What special mission brought Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to Moscow Wednesday, June 17?
According to the official Saudi royal court statement, the visit was “in response to an invitation from the Russian government” – but also, “based on the directive of King Salman Bin Abdelaziz,” the prince “would hold talks with President Vladimir Putin and top Russian officials.”
This diplomatic jargon means that the young prince was empowered to speak for the king, his father, and conclude official business on his behalf.
The last high-ranking Saudi to visit Moscow was Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, then National Security Adviser to the late King Abdullah and Director of General Intelligence. Underlying Bandar’s mission was the proposition that, since Riyadh could no longer rely on President Barack Obama’s policies on the Iranian and Syrian issues, dialogue with Moscow was a wise alternative.
The Saudis had also decided to finance Russian weapons purchases for their allies, especially Egypt.
Bandar certainly opened Russian doors to Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi for a connection that remains strong up until now. El-Sisi was guest of honor alongside Putin at the Russian Victory Day Parade on May 9 and the two governments signed a $3.5 billion arms deal, for which Riyadh had promised to pick up the tab.
But all this happened when Abdullah was still alive. Since the throne passed to Salman in January, despite the new king’s pledge to honor Riyadh’s commitment to pay for the purchased arms, not a dollar has yet been deposited with Moscow.
Getting rid of the immovable Assad is a bone of contention
The hold-up may be partly explained by Salman’s disapproval of the consensus reached between the Egyptian and Russian presidents on the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Both agree that he should stay in power in contrast to the Saudi view.
Putin worries that, if the Syrian ruler goes, Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, the Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq will move in and seize power. Caucasian and Chechen terrorists are active in both these jihadist movements and are capable of setting up bases in Damascus for launching strikes against Russian cities, including Moscow.
Since the change of power in Riyadh, the Egyptian president finds he is the only Arab ruler willing to fight the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which President Obama quietly fosters – and the longstanding foe of the Assad clan.
The primary mission King Salman entrusted to his son was to build a bridge atop this conflict of interests and transcend it for the betterment of relations between Riyadh and Moscow. This approach came from Salman’s suspicion that Saudi collaboration with the US, in fighting for Assad’s downfall, could end up leaving him in power.
Prince Mohammed bears gifts to Moscow for bridging differences
Washington and Riyadh are at present jointly backing two Syrian rebel forces – the Army of Conquest on the northern front and the Jaysh Hermon in the south. They have succeeded in driving Assad’s army out of large swathes of territory and pushing his troops back toward Damascus. Yet Assad remains immovable as president – which is exactly what Putin and El-Sisi intend.
The young prince is charged with persuading the Russian president that both need alternative collaborators in the uncertain days ahead of the Syrian conflict. The new Saudi King is coming around to sharing his predecessor’s limited reliance on Washington. To gain Russia as a safety net, Riyadh is offering Moscow four incentives:
1. To open Saudi and Gulf markets to Russian exports;
2. To pay the bill for the Egyptian-Russian arms transaction;
3. To invest in Russian hardware for arming the Saudi army, starting with large quantities of Iskander 3 missile systems (NATO named SS-26 Stone). This is a mobile short-range ballistic missile that can deliver nuclear warheads. The Saudis want to use it as a deterrent against Iranian military expansionist activities in the Gulf, including Tehran’s support of the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.
4. To acquire and introduce for use in the kingdom the Russian Glonass satellite system, a competitor of the American GPS.