The unexpected appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the position of Crown Prince and heir to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, augurs well for Russia-Saudi relations. He has overseen the ties with Moscow and has visited the country many times.
Unlike his predecessor, Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Prince bin Salman is less dependent on the United States. His elevation can facilitate the visit of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Russia, which will be the first trip of Saudi monarch to the country. Crown Prince bin Salman retains his role as Defence Minister and adds the position of Deputy Prime Minister to his portfolio. He also chairs a weekly cabinet meeting that focuses on all aspects of Saudi society. The crown prince launched «Vision 2030» – a program to reform the Saudi Arabia's economy away from its dependence on energy exports towards real-sector output and high-tech projects.
Dr. Anwar Eshki, Retired Saudi Major General, the founder and the head of the Saudi-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, believes that the appointment will promote the Russia-Saudi bilateral relationship.
The crown prince is respected in Russia as the right person to make deals with. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called him a «very reliable partner with whom you can reach agreements, and be certain that those agreements will be honored».
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with the Russian president on May 30, just one week after the US President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh (May 20-21). It was the second meeting between them over the past year. «Relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia are seeing one of their best stages at the moment», said Prince Mohammed attending the Saint Petersburg’s International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in May, 2017. «We have achieved much in the preceding period, but we have to do still more», he added.
The fact that the prince arrived in Russia one week after the historic «Muslim NATO» summit in Saudi Arabia demonstrated that the Kingdom was eager to keep balance in its foreign policy and diversify its ties. Muhammed Bin Salman and Vladimir Putin discussed stabilizing the world oil market and Syria.
The Russia-Saudi relationship is focused on preventing a free-fall in the price of oil. In November last year, OPEC members and other major oil producers, including Russia, agreed to cut oil production by 1.8 million barrels per day. The agreement has been recently extended until March 2018. This year, Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer. Both nations pump more than 10 million barrels of oil daily.
During the talks, it was revealed that there are 25 mutually beneficial investment projects totalling $10 billion under examination. The parties are exploring joint ventures in construction and upgrade of railways. Russia and Saudi Arabia have stressed their readiness to spur the relationship, including trade, economic and energy cooperation, which has a solid potential for growth.
Russia's leading oil company Rosneft has said it is interested in buying Saudi oil giant’s shares after the privatization takes place next year as planned. Both sides agreed to establish a joint energy investment fund during the talks at the St. Petersburg economic forum.
In 2015, the Saudi military delegation led by Mohammed bin Salman in the capacity of Defense Minister went to the Kubinka international military-technical forum ‘Army 2015.’ The Kingdom is interested in negotiating both defensive and offensive weapon systems including the S-300 and/or the S-400 air defence systems, T-90 main battle tanks and also the Russian tactical missile system Iskander-E.
According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the newly appointed crown prince is expected to visit Russia again soon.
For Saudi Arabia, Russia’s influence in Iran, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, and even Qatar, is a strategic asset. Hence, the Saudis see Russia in the role of negotiator on all political issues. The policy of engagement with Moscow may produce positive results.
Since Moscow is also allied with Iran in Syria, it provides the Saudis with an indirect, and useful communications channel to Iran. The Kingdom may have a very important role to play when the de-escalation zones are established in Syria. With all other major Middle East actors having taken sides in the conflict between the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni states and Qatar, Russia remains the only one left what makes it perfectly suited to act as an intermediary to ease tensions. It has remained neutral and has good working relations with all parties involved in the conflict.
There is each and every reason to believe that Saudi Arabia’s succession shake-up will result in the Saudi-Russian relationship taking off in a new direction of cooperation.