Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Sunday wrapped up a four-day visit to Moscow where he met President Vladimir Putin.
It was the first visit by a ruling Saudi king to the Russian capital, a symbolically historic meeting that has wide-ranging implications for the Middle East.
With Iran influence at an all-time high in the region, the visit especially has major implications for Israel as Jerusalem tries to navigate the threats posed by Iran’s involvement in Syria and Lebanon.
Will Moscow heed Israel and Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Iran in the region? Saudi Arabia’s opening to Russia comes in the context of the decade-long decline of US influence in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia has been a pillar of US policy and alliances in the region for more than half a century, but under president Barack Obama, the Kingdom began to sense that US policy was drifting from its familiar tether.
At the G20 in January 2016, Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al-Jubeir said he wanted to “improve our relationship with Russia,” and called Russia a “great power.” Obama was snubbed by the Kingdom when he arrived on a visit in April 2016, met on the tarmac by the governor of Riyadh and not the king. According to various reports, Saudi Arabia and Russia have been discussing a major arms deal since 2015.
The visit by the Saudi king comes at a unique time in the Middle East. The post-Arab spring revolutions were meant to bring democracy but instead brought conflict to Libya and Syria. From Saudi Arabia’s point of view, they engendered chaos and extremism that threaten the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia intervened to stop the monarchy in Bahrain from being overthrown in 2011 and backed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt in 2013. Initially, it supported the rebellion against Bashar Assad, endorsing the Geneva 1 communique and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 that envisioned elections and a transition from Assad’s rule.
Saudi Arabia welcomed Donald Trump’s election and hosted him in May for the Arab Islamic American Summit, attended by 50 Muslim countries; Trump criticized Iran at the summit.
Israel and Saudi Arabia share common interests in concerns about the Iranian threat to the region; Iranian involvement in Syria; and support for Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia, since the 1989 Taif Accords, has been a keen broker in Lebanese affairs only to watch Hezbollah slowly digest Lebanese politics.
Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has cemented close ties with Moscow through repeated personal meetings and phone calls.
Israel has stressed the importance of denying Iran permanent bases in Syria and its concerns about an Iranian presence near the Golan, particularly after a July cease-fire brokered by Russia, Jordan and the US.
It is “much more than just a symbolic visit,” says former Israel ambassador to Russia Zvi Magen, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.
“It’s not just a visit of the Saudi King, it’s a change of Russia’s image in the area,” he says, arguing that the Syrian context is important because Russia is the main backer of the Assad regime alongside Iran and Iran is an enemy of Saudi Arabia.
With Saudi Arabia the leader of the Sunni camp in the region, he says there is a “bitter competition” and Israel is involved on the side of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Russia has become stuck working alongside Iran in Syria, “but Russia is not interested only in Syria or only to be a friend of the Iranian player on this table. They want to be an important player in the region, together with the US.”
In this sense, he says Russia has “crossed a river” in welcoming the Saudi King and his massive 1,500 person entourage.
In the complex chessboard of Russia, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Magen says “Israel is not the main factor in this game, but is one of them.”
“We don’t know what will be the result of this visit, but generally speaking Israel is in a good position,” he says.
During the visit, reports emerged that Saudi Arabia had agreed to a memorandum of understanding on arms purchases. According to Al-Arabiya, this could include the S-400 air defense missile system.
Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, cautions that it could be a long time before this deal happens.
“It was an important visit symbolically and symbolism means a lot [in the Arab world] and to the Saudis,” he says, agreeing that in Syria both Israel and the Saudis want to reduce Iranian involvement.
To get the Russians to try and limit the Iranian footprint in Syria, he says Saudis “are willing to offer investments to Russia, such as an investment fund, and this is payment for what they are asking Russia to do in Syria.”
“Another thing that interests the Saudis in Syria is Saudi investment in rebuilding Syria and the Saudis could do that in the Sunni areas and strengthen the Sunni population,” says Guzansky.
This might be in exchange for Saudi Arabia ending backing for certain extremist rebel groups.
Saudi Arabia understands that the regime backed by Russia and Iran now have the upper hand.
“Assad will remain president for time being so [Saudi Arabia] tries to mitigate risk and lower the losses,” he says.
Another player in all this is the US. Trump is considering a new Iran policy, possibly abandoning the Iran deal or declaring the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization. The US is trying to shore up Saudi Arabia as an ally, announcing that the kingdom was spending $15 billion on a THAAD missile defense system while the king was in Moscow.
“One needs to remember that the US and Saudis have strong relations and with Russia not replacing US instability in the Gulf, they [Saudi Arabia] are hedging their bets and have some accomplishments in Syria,” says Guzansky.
For Russia, the meeting illustrated the increased role Moscow plays in the Middle East as a power broker.
Saudi Arabia wants stability in the region after six years of chaos in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. To that end, it recognizes the dangers of extremist groups that feed off civil wars. This could lead to trade-offs in Syria as Assad remains in power and Saudi Arabia offers to accept Assad back into the Arab fold in exchange for Iranian influence being rolled back.
That would fit the Saudi goal of reducing Iranian influence in Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq.
Russia benefits by being seen as a wise backer of stability in the region. For Israel, this would be a welcome development as long as Jerusalem can be assured Moscow continues to weigh Israel’s concerns and Jerusalem is not left behind by Saudi overtures to Moscow.
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