Saudi pivot to Europe
LONDON - A week after visiting St Petersburg and signing a number of agreements with the Russian government, a high-level Saudi delegation, led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, travelled to France where arms deals worth $12 billion were signed. Paris also pledged to study a Saudi request to build two nuclear reactors in the kingdom.
In May Saudi Arabia and France set up a committee to finalise a series of projects worth billions of dollars across sectors ranging from defence to transport infrastructure and civil aviation.
Because of its tough stance on Iran, France has been able to maintain strong ties with the Gulf Arab region, particularly with Saudi Arabia. Speaking during the June 24th visit to Paris, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stressed the importance of Saudi-French ties, describing them as historic and strategic. “We are trying to take them even higher,” he said.
The meeting between Saudi and Russian officials a week earlier was a greater source of speculation by analysts because of the current regional situation and inconsistent relations between the two countries. Many viewed the meeting between Mohammed and Putin as a thaw in Saudi-Russian relations.
A number of key agreements, including cooperation on nuclear energy and Saudi Arabia contributing $10 billion to the Russian Direct Investment Fund, were signed during the St Petersburg meetings. The Saudi trip was kept under wraps for months and preceded by a number of phone calls between Putin and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud.
Analysts hypothesised on the tone and nature of the St Petersburg talks and the subjects covered, particularly Saudi oil policy and the situation in Syria. Analysts claim that Saudi Arabia’s policy of oversupplying the oil market is designed to neutralise the US oil fracking industry but also Tehran and Moscow, which favour oil prices of about $100 per barrel.
“I don’t think the Saudis or the Russians are under any illusions that they will be able to negotiate on [oil] price. However, In terms of technical cooperation, that is possible,” said Nikolay Kozhanov, a Chatham House analyst.
“First of all. it’s not all about oil. The agreements that were signed between Russia and Saudi Arabia [have] mostly to do with technical cooperation. It’s about the Saudis investing in the development of Russia’s oil and gas sector, while the Russians will be involved in the development of the energy sector in Saudi Arabia.”
Kozhanov emphasised that Russia has experience working with Saudi Arabia, for example in the Lukoil project in Rub al Khali, which has been successful for both countries. The Chatham House analyst said that cooperation with the Saudis is important to Moscow because “the Saudis are one of the key players in the region.
Secondly [Saudi Arabia] is one of the key countries in the Muslim world; they also have leverage to affect the situation with Muslim communities in the post-Soviet space.
“So the support of the Saudis or at least their neutrality in questions related to situations in the Russian ummah is also important.”
Other analysts see rapprochement as a logical step for both countries.
“I think that, given its eminent position in the Islamic world and the key role it plays in international energy markets, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has long been global in its orientation,” said Fahad Nazer, a terrorism analyst with JTG Inc.
“Therefore it is not a surprise that given Russia’s military prowess, and the fact that it is an influential player in the world energy markets in its own right, that the Saudis would want to strengthen their relations with it.”
Nazer pointed out that while divergence over Syria led to frosty relations between the countries, the Saudis see Russia as an important global power with which it needs to have solid relations to keep oil prices stable and because it could be a reliable weapons supplier.
“In addition, Russia has shown willingness to assist Saudi Arabia with its civilian nuclear energy programme, for which it has committed close to $80 billion,” he added.
Mohammed and Putin also addressed the situation in Syria.
Kozhanov says he does not see Moscow abandoning the Assad regime just yet. “For now it is not an option that’s on the table,” he said. “In order to stop supporting him, the Russians need a viable alternative that would guarantee the interior integrity of Syria and not have it be overrun by Islamists like a repeat of the Libyan scenario.”
Kozhanov said dialogue with the Saudis probably addressed options on how to settle the conflict, mainly the process of government transformation in Syria and the gradual distancing of Russia from Assad.
Regarding whether improved Saudi-Russian relations would be reflective of lingering rift with the United States, Nazer said, “I don’t necessarily see it that way.
“While some Saudis have advocated strengthening relations with Russia because they do not come with ‘preconditions’ — a clear reference to the US — I think the Saudis realise that no single power can replace the US in the region. Its ability to project its military power is proven and remains to be unmatched.”