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memri
July 27, 2017 No.
7028

Russian Middle East Expert: KSA's Bin Salman A Friend, But A Difficult One

In an article for the Gazeta.ru website titled " Moscow’s Difficult New Friend", Nikolai Surkov, an associate professor in the Oriental Studies Department of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and an expert of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) sought to explain the uptick in Russian-Saudi relations despite the major differences between the two countries. He attributes it to the pragmatic policies of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman who has opted to cooperate with Russia on issues where the two countries are aligned. Surkov warns however that the serious remaining differences in other areas can scupper the relationship.

MEMRI's translation of Surkov's analysis[1] follows below:


Nikolai Surkov (Source: Russia-direct.org)

"The appointment of the 31-year-old Muhammad bin Salman as the heir apparent in late June came as yet another confirmation of the prince’s important role in ruling the kingdom. Taking into account the venerable age of the current monarch, it is Muhammad bin Salman who will have to determine the course of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, including its relationship with the Russian Federation. The crown prince is considered to be less conservative than his father; he is popular among the young, who are tired of the long-standing gerontocracy.

"The prince supports the country's modernization, and first of all – decreasing the clergy's role and reducing the economy’s dependence on oil.

"[His] liberal (by Saudi standards) views do not prevent the prince from taking a hard line in foreign policy. Muhammad bin Salman takes a tough position on Iran, which is considered in Riyadh to be the source of the threat to Saudi Arabia's existence. In particular, it was he who made the decision about direct military intervention war in neighboring Yemen's civil war. This is most uncharacteristic of the kingdom’s foreign policy, as it traditionally prefers to provide financial aid and act through its dependent states.

"Muhammad bin Salman is reputedly the chief initiator of the Qatar blockade started in June.

"One can discern, behind formal accusations of support for terrorism, Riyadh’s accumulated discontent with the excessively friendly relations between Doha and Teheran. Apparently, the future Saudi monarch characteristically decided to dot all his I's.

"As for the relationship with the RF, Riyadh’s position is ambivalent. On the one hand, serious disagreements about Syria still remain. On the other, both countries welcomed the change of power in Egypt in 2013 and continue joint support of Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi as president.

"In particular, there is a basis for assuming that the large-scale Russian arms purchases by the Egyptians have become feasible thanks to Saudi financial aid.

"One can also confidently claim that Riyadh has appreciated Moscow’s restrained attitude regarding the Yemen question.

"Mutual understanding in the oil market exists as well. In spring of this year, the two countries agreed to reduce production by 1.8 million barrels per day to support [oil] prices. It even provided an opening for Vladimir Putin to announce in late May that the coordinated action by Moscow and Riyadh had resulted in 'stabilizing the world hydrocarbons markets'.

"Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s approach to the RF appears strictly pragmatic and boils down to cooperating with Moscow wherever possible. It is not accidental that a month ago, he visited Moscow personally and stated that bilateral relations 'are experiencing one of their best moments'. The Russian leader expressed a similar opinion; according to him, both countries maintain contacts on the political level as well, between military departments: 'Together we deal with the questions of managing complicated situations, including in Syria."


Putin with bin Salman (Source: English.alarabiya.net)

"Preparations for the visit of the Saudi monarch to the RF, which will be the first in history, also testify to the high level of bilateral relations. Usually, the 81-year-old king Salman bestows his attention only on the closest allies or the most important partners.

"It would be naïve to assume that the relations will always develop serenely. Recently, the German mass media published statements attributed to Muhammad bin Salman, declaring that Russia is a threat to Saudi Arabia and that the kingdom’s army can destroy Russian forces in Syria within three days. The crown prince’s office and the Russian MFA immediately and resolutely refuted this information. Still, the problem of conflict of interests does exist: Moscow continues to support Bashar al-Assad.

"Due to Russia’s position on Syria, the Arab world continues to view it as an ally of Shi’ite Iran. The Saudis [for their part] cooperate with various Sunni groups bent on regime change in Syria.

"Another potential source of frictions is the issue of direct Russian arms shipments to Iran. The Persian Gulf neighbors are especially concerned about supplies of modern ABM systems like the S-300, which are capable of upsetting military parity and depriving Saudi Arabia of its chief trump card – the powerful air forces.

"The further development of bilateral relations is also contingent upon Moscow’s position on the Qatar issue. Doha is clearly interested in Russian support, which is what Emir Tamir must have been telling Vladimir Putin during a recent telephone conversation. But any interference on the part of Russia into "intra-familial" arguments of Arabian monarchies will be viewed extremely negatively by Riyadh, which considers the Gulf its exclusive sphere of influence.

"Thus, the situation that is unfolding now is very problematic for Russian-Saudi relations. Saudi foreign policy is determined by a politician who understands the importance of cooperating with the RF and is interested in it. But at the same time, Muhammad bin Salman has the reputation of a tough and decisive leader, who will hardly forgive Moscow for any openly pro-Iranian measures. "

 

 

[1] Gazeta.ru, July 11, 2017.