The upcoming visit to Russia by the king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz, could signify a milestone in the expanding relationship between the two countries. Relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia go back almost 90 years. The Soviet Union was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of the Saudi government and to establish diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which was founded in 1926. The first ambassador the Soviet Union sent to Riyadh was Karim Khakimov, a prominent Soviet diplomat, scholar of the Orient, and public political figure.
In the Islamic world, the king of Saudi Arabia bears the title of «Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques» – Mecca and Medina. The KSA heads the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes, in addition to Saudi Arabia: Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. The GCC coordinates its economic and political activities and maintains a joint military corps known as the Peninsula Shield Force. What’s more, Saudi Arabia – one of the richest oil-producing countries in the world – is also a leading member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
The Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, was crowned in January 2015, after the death of the previous monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. In April 2015 King Salman made significant changes to both the system of royal succession as well as the government. Previously, tradition had demanded that the sons of the founder of the Saudi royal dynasty, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, inherit the throne, i.e., that it pass from brother to brother. But as his heirs have aged, this system has engendered certain difficulties.
Because of the king’s reforms, the current crown prince is not the reigning king’s brother, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz (b. 1945), who is the youngest son of the dynasty’s founder, but instead King Salman’s nephew, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (b. 1959). The king placed his own son, Mohammed bin Salman (b. 1985) second in line to rule. The king has thus skipped over the older generation in this system of succession, promoting the younger heirs and disrupting the traditional line to the throne.
It remains to be seen to what extent this new order of succession will strengthen the kingdom, because the sons of the royal family’s founder represent their own factions that are often in competition. After the political reshuffling, Muhammad bin Nayef retained his position as interior minister when he became heir to the throne, adding his rightful new title of deputy prime minister. Now second in the line of succession, Mohammed bin Salman was named second deputy prime minister, while remaining the head of the kingdom’s armed forces. At that time, Prince Saud al-Faisal (b. 1940), who had led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 40 years, was asked to retire and was replaced by the former Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir (b. 1962), who is not a member of the Saudi royal family.
The new Saudi leadership’s desire to build up their relations with Russia can be seen as a shift that could affect not only the two countries’ bilateral relations, but also the political dynamics of the Middle East and even global politics as a whole. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation, which deepened steadily throughout the 2000s, became more rocky after the onset of the crisis in Syria, and then after Riyadh’s military intervention in Bahrain and the Saudi Air Force’s bombing of Yemen. Today, the two countries’ obvious desire to improve their relations can be seen in the talks between the members of the Saudi royal family and Russia’s leaders, as well as in the statements by Saudi spokesmen, affirming that «the Russian Federation and the KSA could begin to work together in a way that is mutually beneficial, as Russia and Turkey now do, despite their differences of opinion about the crisis in Syria».
Recently there has been a marked increase in the number of regional problems facing Riyadh. The Saudis’ support for Islamist militant groups opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad has dramatically strengthened the Islamic State, which is making threats against the Saudi dynasty. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the coalition of Arab countries it leads, which is supported by the United States, has begun bombing positions held by the Houthi insurgents, seeking the return of President Hadi, who was forced to resign before fleeing to Saudi Arabia. However, not only a significant portion of the population of Yemen supports the Houthis, but also Iran. The Saudis have gained nothing from the bombing, which has inflicted numerous casualties on the civilian population. They have not only failed to suppress the Houthi insurgency, but Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – which threatens the ruling Saudi royal family – has even benefited from the destruction of the Yemeni state.
Could Riyadh finally decide that the kingdom’s interests might necessitate adjustments to its policy of one-sided focus on the United States? That question has not yet been answered. In addition, Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Moscow and his meeting on June 18 with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) have confirmed the House of Saud’s interest in expanding ties with Russia. Observers noted that the Saudi delegation included the second-in-command of the Saudi navy, Admiral Ibrahim Nasir, who visited an expo that was held as part of the Army 2015 forum on military technology, where the Saudi officers expressed particular interest in Russian warships.
The Saudi delegation had a fruitful visit to Russia. The two sides signed military and petroleum agreements, as well as memorandums of cooperation about the exploration of space and construction of housing. But the most significant outcome of the recent Russian-Saudi talks in St. Petersburg was the conclusion of a framework agreement with the Rosatom corporation to build 16 nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia at a cost of $100 billion. The parties’ serious intentions were evident in the signing of a memorandum promising that Saudi Arabia would invest $10 billion in the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF).