H.M.King Salman of Saudi Arabia signed an agreement with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Thursday, October 5, 2017, committing both countries to space exploration cooperation.
The agreement was one of many signed between the two leaders as King Salman made a state visit to Russia on October 4-6, 2017.
This space exploration agreement is part of an overall commitment between Riyadh and Moscow to cooperate on a range of space issues, and is but one of several areas in which King Salman and President Putin have pledged deeper ties, cementing a significant geopolitical shift in the Middle East that has occurred over the past five years.
While specific details about the space exploration agreement are not available, it is the result of high level discussions between senior officials from the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research in Moscow.
The agreement can be seen as a microcosm of Russia’s resurgent influence in the Middle East since its active intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, as well as the relative decline of U.S. influence in the region. It is also a sign that major regional powers in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, are both seeking to accommodate the reality of Russian influence as well as hedging their strategic bets on global great power competition and its intersection in one of the world’s most geopolitically consequential parts of the world.
This is especially the case when it comes to space. Saudi Arabia, along with its ally and neighbour the United Arab Emirates, has been assiduous in its efforts to cultivate close and substantive ties with the space agencies of leading space powers such as the United States, China, Europe, Russia, India, and Japan.
Over the past several weeks alone it has been reported that the UAE and Russia are in discussions about training and launching Emirati astronauts as Abu Dhabi embarks on its own human space flight programme.
In the case of Saudi-Russian cooperation, Saudi Arabia brings much needed financial resources to a struggling space programme, while Russia brings potential technology and science transfers in space launch, planetary sciences, space probe technologies, human space flight, and space mission design, planning, architectures, and operations.
The agreement signed in Moscow last week builds on a broader space cooperation arrangement thought to have been initially signed by Saudi Arabia and Russia in 2015. Reports at the time even suggested that both countries were looking at developing a manned space station, though nothing has since been heard about this alleged project.
Geopolitically, closer Saudi-Russian Cooperation in a variety of fields and sectors – space exploration, energy, defence, and others – is not only indicative of a power vacuum created by a relative decline of U.S. influence in the region, but also a desire on the part of the Saudis to persuade the Russians to reign in Iranian influence throughout Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon through economic and security inducements that Iran cannot possibly provide.