King Salman's arrival in Moscow on Wednesday on a historic three-day official visit, the first ever by a Saudi monarch, signals the kingdom's recognition that Russia has returned to the Middle East as a major actor. This role was once assumed by the Soviet Union, which supported Arab republics while the West backed monarchies.
The king's talks on Thursday with Russian president Vladimir Putin reveal that the kingdom seeks to move beyond its long-standing reliance on the US. The main topics on the agenda are Syria, Iran, oil and expanding commercial ties.
Saudi Arabia and Russia were on opposite sides in the Syrian war. Riyadh provided arms and funds for armed groups seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow has backed him and, over the past two years, supplied air cover, arms and advisers for the Syrian army to roll back insurgent territorial gains.
Recognising the Russian-Assad victory as a fait accompli, Riyadh has cut its losses by halting aid to insurgents and signed on to the Russian-Iranian-Turkish-Iranian plan to reduce violence in Syria. This imposes ceasefire – or “de-confliction” – zones and promotes peace negotiations between the government and the Saudi-sponsored opposition.
In exchange for co-operation on Syria, the Saudis will press Russia to contain the influence in postwar Syria of Saudi regional rival Iran, which has reinforced the overstretched Syrian army with Shia militiamen.
While the Soviet Union was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with the kingdom by opening a mission in 1926, the anti-communist Saudis broke relations with Moscow in 1938 and did not resume ties until the emergence of the Russian Federation in 1990.
Co-operation bloomed last year when Saudi Arabia and Russia, the world's two largest oil producers, joined forces to persuade the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and non-Opec members to cut oil exports in order to stabilise the price at $50-$60 a barrel.
The sides seek to extend this deal beyond March 2018. Ahead of the king's visit, Russian energy minister Alexander Novak told Saudi al-Arabiya television, "Our focus is not just on strengthening our co-operation within the framework of the Opec and non-Opec [accord] but also the strengthening co-operation in oil, gas, electricity, renewable energy and other projects for oil and gas."
Saudi Arabia and Russia are set to launch a $1 billion fund to invest in energy projects and hold discussions on Saudi investment in major Russian oil and natural gas projects, a joint venture between Saudi Aramco and Russia’s largest petrochemical firm to build plants in the kingdom, and deals with Russian companies to provide drilling and other oilfield services to Saudi Arabia.
In May, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman – the king’s favourite son and heir – travelled to Moscow to promote Russian investment in Vision 2030, his plan to diversify the oil-dependent Saudi economy, and build on the modest $1 billion in trade between the two countries.
Bin Salman, the prime mover of change in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, has effected the 180-degree shift in policy on Russia.