Mikhail Bogdanov

Special Representative of the President of Russian Federation for the Middle East, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia

Russian-Saudi Relations: Background and Prospects

Russia’s multifaceted cooperation with Saudi Arabia began 92 years ago, when back in 1926 the USSR was the first state to recognize the young Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and establish diplomatic ties with it. It is encouraging that our Saudi Arabian friends still remember this historic decision with gratitude. 

As many of the Russian View’s readers know bilateral ties between Riyadh and Moscow have witnessed ups and downs due to a relatively long period of alienation. Nevertheless, their shared desire to cooperate in a mutually beneficial manner prevailed, and in 1991 Saudi-Russian relations were finally fully restored. The sides established diplomatic missions and resumed exchange of delegations at all levels. 

Ever since, the two countries have been enhancing both business cooperation and humanitarian ties and maintained political dialogue on a variety of issues. 

Our countries’ leaders King Salman and President Vladimir Putin set the pace of this ambitious work. They literally chart the course for our bilateral relations, set priorities for their incremental development and personally supervise their implementation. 

It should be reminded that Vladimir Putin was the first Russian Head-of-State to pay an official visit to Saudi Arabia (in February 2007). It was at that time when pivotal agreements were reached with King Abdullah and groundwork was laid for subsequently agreeing on major joint projects. 

It was also back in 2007 when the Russian President first met with present King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then the Governor of Riyadh. When Vladimir Putin stayed in Riyadh, they visited the city center and attended a show of traditional sword dance, ardah. 

Since then, our leaders’ acquaintance has transformed into close and trust-based dialogue, with regular telephone conversations and exchange of messages forming an inalienable part of it. First personal meeting between Vladimir Putin and King Salman after the latter’s ascension to the throne took place in November 2015 on the margins of the G-20 Summit in Turkish Antalya. King Salman’s state visit to Moscow on 4 – 8 October 2017 was also the first one of its kind, as no incumbent monarch had ever visited our country before him. The programme of his visit was extremely busy and included high-level talks, a meeting with Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, conversations with some heads of republics constituing the Russian Federation, and meetings with Russian Muslim religious leaders. 

The Saudi Arabian-Russian Summit in Moscow had an important practical outcome, with 14 intergovernmental and interagency agreements, memorandums of understanding, protocols and major commercial contracts signed. This impressive package of instruments provided the necessary legal and contractual framework for cooperation in various spheres, and qualitatively advanced the multifaceted cooperation between Riyadh and Moscow.

The son of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman has also made crucial personal contribution to this work, which can hardly be overestimated. He has repeatedly visited Russia and met with President Putin. We appreciate the considerable attention His Royal Highness is paying to promoting Saudi Arabian-Russian cooperation, improving its output and diversifying it.

Comparing notes on topical issues on the international and regional agenda in a confidential manner has invariably been a pivotal part of Saudi Arabian-Russian relations. Despite certain nuances and differences in our approaches, they converge as far as strategic goals are concerned. Riyadh and Moscow share the commitment to fundamental norms and provisions of international law and the Charter of the United Nations, including to the principles of respect for the independence and sovereignty of States and non-interference in their internal affairs. We unanimously support peaceful settlement of the conflict situations in the Middle East and North Africa through inclusive national dialogue, while decisively countering terrorism and extremist ideology at the same time. 

Foreign ministries of our two countries maintain close contact on this and other topical issues. Their heads Adel Al-Jubeir and Sergey Lavrov liaise regularly in various formats, including on the sidelines of multilateral fora. Most recently, they met on 1 December 2017 in the Italian capital where the 3rd Edition of Rome MED: Mediterranean Dialogues international conference took place. On 9 – 10 September 2017, during his tour of the Middle East, Russian foreign minister visited Saudi Arabia where he was received by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad. On 26 February 2018, the heads of Foreign Ministries of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Russia had their regular telephone conversation. 

Saudi Arabian-Russian inter-parliamentary ties have become increasingly active, they received a powerful impetus in April 2017 thanks to the official visit of Chair of the Council of the Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation Valentina Matvienko to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In October 2017 the delegation of the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia took part in the 137th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Saint-Petersburg, and on 4 – 7 March 2018, Deputy President of the Consultative Council Yahya Al-Samaan visited Moscow, all of which has also boosted cooperation in this vital sphere. 

Expanding Saudi-Arabian Russian business cooperation has also been a priority. The year 2017 saw a notable leap ahead, with bilateral trade flow increasing almost twice as compared to 2016 and reaching $ 915.2 million. Although our potential can be realized still further, we have evidently made a great progress. We should work hard to preserve this positive trend and to go beyond what we have reached. 

There is a reliable and effective mechanism to contribute to the successful completion of this task, Joint Saudi Arabian-Russian Intergovernmental Commission for Trade and Economical and Science and Technology Cooperation. The Commission is co-chaired by Russian Minister of Energy Alexander Novak and Saudi Arabian Minister of Commerce and Investment Majed bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi. To date, the Commission has held five meetings, of which the last took place on 31 October — 2 November 2017 in Riyadh. 

Two business missions — an industrial and an agricultural ones — that we sent to the capital of Saudi Arabia in 2017 contributed greatly to establishing and enhancing direct contacts between entrepreneurs of our two countries. 

The partnership between the Russian Direct Investment Fund and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia has been developing successfully, with the latter declaring an intention to invest up to $ 10 billion in major projects across Russia. The investment of $ 1 billion was approved and made in the framework of the relevant platform. These investments have shown positive returns. Some more proposals and deals are currently considered and can be agreed in the near future. 

Special mention should be made of Riyadh and Moscow’s cooperation in the international hydrocarbons market that has been developing for about two years. The well-known OPEC plus agreements on oil production cuts were largely a result of this coordination. The successful implementation of these agreements has enabled us to overcome the crisis of uncontrollable swings in world energy prices and to extend the duration of the agreements till the end of 2018 when oil prices are expected to sustainably and irreversibly stabilize. 

Saudi Arabia and Russia also intend to engage in bilateral energy and petrochemical projects and are actively discussing opportunities in this sphere. In December 2017, the Kingdom’s Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid Al-Falih attended the launching ceremony of the Yamal LNG project in Sabetta, where he had a brief meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Russian Minister of Energy Alexander Novak took part in the 8th IEA-IEF-OPEC Symposium on Energy Outlooks held on 14 February 2018 in Riyadh. During his stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, he was received by King Salman. On 18–20 April 2018, Minister Novak paid a working visit to Saudi Arabia. 

Regular direct contacts have also been established at the corporate level. The delegations of public shareholder companies Rosneft, Gazprom, Gazprom Neft, and other major Russian companies often come to Saudi Arabia. Memorandums of Understanding signed by Saudi Aramco with Gazprom and Gazprom Neft public shareholder companies and the agreement on collaboration in oil refining between this Saudi Arabian holding and SIBUR Holding provided the framework for such cooperation. 

The Russian side stands ready to assist its Saudi Arabian partners in implementing their national peaceful nuclear energy programme involving the development of nuclear cluster in Saudi Arabia. We believe that the Russian nuclear scientists’ unique expertise and Russian advanced technologies and the highest security standards they offer will be employed as these plans are put into effect. 

These are but some of the promising areas of joint efforts to expand business cooperation. Certainly, one could and should also mention such fields as industry, infrastructural projects, transport and agriculture. In particular, our countries’ veterinary authorities are working hard to commence the supplies of Russian milling wheat and livestock production to Saudi Arabia. 

The constituent entities of the Russian Federation have been actively building cooperation with Saudi Arabia. In February and November 2017 head of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov and head of the Republic of Ingushetia Yunus-Bek Evkurov visited the Kingdom. Before that, head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov and head of the Republic of Bashkortostan Rustem Khamitov paid visits to Saudi Arabia. 

Russia has been making steps to strengthen the cooperation between Saudi Arabian and Russian emergency agencies and agencies conducting other humanitarian operations. As a result, on 25 – 27 February 2018 representatives of the EMERCOM of Russia attended the 1st Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum and concluded a memorandum of understanding with their Saudi Arabian counterparts. 

As the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia plays the leading role in the Arab and Muslim world, we attach great importance to maintaining regular dialogue with Riyadh on matters of cross-civilizational and cross-denominational cooperation, promoting the principles of religious tolerance, moderation, and respect to members of major world denominations. In this context, possibility of holding regular meeting of the Group of Strategic Vision Russia — Islamic World in 2018 is considered at the moment. 

We appreciate Saudi Arabian authorities’ attentive attitude to Russian pilgrims who annually come to visit Holy Muslim Mosques in Mecca and Medina. We are certain that the forthcoming Hajj will bring our Muslims the best impressions and memories. 

Forthcoming Saudi Arabian tours of a number of Russian artistic groups and reciprocal festivals of culture will also contribute to strengthening our humanitarian ties. 

The last but not the least to mention is the participation of Saudi Arabian football team in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow that is about to begin. Symbolically, the tournament will be opened by a match between our two countries’ teams. No doubt, this will be an outstanding and memorable game to please all football fans. 

We are certain of a bright future of Saudi Arabian-Russian relations, for they rely on a solid basis of mutual respect, Riyadh’s and Moscow’s willingness to coordinate their approaches in international matters and to strengthen their cooperation in trade, economy, investments and other spheres. It has always been our belief that pursuing this course serves the long-term interests of our two countries and people and contributes to enhancing regional and global stability.