Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Prince Mohamed ben Salman met Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for two hours June 18 in what could be a turning point in the ties between the two countries. Bilateral and regional issues, particularly Syria and oil prices, were discussed in preparatory talks and during the meeting. Saudi officials deny that the meeting is tied to tension between Riyadh and Washington. They point to a common view between Saudi Arabia and the US, discussed earlier between the two countries, that all possible avenues should be explored to change Moscow’s policy of supporting Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad. In their view, they are trying to do just that.
What can make this meeting different than previous high level talks is that it can indeed produce some important changes in Moscow’s Middle East approach. This effect, if materializes, should not be taken as a sign of Putin buckling to pressure or tempted by substantial trade and investment deals with the Saudis. What really makes it different is that it came in the right time. Over time, certain developments opened the door to some kind of convergence, at least in a number of issues.
During the last few years, former Saudi Intelligence chief Prince Bandar ben Sultan visited Moscow twice to try to convince Putin to change his choices in the Middle East. The attempts failed due to a complex set of factors. Saudi policies at that time were perceived to be rigid and maximalist. Prices of oil were fine. There was no Ukrainian crisis or sanctions against Moscow. Assad had a relatively better situation in his country and Iran was not about to reach a deal with the world on the nuclear front.
Soon after the recent meeting, President Putin said that his country still supports Assad “for fear of turning Syria into another Libya”. Yet, the “value” of Assad to the Russians has steadily declined with the diminishing capabilities of the Syrian President and his seemingly gradual approach to the end of his political reign. All relevant parties, including the Saudis and the Russians, are examining now the likely post-Assad scenarios.
The Saudis decided to sweeten the pot by throwing some multi-billion dollars deals on top to convince Moscow to give up on an already exhausted and consumed asset like Assad and to help shape an end-game that is positive, from Riyadh’s perspective. Putin can be reassured as well that Russia’s interests in the post-Assad Syria will be preserved and his geopolitical concerns related to radical Jihadists will be considered. After all, Riyadh is not opposed to future ties between whatever political regime that will emerge in Syria and the Russians. This is evident by Riyadh’s approval of improving its own ties with Moscow. Furthermore, the Saudis believe that radical Jihadists will eventually target their own Kingdom. And as for oil prices, it was not an easy option, even for the Saudis with their substantial reserves, to keep the prices as low for a long time. Contrary to the common belief, Riyadh wants the prices of oil to get back to a “reasonable” level. The meeting took place at the right moment indeed.
As recent as last March, Saudi former foreign minister Saud Al Faisal criticized Putin’s Middle East policy publicly in a conference in Cairo. Yet, Moscow is going out of its way to reassure itself and others that regional problems will not have a negative impact on bilateral ties. Vladimir Yevtoshkov, chairman of the Russian-Saudi Business Council said in an interview just after Putin-ben Salman meeting that ties between the two countries were “excellent”. “Despite regional problems, the prospects of developing bi-lateral ties are wide-ranging. It is essential to develop these ties in a way that serves the interests of both countries”, he said. Saudis in their part said that King Salman will visit the Kremlin “soon”.
Moscow rewarded the Prince with an immediate token of support. Russia’s foreign ministry cancelled a pre-set meeting with a delegation of prominent Yemeni pro-Houthi politicians. Putin advised ben Salman to seek a political end in Yemen and said that Russia can help in that regard. But receiving the pro-Houthi politicians immediately after meeting ben Salman, currently in war in Yemen, was thought to be a bad idea. One day after the Ben Salman-Putin meeting, Aref Zoka the general secretary of the Popular Conference of former Yemeni President Aly Abdullah Saleh and two other senior officials of the party were told that their visit to Moscow is postponed. The notice arrived 48 hours before the meeting, almost literally while the three Yemenis were packing.
However, the issue of moving Moscow away from Iran is now central to both Saudi Arabia and the US. This thorny issue is related to the overall Iranian strategy in the Middle East and to any hopes of reducing Tehran’s strategic leverage in its post nuclear deal relations with the world. Moscow’s Syria policy should be understood in that context as well, that is to say not in itself, but in its relation to Moscow-Tehran ties.
The Iranians are not happy about the new Saudi-Russian rapprochement. Just before the Putin-Salman meeting, an Iranian diplomat in Moscow criticized what he called “the Russian dual game in Syria”. It is obvious that the visit provided Putin with an additional leverage in his policy towards Tehran. What remains to be seen is how the Russian President will use this leverage. And this is indeed The dilemma facing Putin now.
The main problem for the Russians to solve now will be shaping a new approach towards the post-nuclear-deal Iran that allows them to avoid any irreconcilable choices between the two opposed regional poles: Riyadh and Tehran. The Russians, the Saudis and the Iranians are all focused now on whether Moscow will indeed try to have the cake and eat it too as usual. Due to the high level of polarization and the edged nature of the regional problems it may be difficult for Putin to please all sides this time, even if the Syrian crisis is moving towards a kind of end game.
The two regional sides have something close to a zero sum game in their minds. There are questions about how Putin will be able to strike a balance in such a situation. There are even more questions about his ability to shape events in a way that accomplishes the mission impossible of pleasing the two sides. His leverage in Syria, and even Iran, is not as strong as sometimes reported.
Opening a new page with Moscow is important also on psychological levels for the Saudis in regard to the fanfare expected in Tehran after signing the nuclear deal. However, maybe the most important element in the minds of the Saudis was the outlines of the end game in Syria. It is best to contain any possibility that Russia or Iran may play the role of major spoilers. In other words, reaching some common grounds with the Russians concerning Syria may reduce Tehran’s expected disruptive role or at least shape some generally accepted principles about Syria’s endgame.
The only niche that Moscow can use now to have the cake and eat it is the role of a mediator between the Gulf Arabs and the Iranians. Yet, Moscow will have some obstacles on its way to assume that role. It will not be easy for the Iranians to accept a Russian self-imposed demotion from the position of an alley to the position of a mediator. Furthermore, the role of a go between requires two sides willing to reach an accommodation. It is not certain yet that the two sides took the strategic decision to reconcile their differences.
Potentially, with signing the nuclear deal, an Iran facing an endgame in Syria could be less resistant to Moscow’s intermediation. True or not, the only way for President Putin to try to have his cake and eat it too is to dress in the cloth of the intermediator. The Iranians may not buy that easily, but with changes on the ground in the Middle East they may come to terms with the intermediation idea and get over their anger at the alley turned mediator. The mere change of Moscow’s position will deprive Tehran of an important strategic depth that helped it for long to carry on its policies in the Middle East.
However, in the short term, as much as the Iranians will be totally focused on what comes out of Moscow in regard to the Middle East, the Saudis will be doing exactly the same. If taken, the Saudi offer to Russia will likely shift the dynamics of Moscow-Riyadh bilateral ties and place it on a track of mutual attempts to extract the highest possible price for whatever was offered. Each side will be measuring if they got a good deal. It will not be easy to convince the Saudis that a policy was changed if it was not indeed changed. There are specific landmarks that should be reached and the Saudis are not naïve in the field of international diplomacy.
The Iranians will also be busy trying to assess the impact of the new development in Saudi-Russia relations. The moment carries a challenges and promises to Moscow. In any case, the Russians have been given an opportunity to move one step higher on the influence-meter in the Middle East by being given the possibility to play a larger role there. How will they squeeze this moment to the last drop, as they usual do, remains to be seen.