Armenian President Makes Historic Visit to Saudi Arabia

Posted on November. 4. 2021

By Mark Dovich

Armenian President Armen Sarkissian traveled to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in the first-ever official trip to the oil-rich kingdom by an Armenian leader. Armenia and Saudi Arabia officially have no diplomatic relations.

In a press release, Sarkissian’s office called the visit “unprecedented” and “a turning point in Armenia’s international relations.”

Sarkissian traveled to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to take part in the Future Investment Initiative Forum, an annual conference run by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

But Sarkissian also met with numerous Saudi officials during his trip, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely seen as the country’s de facto ruler.

In a statement, Sarkissian’s office said that the Armenian and Saudi leaders “talked about the need to develop relations between the two countries and their future.”

Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world that Armenia does not have diplomatic relations with, along with Azerbaijan, Turkey, Pakistan, Hungary, and several others.

“Saudi Arabia and Armenia have no diplomatic relations because Saudi Arabia has backed Azerbaijan’s position in Artsakh,” explained Arax Pashayan, an associate professor at Yerevan State University, using an alternate name for Karabakh.

“Apparently, Saudi Arabia was guided by the fact that it is the homeland of Islam and attached great importance to the idea of Islamic solidarity,” said Pashayan, who also serves as a research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies at Armenia’s National Academy of Sciences.

“It is noteworthy that, over the past thirty years, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in which Saudi Arabia has an influential role, has provided political and diplomatic support to Azerbaijan on the Artsakh issue.”

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is an international organization, headquartered in Saudi Arabia, that brings together over 50 mostly Muslim-majority countries. It bills itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world.”

According to Pashayan, Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical calculus in the South Caucasus began changing after Bin Salman’s ascent to power in 2017. Since then, relations have deteriorated significantly between Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Due to “increasing hostility between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Armenia has experienced a new level of improvement,” she said. Turkey was a major supporter of Azerbaijan against Armenia in last year’s war in and around Karabakh.

Pashayan added: “It is noteworthy that during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Saudi Arabia adopted a fairly balanced stance, calling for the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan to be resolved by peaceful means.”

Pashayan struck a positive note on the apparent warming between Yerevan and Riyadh.

“If something really changes and the ice breaks, it will be beneficial for Armenia in every sense, political and economic,” she said. “Saudi Arabia is one of the most influential countries in the Middle East and Muslim world. The possible normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia will strengthen Armenia’s position in the region.”

Following his visit to Saudi Arabia, President Sarkissian paid an official visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and other Emirati leaders, according to Sarkissian’s office.

Sarkissian’s visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE come amid an ongoing flurry of diplomatic activity by Armenia. In October alone, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and other high-level Armenian officials met with their counterparts from Georgia, India, Iran, and Russia.

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