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Robert Cusack

Bombs and Oil: Saudi and Russia bond over mutual loves

Russia's President Putin with Saudi Arabia's King Salman [AFP]

Date of publication: 6 October, 2017

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In-depth: The recent Saudi entourage to Moscow marks the beginning of a diversification in Saudi foreign policy and the beginning of a new order in the region.
The problems started almost immediately after King Salman got off his plane at Moscow. The octogenarian Saudi monarch was to become the first ever to visit Russia - if he could only first reach the ground.

The Russian-built elevator broke down just as the king started to descend and the aged monarch was forced to walk, slowly and unceremoniously, to the bottom.

The fact that there has not been a summit-level meeting on Russian soil previously is a sign of the historically poor relations between the two countries. The two major military exporters took opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, now ongoing for six years at the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives.

But this history is being forgotten in favour of a major geopolitical shift in the Middle East.

The posturing

Ramy Elkalyouby, The New Arab's Moscow correspondent reported on the meetings from the sidelines. He believes that Saudi Arabia's visit to Moscow heralds a new world order - with the United States on the decline.

"The US' presence in the Middle East is deteriorating while the Iranian influence grows," he said.

The Russian newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, quoting senior Kremlin officials on Thursday reported that Riyadh wants to coax an outward-looking Moscow due to the decline of US' influence in the Middle East.

According to the Gazeta, Riyadh is predicting the Trump-administration's protectionist policy will ensure Moscow becomes the new power broker in the Middle East.

"Previously, our relations with Saudi Arabia used to be just on the surface, but now they are developing rapidly," Russian President Vladimir Putin said.

This declining interest may reflect Washington's decreasing imports of Middle Eastern oil.The US' Energy Information Administration reports that imports from Saudi Arabia are now only half of those coming from Canada. While the International Energy Authority recently reported that 'fracking' technology - the process of freeing up shale gas and oil through the injection of liquids - may mean the US will stop importing oil or gas by 2035.

Regardless

Oil and gas reporters pricked their ears up en masse when reports emerged on Wednesday that a Saudi entourage of 1500 people had booked up two five-star hotels in Moscow.

It was clear that big deals were going to be made. Vadim Prasov, vice president of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers of Russia, estimated the entire accommodation bill to be around 250 million rubles ($4,350,000).

The main deals to come out of the trip were related to weapons and oil - the two commodities the countries share a deadly interest in.

Firstly, Saudi Arabia became the most recent customer - after Riyadh regional rivals in Qatar and Iran - to buy a Russian missile defence system.

Secondly - and perhaps even more importantly - the two major oil-exporters agreed to continue their cap on oil exports.

The oil

It is often said that to understand the Middle East, one must first ask where the oil is.

Between them, Saudi Arabia and Russia produce half the world's oil output and, officially at least, the Riyadh delegation was in Moscow to sign some big economic deals worth billions of dollars.

As the old Muscovite phrase goes: 'In Mother Russia, weapons buy you'

In this 'official' context, the black stuff was the key reason behind Thursday's rapprochement in Moscow.

During a December meeting of the oil-producer's consortium, OPEC, Moscow and Riyadh agreed to a major cut in global oil-production. This heralded a number of secretive meetings that would lead to Thursday's meetings.

At the beginning of the Russia trip, Saudi oil minister Khalid al-Falih said this cooperation had "breathed life back into OPEC" - increasing his optimism in the future of oil.

The December deal aimed to drag the price of crude oil above an economic flat-line of $50 a barrel – causing an unwelcome strain on economies entirely dependent on oil and, ultimately, domestic unrest in countries such as Algeria.

A new world order?

Unofficially, according to the Moscow rumour-mill, the 'real talk' (read: pravda) in the back-rooms was all about Iran and a potential future war with Iran.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute. He believes the main reason for the Riyadh-Moscow mull-over is that the United States has "utterly failed to contain Russian influence in Syria". Russia and Iran are not allied in Syria, but they are working together towards a common goal - the preservation of the Assad regime to maintain their own power projections.

According to Abdulrazaq, when the US allowed Assad to stay in power - at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives - they let Russia take over the controls and forced Riyadh's hand.

Russia is now selling missiles to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar - some of which countries are among the Middle East's biggest military power-houses.

Read more: Saudi King Salman arrives in Russia for first visit

In so doing, it has not replaced a US military which still controls and trains the Saudi military, but it has caused Riyadh to do some of its shopping elsewhere.

"Riyadh is looking to diversify its foreign policy," said The New Arab's Elkalyouby. 

"It understands quite well that Russia is now a main actor in the Middle East and it's not possible to ignore Moscow's position and interests

Follow Robert Cusack on Twitter: @rob_cusack

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