Echoing moves into Iran after Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, Russia and China have filled the holes left by those boycotting Saudi Arabian business conference that is being snubbed in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi murder.
The so-called Davos in the desert conference in Riyadh suddenly saw an influx of more delegates from Russia and China, eyeing opportunities for energy deals.
Saudi Arabia and Russia had already announced a bilateral US$1-billion investment project before this month’s bungled murder.
Amin Nasser, CEO of state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, said the firm was in talks with Russia over a major natural-gas project.
BP reported that Saudi Arabia produced 12 million barrels of oil per day last year or 12.9 per cent of the world’s production. In contrast to other major producers, Saudi oil production is only controlled by Saudi Aramco, reportedly the most profitable company in the world.
About 40 politicians and business leaders from the US and Europe withdrew from the Saudi Future Investment Initiative in the wake of the murder of the dissident journalist at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
Numerous new delegates, under the auspices of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, and Chinese representatives appeared on the guest lists days before the event started.
The move reflects growing ties between Moscow and Beijing and Tehran as western firms retreat from Iran as Trump imposes sanctions.
The US and Europe are also aware that if Saudi Arabia withheld 3-4 million barrels of oil per day from the market, prices would rise above US$100 per barrel.
The Saudi event is a part of the divisive de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan for economic transformation away from oil dependency.
The embattled crown prince met Russian delegates at the conference for two hours in the only private meeting he is believed to have had during the event.
“Obviously, someone like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin isn’t going to be terribly worried about the killing of a journalist, particularly after what has just happened in Britain,” said Professor Mark Katz of George Mason University, referring to the attempted assassination of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal.
“Putin sees Saudi-western relations in decline and he’s prepared to take advantage of that. The Russians are fully aware that they are unlikely to replace America and the west as the primary ally, but they are happy to have a piece of it,” added the specialist in Russia-West Asian relations.
Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the US$10-billion Russian sovereign wealth fund, called the Saudi journalists’ murder “a terrible tragedy” while saying it should not impede bilateral business deals. He said he backed bin Salman’s economic reforms and it was “important to send a supportive message” to Riyadh.