Taking advantage of the power vacuum left in the Middle East by the White House, with the exit from Afghanistan, Russia's military intervention in Syria, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the war in Yemen... the Kremlin is becoming a key arbiter in the region, and as part of its geopolitical thrust, Moscow is seeking to strengthen bilateral cooperation with Riyadh while bringing closer political positions with the different regional actors.
The Kremlin is taking advantage of the global crisis of confidence in the United States caused by its exit from Afghanistan to demonstrate its military hegemony and take over from Washington, seeking to create a new regional order. At the seventh edition of the Army 2021 International Military-Technical Forum, the largest static and dynamic exhibition of weapons systems and defence equipment of the air-land and naval military-industrial complex of the Russian Federation, the Deputy Defence Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Prince Khalid bin Salman, announced an agreement to develop joint military cooperation between the two countries, which he signed with his Russian counterpart, Colonel General Alexander Fomin. The deputy minister also met with Sergey Shoygu, the Russian defence minister, and discussed ways to enhance military cooperation between the two nations.
Over the past two decades, the dynamics of Russian-Saudi relations have been characterised by instability, as periods of political rapprochement between the two governments have been repeatedly interrupted by periods of estrangement. This meeting between the defence ministers of the two nations has opened a path towards cooperation and dialogue between two of the most important players in the region.
Following the official visit of Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Moscow in October 2017, the first ever by a Saudi monarch. Moscow and Riyadh resumed diplomatic relations after the fall of the Soviet Union. "Everything changes," Putin said in 2017, when asked about Riyadh's deep relationship with Washington, while Saudi officials commented that "close relations with the United States, China and Russia are not exclusive".
In the meantime, the countries signed several military agreements for the production of armaments on Saudi territory. The Russian corporation Rosoboronexport and the Saudi military consortium signed a memorandum on the purchase of the rights to manufacture Russian military equipment in Saudi Arabia. In addition, the two state-owned companies signed a contract for the production of Kalashnikov A-103 rifles and ammunition in the Arab country.
Russia and Saudi Arabia have an agreement for the former to supply the latter with S-400 anti-aircraft missile launching systems, known as Triumph, the projectiles are the newest weapons Moscow is using in the Syrian war, considered by experts to be a pilot's nightmare. The purchase of the S-400s may be a cause for concern in the United States, which remains the Saudi monarchy's main ally.
Turkey's purchase of this anti-missile weaponry has strained US and NATO relations with the Erdogan government. The Alliance criticises the technology as incompatible with that of other NATO partners, while Washington sees the S-400 as a threat to its state-of-the-art fighters. The US is concerned about Turkey's use of the F-35 near the S-400 because these systems could collect and transfer data that could reveal potential vulnerabilities.
Since 2015, with Russia's military intervention in the Syrian civil war, Moscow's role in the region has changed. In Syria, Moscow and Riyadh support opposing sides, with Russia being the main international ally of President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Arabia one of the Syrian regime's biggest critics. How Russia has come to gain such influence in the region has much to do with oil. When oil prices collapsed in 2014, the shared need to bring them back up became the backdrop for a Saudi-Russian rapprochement. One very important facet of this collaboration concerns the field of energy. Russia and Saudi Arabia are the main supporters of the so-called OPEC+ agreement to reduce oil production and keep prices stable.
Instability in various Middle Eastern countries over the past decade has also led to an increase in arms exports to the region. Since 2010, exports to Middle Eastern countries have increased by 61 per cent and accounted for 35 per cent of total global arms imports over the past four years. Riyadh is diversifying its relations in a pragmatic spirit, and it is this pragmatism that has led the kingdom to take Russia into account after recognising that, thanks to its military operations in Syria, it has become one of the main players in the Middle East.
Russia's ambitions are great and there is significant common ground between the two countries. Both states have economies heavily dependent on hydrocarbons, both have an interest in preventing oil prices from falling, and both can benefit from collaborative projects in sectors ranging from petrochemicals to agriculture. Russian leaders see potential Saudi investment as a way to overcome the financial sanctions to which they are subjected by the West because of their intervention in Ukraine in 2014. This hegemony could be transformed into a transcendent Russian influence in the region, which, taking advantage of the convulsive situation in certain countries such as Afghanistan, could gain a foothold in the region and swallow up the foreign policy role of powers such as the United States, and even the European Union, which is gradually being relegated to the background in the face of growing Asian influence.