Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud’s Visit to Sochi: No Breakthrough

On October 11, Defense Minister, Second Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Crown Prince (and son of the ruling monarch) Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud paid a short visit to Sochi.

It seems that his meeting with President Vladimir Putin was not a breakthrough in Russia-Saudi Arabia relations. This is clear from the first articles about the meeting published in the Saudi press.

Neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia has changed their views on the domestic Syrian conflict. Russia continues to insist on keeping Bashar al-Assad in power and the formation of a broad anti-terrorist coalition including Iran and the Syrian regime, whereas the Saudis stand for the strict observance of the Geneva-1 protocol that envisages al-Assad’s resignation and the establishment of a fully-fledged transitional government with the preservation of the existing civilian and military institutions. The Saudi press emphasized that the third man in the Saudi power hierarchy “warned” the Russian president against the continuation of airstrikes on the positions of the “moderate” Syrian opposition. During his visit to Sochi, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir said that these airstrikes “evoke serious concern in the Kingdom.”

Naturally, both sides agree that the domestic Syrian conflict must end as soon as possible. This view is constantly emphasized by Russia and the Saudi side does not object to it. However, Russia does not hide the fact that the two sides have very different views on the terms for settling the conflict. This situation was not changed by the earlier visit of Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud to St. Petersburg, the later meeting of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow or the meeting of Salman Al Saud with President Putin in Sochi.

Needless to say, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud received the assurances of the Russian side in Sochi that it will deal airstrikes only at the positions of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, which are qualified as terrorist organizations by Riyadh.

Moreover, Riyadh paid attention to the fact that, while in New York, Lavrov stated that Moscow does not consider the Free Syrian Army a terrorist organization and called into question its existence. However, to what extent will these assurances be implemented, considering that Russia’s airstrikes almost fully depend on the information that it receives from Syrian military intelligence? Naturally, the Saudis did not reject the Russian proposal to establish direct channels of cooperation in the military and intelligence spheres. However, this cooperation will only narrow the opportunities of the relevant Saudi agencies and facilitate the establishment of ties between these agencies and the representatives of the Syrian regime that the Saudis find objectionable.

The visit of Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud could have been a breakthrough in Russia-Saudi Arabia relations but only if the Russian side abided by the Geneva-1 protocol in its actions in Syria. This is hardly possible today and in the foreseeable future. So what was the purpose of the visit in this case? Most probably, it was modest – to prevent the destruction of the “moderate” Syrian opposition, an instrument of Saudi influence in Syria. However, if this opposition comes under threat again, the Saudis will openly supply it with arms and increase its funding.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.