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Russia to play Middle East mediator during King Salman’s visit

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Dr. Shehab Al-Makahleh 

The long-awaited, historic visit of King Salman to Russia this week will demonstrate the scale of dialogue and coordination the two countries seek to achieve to strengthen their bilateral relations. The visit has great symbolism, with billboards installed in Moscow to welcome King Salman to Russia on the first visit by a Saudi monarch since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Moscow some 90 years ago.

When Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir told the Sputnik news agency last month that the visit will be “a historic one because it will symbolize the extent of the relationship and consultations that take place between the two countries” he tacitly meant that both countries have bridged their differences of opinion about some issues of common concern during the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Saudi Arabia last month — be they political or economic.

Saudis appreciate that the former Soviet Union was the first nation to establish diplomatic ties with what was then known as the Kingdom of Hijaz and Najd in 1926. In the past few years, however, the countries’ bilateral relations were marred by many issues in the Middle East, such as the Arab Spring.

Since 2009, Saudi Arabia has voiced its interest in launching ventures in Russia’s Arctic oil and gas fields, while it also seeks cooperation on nuclear and renewable energy and railways. King Salman, who will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, is expected to touch upon Iran, Qatar, Yemen and Syria, in addition to economic cooperation. The question that arises is: Can we expect to see Russian-Iranian relations downgraded at some point? Russian diplomacy is to synergize Riyadh on one hand and Tehran on the other as Moscow believes it can play a mediator role. Though Russia will not be replacing the US in this regard due to the many complicated connections the Middle East has with the West in general and America in particular, Moscow is trying to encourage Middle Eastern countries to have better relations based on mutual understanding and common benefits.

Since 1991, Moscow has adopted an “inclusive regional strategy,” which has enabled it to recover from its 1991 demise. The country has regained its power and its regional and international presence since 2000, when Moscow decided to strengthen and consolidate its viewpoints and influence as a superpower in the Middle East. Many Arab countries, including Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, have enjoyed good relations with Russia in spite of their differences in regional policies — such as the Libyan, Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni issues.

Russia relies on the Saudi monarch to push for peace and stability in Syria due to the influence the Kingdom has on some Syrian opposition groups. However, Moscow is not currently planning on downgrading its relationship with Iran or the Syrian regime as it attempts to gain more privileges in the region.

Countries hope to make significant progress on security, politics and economic ties during Saudi Arabian king’s historic trip to Moscow — although hosts’ loyalty to Iran and Syrian regime may be a stumbling block.

Russians view their cooperation and coordination with Saudi Arabia as lucrative and conducive to reaching a settlement in Syria through the four de-escalation zones. Yemen is another thorny issue in regard to the stability of the Arabian Peninsula. Russia wants to play a major role in ending the war by bringing all fighting parties to the table, as it is doing with the Syrians and will be doing with Libyans later.

As for the Gulf-Qatar spat, Russia views it as a family issue and would operate as a mediator in this context to bring about a solution with few losses to all parties. However, King Salman is not expected to raise the issue of Qatar in his meetings with Russian officials.

Meanwhile, giant Russian companies, including firms involved in railways, civil aviation, helicopters and energy, are planning a wide array of offers to stimulate joint cooperation. Some of the projects were previously discussed during the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Russia in May, just days after President Donald Trump visited Riyadh.

Two years ago, Moscow and Riyadh signed a number of agreements in the fields of defense and military, economy, peaceful use of atomic energy, housing, investment and scientific cooperation. Some of these are now expected to come into effect after King Salman’s visit, with Russian circles having voiced their intention to go ahead with helping the Saudis with their nuclear energy program.

Russian officials are upbeat about the visit and are hopeful it will boost investments in the energy sector.

The two countries have already agreed a joint fund worth $10 billion between the Russia Direct Investment Fund and the Saudi Public Investment Fund, and Saudi investors have implemented a number of high-value projects in the petrochemical, infrastructure, logistics and hydropower sectors in Russia.

This long-touted visit has finally become a reality and both sides have high hopes of changing the stereotyped images of each country in the eyes of the other by increasing bilateral cooperation and solving regional issues.

• Dr. Shehab Al-Makahleh is director of Geostrategic Media Center and a senior media adviser and political analyst in the Middle East. Twitter: @shehabmakahleh

Source: Arab News