Moscow and Al-Riyadh have not had contacts on such a high level for seventy years. This fact alone makes the Tuesday appearance of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud in Moscow an extraordinary event. The prince is on a three-day visit to Russia.
Earlier, such event would have been unimaginable. Atheistic Soviet Union could not have had anything in common with the country, which was known as the major stronghold of Islam and the guardian of Muslim holy places. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had completely erased Moscow from political maps of Saudi royal dynasty. And only at present, as it happens when planets reach extreme opposing points at mathematically calculated moments, Saudi Arabia and Russia are ready to come closer to each other.
Al-Riyadh might have several reasons to improve its relations with the former enemy. And it seems that the most important of them is the desire to get rid of the feeling of loneliness or even isolation on the world arena, which has appeared as a result of deterioration of "eternal and unshakable", according to some opinions, friendship with the United States.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has somewhat found itself between the hammer and the anvil. On the one hand, after September 11, 2001, events, Washington has been constantly accusing Saudi authorities of tolerance, if not direct sympathy toward Islamic radicals. Terrorists caught by the FBI carry Saudi passports too often. Frozen bank accounts traced to Al-Qaeda have too many deposit entries linking them with Saudi banks. George Bush's team openly expressed its discontent with what is called in America "practice of concessions toward international terrorism" by withdrawing recently the larger part of the US military contingent from Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, the Islamic world, not willing to forgive the United States its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, directs its rage on Al-Riyadh, which is still widely considered as a close friend of the USA.
It seems that Saudi leadership is trying to find an exit from this unpleasant situation by improving its relations with Russia.
Saudi leaders are attracted by Russia's image as a world power that is quickly regaining its world status, as an independent critic of the US military campaign in Iraq, and the country with a 20-million Muslim population. Considering this rich background, the improvement of relations with Russia might serve as a kind of counterbalance to accusations coming from the Arab world that Saudi Arabia allegedly enjoys a cozy place under American wings.
We can also assume that new and improved relations with Moscow will help the current Saudi dynasty to strengthen its positions inside the country.
Recent wave of explosions in Al-Riyadh on the eve of US State Secretary Colin Powell's visit to Saudi Arabia has clearly shown Saudi leaders two things. First, they should not make excessive advances to the West. Secondly, they should leave at least a tiny part of multi-billion oil profits to their fellow citizens, directing some funds toward social programs instead of filling exclusively the coffers of royal palaces.
Some experts believe that the aging Saudi royal family, with the majority of members having ages over 70, might have even wanted to "pacify" local "Bin Ladens," but they are too old to do that. The younger generation of reformers, which has enough energy to stop the spread of Islamic extremism, cannot seize the power because the place is already taken. Gerontocracy simply cannot handle the fight against bloodthirsty theocracy.
Of course, it is an entirely internal matter of Saudi Arabia. The Russian side is mostly interested in something else, namely - possible Al-Riyadh's support in realizing Vladimir Putin's idea of Russia joining the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). The Russian President is apparently coveting a dream of adding the unity of Muslim forces loyal to true Islam (the kind of Islam, which repudiates violence, and even more - killing of innocent people) to the international anti-terrorist coalition created after September 11. For Russia, the accession to OIC is one of the ways to reduce the threat coming from militant Islamic heretics. Saudi Arabia could become another large Muslim country after Malaysia that supports the initiative of the Russian leader.
Both countries have mutual economic interests, as well. If we added 7 million barrels of Saudi daily oil exports to 5.3 million barrels of Russian daily exports, we would have a mighty leverage on the global oil market. If we combine Saudi energy resources with the experience of Russian oil and gas experts in the Middle East, we would most certainly guarantee mutually beneficial cooperation. And if we combined practically infinite Saudi financial potential with Russian achievements in the sphere of high technologies, according to predictions of some Moscow optimists, we might even witness "the emergence of an entirely new world power center." In any case, three days of talks between the Saudi Crown Prince and the Kremlin authorities in Moscow will most probably bring noticeable results.
Vladimir Simonov, RIAN