia is worried about the rocky nuclear deal that Iran made with the US and Europe — a deal that is now on the verge of being rejected by the administration of US President Donald Trump, much to the anguish of the Europeans. The Saudis have always believed that the deal was a bad one in the first place that put Iran in a strategic advantage and would only help it emerge as a great threat to the region.
Russia — a major power now operating in the Middle East, especially since it entered the Syrian war in 2015, to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, along with Iran — also wants to be on good terms with Riyadh because it sees Saudi Arabia as a continuing political heavyweight in the region, a country that can pull strings as many regional states continue to listen to Riyadh. Moscow insists that the Syrian war must end with an Al Assad victory. However, to be able to ensure that, it has to court the Saudis who are openly on the side of the Syrian opposition. The political shifts among the different groups in Syria has created a deadlock that can only be resolved through deals, compromises and arm-twisting. Moscow continues to hold out, but believes Saudi Arabia can have a decisive say for a negotiated colony that would be acceptable to all while keeping their man in power.
Thus political brinkmanship is continuing to be played at the highest levels. It is no longer a question of right and wrong, but what is politically feasible and realistic. How long can and should the Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year, continue? In the light of the current circumstances, greater pragmatism is needed.
With the Saudi King’s recent visit to Russia, everyone is in anticipation of a positive outcome, though the prevailing Syrian situation wasn’t directly discussed. Or, even if talks on Al Assad’s future did indeed take place, they were not made public. However, both sides continue to be committed to getting rid of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the other extremist groups in the region as an initial step to a final negotiated settlement to an extraordinarily complex situation.
The high stakes have been compounded by falling oil prices, putting Russia in dire straits. It has already made an agreement with Opec (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) to cut production, so that prices can be maintained just above $50 (Dh183.9) a barrel. And this agreement is likely to continue until next year.
Saudi Arabia is now keen on having Moscow on board to check its role, along with that of Iran, in Syria and Yemen.
The new Russian-Saudi rapprochement is perhaps indicative of the fact that Moscow will now be willing to ditch Iran if the need arises. Observers note that Moscow has never been keen on backing Al Houthis in Yemen and that’s why it has kept quiet on the current war against the militias, led by Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies.
If Moscow wants to continue to enjoy the benefits of the newly-signed agreements with Saudi Arabia, then it must also start conducting its foreign policy in the region in ways that are far different from what it has been doing until recently. And that means being more amicable.
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.