Hours after Moscow’s announcement that Saudi Arabia is interested in purchasing the most advanced Russian air defense system, the S-400, Washington declared that the American government agreed to sell the advanced THAAD missile defense system to the kingdom. This means that Riyadh has obtained the two most advanced air defense systems in the world to add to its military systems.
More important than the military deal is the political one that the Saudi government is making with the two rivals in the east and west. Saudi Arabia has the unique ability, shared with a few countries in the world, to deftly grasp the lines of alliance between the two rivals, who eye each other suspiciously whenever anyone cooperates with the other. It is only natural that neither Washington nor Moscow would want any partner to cooperate with their rival, as voiced by the Pentagon when it expressed its concern that many countries that the US considers as its ally, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are buying military equipment from Russia. These stances are made out of understandable political, economic and commercial considerations.
A country such as Saudi Arabia, which has a deep political heritage and a balanced and sound diplomacy, could not have struck deals with two of the world’s greatest powers without hurting its interests somewhere. This was voiced by the US after the THAAD deal was made, which could be interpreted as an American political message to Riyadh that it does not oppose its partnership with Moscow, albeit reluctantly.
Riyadh realizes very well that solidifying its ties with Moscow does not mean abandoning its historic ally, the US. The Riyadh-Washington ties are much deeper and more important strategically. Improving ties with Russia means that the kingdom is seeking national interests away from narrow alliances in their traditional sense. These alliances expired with Riyadh’s opting to expand its future options and exploiting Russian efforts to regain its role in the world in areas it had power in the past.
Riyadh’s actions are taking place at a time when the international scene is witnessing major changes with world powers where even the US’ major traditional European allies are seeking to improve their ties with Moscow. This is in contrast to the past when turning to the east used to be considered taboo. Despite their current shift to the east, the European powers have maintained their strong alliances with Washington. We also cannot overlook the turbulence affecting the ties among world powers caused by their differences over various contentious crises, such as the Ukraine conflict and regional issues related to Iran, Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s visit to Moscow has opened the doors wide for a meeting of Saudi and Russian visions. No one can prevent Riyadh from seeking contact with influential world powers in order to improve its interests, partnerships and investments. This will in turn garner it additional support and allow it to preserve its current alliances and balances, which would serve its security and stability. It will also preserve regional and international security and stability. This is an equation that Riyadh has been able to achieve in a manner that few other countries have been successful in over the past seven decades.
Whether Saudi Arabia turns to the east or west and whether it cements its strategic alliance with Washington or opens new horizons with Moscow, Riyadh has the political and economic tools to allow it to continue to solidify its position among major players without harming its interests and those of its partners no matter where they may be.