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News | Oct. 8, 2019

Putin Heads For Riyadh

By John W. Parker Strategic Insights

Vladimir Putin with Crown Prince and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud.
Vladimir Putin with Crown Prince and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud.
Vladimir Putin with Crown Prince and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud.
Photo By: Russia
VIRIN: 191007-D-BD104-001

At their summit later this month, Putin and his Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) hosts will highlight progress on the economic agenda laid out during King Salman’s October 2017 visit to Moscow.  Questions about the American commitment to protect the free flow of energy from the region will play in the background, and Putin will lobby the Saudis to buy Russian air defense systems.  The Russian president will use the September 14 strikes on Saudi energy facilities and the lengthy Yemen conflict to advance Moscow’s Concept for Collective Security in the Persian Gulf and encourage peace talks.  Moscow and Riyadh will underscore their intent to continue working together in OPEC+ to stabilize global oil prices, and use the Riyadh summit to bolster the room for independent action on the world stage of their energy tandem.  


Putin’s summit later this month (October 2019) in Riyadh with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely referred to as MbS, will cap six years of efforts to advance the Russian-Saudi relationship.  These efforts gained momentum in 2013 during King Abdullah’s reign as both sides reacted to secret talks between Washington and Tehran to explore prospects for a nuclear deal.  They were reinforced in Riyadh by President Obama’s decision several months later not to respond militarily to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. 

Since then, under King Salman, Saudi unhappiness with President Trump’s calls for withdrawing American soldiers from Syria, his declarations of readiness to meet with Iranian President Rouhani without preconditions, and the need by both Moscow and Riyadh to prop up oil prices have continued to encourage the improvement in relations.  Saudi Arabia and Russia have increased contacts and played up common interests despite divisions over Syria, differences over Ukraine and Yemen, competing global energy interests, and longstanding mutual distrust.  In the energy field, they have attained what amounts to strategic ties that bypass the United States with the OPEC+ cap-and-cut oil production agreements that are economically fragile but sustained by weighty geopolitical objectives on both sides. 

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Moscow has now announced the summit will take place in the middle of this month.  The invitation for Putin to visit Riyadh was first extended on King Salman’s behalf by then-Deputy Crown Prince MbS during his first meeting with Putin in St. Petersburg on June 18, 2015, not long after Salman succeeded the deceased Abdullah.  No specific time frame was mentioned publicly until June 10, 2019, when Energy Minister Falih – in Moscow for talks with Russian counterpart Novak – stated that it would be this October.  The revelation concerning the summit’s timing came just several weeks before the most recent OPEC+ 9-month extension of production quotas was made official on July 2, 2019. 

In the run-up to world leaders’ meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York in September, President Trump’s repeated statements of readiness to meet Iranian President Rouhani without preconditions probably reinforced Riyadh’s decision host Putin in Riyadh in October.  The gyrations in oil prices when Trump has suggested he might dial back U.S. “maximum pressure” efforts on the Islamic Republic of Iran, including its oil exports, must also have added to the heartburn in Riyadh over the uncertain direction of U.S. policy.


Going forward, at the political pinnacles in both capitals, prospects for the sustainability of the Saudi-Russian relationship no longer hinge exclusively on shaky arms deals, temporarily coinciding interests in world energy markets, or Saudi pique over American policies in the region.  Both sides appear to have reached a point of no return where they value buttressing the relationship for its own long-term geopolitical sake and the leverage it gives each side on a variety of issues. 

Despite the lack of any apparent Saudi movement toward purchasing Russia’s S-400 air defense system, for example, Putin is going ahead with his long bruited visit to Riyadh.  And he is doing so even as Russia is providing some diplomatic comfort, if not solid economic relief, to Iran as it contends with the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign of increasing sanctions.  “Tehran is a long-standing and reliable partner of Moscow in the Middle East region,” pronounced the Russian Foreign Ministry on the eve of Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s visit to Moscow in May 2019.  “Iran is a key player in the Near and Middle East region,” it asserted.  Yet Russian-Iranian trade in 2018 amounted only to $1.7 billion, no higher than in 2017

A more solid Russia-Saudi relationship seems here to stay, with one important caution. The present consistency in ties owes much to the stability in the relationship between President Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, backed by King Salman.  They can be expected to continue to build at the October summit on what they have achieved to date.  MbS will of course use the summit to burnish his cult of personality, tarnished by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the continued war in Yemen.  However, given the opaque politics on both sides that cloud the intensity of elite support for current policies and the widespread distrust of each other at lower levels, what happens should MbS be pushed aside or when Putin passes from the scene is pure conjecture.  


For now, however, continuity should be expected even though bilateral trade is at a puny level.  At around $1 billion in 2018, it is even lower than Iranian-Russian trade.  “There has been little to no progress” on the agreements signed during King Salman’s October 2017 visit to Moscow, points out one Russian expert.  Nevertheless, both sides at the summit will again endeavor to give at least the impression that they are determined to increase the weight of their trade relationship, and highlight progress on the economic agenda laid out during King Salman’s October 2017 visit to Moscow. 

In fact, in August, the Saudis eased pest-damage restrictions on Russian grain imports.  In 2-3 years, according to a Russian grain trade expert, Russia could gain half of the Saudi wheat market.  More recently, Energy Minister Aleksander Novak stated that 30 agreements and memoranda of understanding will be signed at the summit, and Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), now values at $6 billion the total capital committed to projects in Russia by the Russia Saudi Investment Fund. 


In September, two shocks tested two main pillars of the relationship, and they held steady.   First, on September 7, King Salman appointed Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman to replace OPEC+ “architect” Khalid al-Falih as Energy Minister.  The move came on the eve of the departure of Russian Energy Minister Novak from Moscow for Jeddah to coordinate arrangements for Putin’s visit to Riyadh, and provoked uncertainty given Novak’s new chief interlocutor.  Nevertheless, Novak’s visit went forward and he met with his new counterpart on September 11, 2019, seemingly without a hitch. 

The second, much greater shock, came on September 14, when drones and cruise missiles struck two critical Saudi facilities and knocked out half of the country’s oil production for an uncertain period of time.  Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility.  Iran denied any role in the attack, but forensics pointed to the weapons being of Iranian origin and most likely launched from Iran. 

Some observers drew parallels between President Obama’s reluctance to retaliate militarily in August 2013 to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons and President Trump’s pullback from doing the same on June 20, 2019, after Iran downed an American surveillance drone.  In both cases, regional powers concluded that the United States would limit any response to below the threshold of a military strike rather than escalate the conflict.  In the earlier case, Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow felt unconstrained to continue to press ahead militarily in Syria.  In addition, as I have argued elsewhere, President Obama’s restrained response emboldened Putin and contributed to his decision to intervene in the 2016 American elections. 

Among American partners in the region, Washington’s military inaction in 2013 spurred Riyadh and other capitals to hedge their bets and move closer to Moscow.  This impulse has since continued to mature.  It was no doubt reinforced by Trump’s decision not to strike back on June 20, 2019.   The Trump administration did take steps before and after June 20 to bolster the American presence in the region and footprint in Saudi Arabia and after September 14 to improve Saudi air defenses.  Nevertheless, President Trump’s June 20 about face on a retaliatory strike raised questions about the American commitment to protect the free flow of energy from the region, and this is now part of the backstage scenery for Putin’s second summit in Riyadh, which he first visited in February 2007.    

The well-planned September 14 attack eluded Saudi defenses, including six battalions of American Patriot missile defense systems.  Experts are of the opinion that the strikes would have been difficult for any country to detect and defeat, even if armed with the Russian S-400 air defense system.  Nevertheless, after meeting with Presidents Rouhani and Erdogan in Ankara on September 16, Putin asserted that Russia was ready to assist Saudi Arabia once its leaders took a “wise decision,” as had Iran in buying the S-300 system and Turkey the S-400.  Either, suggested Putin, “would offer reliable protection for any Saudi infrastructure facilities.” 

Putin’s mocking assertion provoked open laughter from both Rouhani and Erdogan at the press conference in Ankara.  It belied long-standing irritation in Moscow with repeated Saudi failures to follow through on statements of intent to purchase Russian arms.  Coming after Energy Minister Novak’s consultations in Jeddah on the upcoming summit, Putin’s tongue-in-cheek comment suggested that movement beyond the October 2017 memorandum of understanding on Saudi purchase of the S-400 system is not to be expected.  Nevertheless, his jab may have masked continuing pressure from Putin on Saudi Arabia to spend an equivalent sum – some $2 billion -- on purchases of other Russian systems, some perhaps even helpful in defending against low-altitude drone and cruise missile attacks, perhaps the Pantsir system as some have suggested.  Only then might Putin exert himself more forcefully in lobbying Tehran on Riyadh’s behalf. 


At the same press conference, Putin claimed that he and his Iranian and Turkish counterparts had not even discussed the attack two days earlier, claimed by Houthi rebels opposed by Saudi Arabia.  Rather than expressing sympathy for Saudi Arabia or casting aspersions on Iran for its widely suspected role in the attack, the Russian president pivoted immediately to underscore the “extreme humanitarian disaster [that] is unfolding in Yemen.”  It was Putin’s indirect way of blaming Riyadh for provoking the strikes by not ceasing its intervention in Yemen.  Reiterating Moscow’s long-standing position, Putin called on all parties involved in the conflict – of course implicitly to include Saudi Arabia -- to facilitate agreements bringing it to an end. 

In this connection, Putin at the upcoming summit in Riyadh will use the September 14 strikes and the ongoing Yemen conflict to advance Russia’s omnibus and regionally inclusive peace initiative for the Middle East.  Moscow began advertising its Concept for Collective Security in the Persian Gulf in July, as Moscow and Riyadh began focusing on a date in October for the summit.  Russian spokesmen, including Andrey Baklanov, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, have been describing it as a regional analogue to OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).   One of its features is reportedly a system for monitoring violations of security in the region.  “If this system already worked,” Ambassador Baklanov has asserted, “we would already be able to say who is behind the strikes on Saudi Arabia.”  Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on October 2 called MbS’s positive response to a Houthi proposal for a ceasefire and talks cause for “cautious optimism.”


In the meantime, of course, Putin and MbS can set aside disagreements over Yemen and other security issues currently in play and continue their duumvirate collaboration on energy as the leading partners within the OPEC+ format, in which the United States does not participate.   Here their consultations will have added substance in the wake of the damage to Saudi production facilities in the September 14 attack.  There will be much to discuss, although it appears that it is too early to determine whether OPEC+ production agreements will need to be renegotiated, and the present agreement lasts through March 2020.  So far, there do not appear incentives for Russia to rock the boat on oil production quotas.   In their phone call on September 18, Putin and MbS both signaled their intent to continue working together to stabilize global oil prices.  CEO Dmitriev has put the value so far of OPEC+ for the Russian state budget at over $100 billion.    


When it comes to overall relations, Russia and the KSA both understand that the United States is always present and the dominant power.  In OPEC+, however, Russia and Saudi Arabia can operate in a venue of their own which they need not share with the United States.  The OPEC+ arrangement enables both to deal more effectively with pressure from the U.S. in the region and on world markets.  Some early on dubbed this an “axis in oil affairs” and even an “axis of love.” Both sides will use the Riyadh summit to bolster the room for independent action of their geopolitical tandem.   

 Dr. John W. Parker is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University. The views expressed in this op-ed are the authors’ own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.