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Has Saudi Arabia just pivoted towards Russia?

Macron, MBS, Putin, and the future world order

December 1, 2018

9:25 AM

1 December 2018

9:25 AM

For all but the most harried journalist motivated by a need to pay off the mortgage, the annual G20 summit – being held this weekend in Buenos Aires – is typically viewed as a perfect cure for insomnia. Who will stand next to whom in the family photo? Will the wording of a final statement be agreed by all leaders before the official deadline? Yawn yawn yawn.

However, there is an exception to every rule. And yesterday’s opening ceremony proved to be just that.

First, a hot mic picked up parts of a tense conversation between the French President and Saudi Crown Prince. While hardly a slanging match, it was the most undiplomatic spat between a Western and Saudi leader ever made public.

That was followed by the equally unprecedented spectacle of a bro-five between the latter and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

In the space of an hour, we may have witnessed what future history books will say was the moment Saudi Arabia’s relations pivoted from the West towards Russia.

The relationship between the democratic West and theocratic Saudi Arabia has often been described as a marriage of convenience. The exchange between President Emmanuel Macron and Crown Prince Mohammed will certainly sound familiar to anyone who has been through a messy but not especially bitter divorce:

MBS: Don’t worry.

M: I do worry. I am worried, because I am very exp…

MBS: He told me. Thank you.

M: I don’t want…

MBS: No.

M: You never listen to me.

MbS: I will listen, of course.

M: …

MBS: It’s OK. I can deal with it.

The official word from the Elysée Palace is that the President was giving the Crown Prince a ‘very firm’ warning over the murder in Istanbul of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and the continuing humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

In the Western media, the two issues have become inextricably linked. For having failed in their effort to oust the Crown Prince, there is now as a push – led by the Washington Post, which has tripled its coverage of Yemen during the past six weeks – to bring an end to the Yemen conflict as retribution for Khashoggi’s slaughter.

And this is especially embarrassing for Macron.

As recently as April, he pledged France’s ‘full support’ for the Saudi position on Yemen, while slamming the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels the Saudis and their allies are battling against. Predictably, this came on the back of arms agreements worth $18 billion.

But Macron’s exasperated ‘You never listen to me’ may have been in reference to the Saudi ruler’s decision last year to kidnap Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during a visit to Riyadh, when he was beaten up and forced to read a resignation letter on Saudi TV. It was only after Macron stepped in that Hariri was finally released, and was subsequently able to resume his role as prime minister.

In this way, Macron has been strutting around the world lecturing other countries and leaders how to behave as, his critics argue, a way of diverting attention from his own abysmal failures at home. Now he is in the unenviable position of being not only the least popular French president in modern history but also aligned most closely abroad with a Saudi ruler who is perhaps the most despised in the world.

Putin, of course, is watching all this with relish.

He is experienced in the art of bumping off political opponents, and having eradicated almost all traces of meaningful democracy and freedom of expression at home is able to offer the Crown Prince the hand of friendship without fear of repercussions. He laid the groundwork last year during an official state visit to Moscow by King Salman – the first ever by a reigning monarch. They signed a $3 billion arms deal and pledged tens of billions more in bilateral trade. At the time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the event as ‘an historical moment’. Now Saudi Arabia is even negotiating the purchase of Russia’s formidable S-400 defense missile system, while threatening to cancel arms deals with the Western countries and instead purchase weaponry from Russia and China if sanctions are imposed over the Khashoggi affair.

As with Syria and Iran, the Kremlin is demonstrating how, in contrast to the fickle West, it can relied on to remain a steadfast ally to countries in the Middle East it considers friendly, come hell or high water. The partnership between Saudi Arabia and Russia is not going to flourish overnight. But the crucial difference between our political leaders and theirs is that the latter think not in terms of election cycles while feeding at the trough, but rather how to forge deep strategic partnerships that will bear fruit decades, even centuries, in the future.

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