MOSCOW (AP) - In a major break with decades of rivalry, Russia and Saudi Arabia on Friday struck a slew of deals, including contracts for Russian weapons as part of a groundbreaking first visit by a Saudi monarch.
The Kremlin talks between Saudi King Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin mark a thaw in relations between the countries, which have often been tense since the Cold War times when the kingdom supported of Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet invasion in the 1980s.
Observers say that Riyadh’s decision to boost ties with Moscow reflects the expanded clout Russia has won in the Middle East with its military blitz in Syria. And it shows the Saudis’ interest in keeping Russia signed up to a global deal to limit oil production and push up the price of their valuable crude exports.
Hosting the Saudi king in the ornate Kremlin interiors, Putin hailed his visit as a “landmark event” that will give a “strong impulse” to bilateral ties.
Salman said he was looking to expand relations with “friendly nation” Russia “in the interests of peace, security and development of the world economy.”
The Saudi monarch noted that the two nations agree on many international and regional issues and intend to continue their efforts to shore up global oil prices.
Following the talks, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) said it signed agreements with Russia’s state arms trader, Rosoboronexport, for the purchase of cutting-edge Russian weapons, including the long-range S-400 air defense missile systems.
In line with Saudi Arabia’s intention to localize weapons production, the deals envisage the transfer of technology for the local production of Russian Kornet-EM anti-tank missiles, TOS-1A rocket launchers and AGS-30 automatic grenade launchers and the latest version of the Kalashnikov assault rifle.
While the U.S. has remained Saudi Arabia’s top weapons supplier and its most critical Western ally, Thursday’s deals highlighted Riyadh’s intention to expand ties with Russia.
The Saudis have also been eyeing Russian nuclear power technologies and appear ready to expand food imports from Russia, which is set to remain the world’s biggest wheat exporter this year. Food security is a major concern for Saudi Arabia, which stopped local production of livestock feed and wheat due to water scarcity.
Salman’s visit comes after decades of tensions, most recently over the war in Syria, where Saudi Arabia had backed the Sunni rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad, while its arch-rival, Shiite powerhouse Iran, had teamed with Russia to shore up his rule.
Analysts see Salman’s trip to Moscow, which follows other visits by Gulf royals, as the clearest sign yet that Russia’s high-risk gamble in Syria has paid off.
“A number of Gulf leaders have been going with greater regularity to Moscow and I think for a simple reason: Russia has made itself much more of a factor in key parts of the Middle East as the U.S. has taken a step back in some ways, particularly in Syria,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Saudi-U.S. ties grew strained under the Obama administration over its backing of a nuclear agreement with Iran and its cautious stance on the Syrian conflict. Relations improved under the Trump administration, but Washington’s focus in Syria continues to be on fighting the Islamic State group, not on ousting Assad.
Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that even though Moscow has no capacity to replace Washington, “it’s clear that Russia has been able to play a weak hand very well and step into vacuums everywhere where the U.S. has retreated.”
At the core of Saudi Arabia’s regional woes is its rival Iran, which is backed by Russia. The Shiite-led regional power has spread its footprint throughout the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia is at war with Iranian-allied rebel fighters in Yemen and is embroiled in a diplomatic standoff with Qatar, which has found support from Tehran.
During previous contacts with Russia, Saudi Arabia has tried to persuade Moscow to scale down its ties with Tehran. Salman emphasized during Thursday’s talks that Iran must “stop meddling in internal affairs of the countries of the region and halt its activities to destabilize the situation in the region.”
Saudi Arabia’s turn to Russia comes after Turkey, a longtime backer of Syrian rebels, changed course and pooled efforts with Russia and Iran to help broker de-escalation zones in Syria that helped reduce violence.
“In the past, they (the Saudis) had hoped that through investment, through economic incentives, they could change the Kremlin’s position in Syria and that did not work,” Borshchevskaya said. “There’s nothing that points to the fact that Russia will change its position in Syria. They’ve accomplished virtually everything they’d wanted.”
The kingdom, much like Russia, has been hit by the fall in oil prices since mid-2014. Despite regional disagreements, the two major oil-producing nations found common ground on energy policy in November, when they led a deal between OPEC and non-OPEC states to cut production in a bid to shore up crude prices. So far that deal is holding and prices have recovered slightly to above $50 a barrel.
But any sign that the deal could unravel could see oil and gas prices fall back down, pinching the finances once again for countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia.
In an apparent reference to the output deal, Salman told Putin on Thursday that Saudi Arabia is “eager to continue the positive cooperation between our nations to achieve stability in the world oil market, which fosters global economic growth.” The price of oil subsequently jumped over 2 percent.