Source: Tatar-Inform, Rustam Kilsinbayev. Credit: Tatarstan President's Press Service.

Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov plays the role of Russia's envoy to the Islamic world and his recent visit to Saudi Arabia and meeting with the king could be viewed as an attempt to bring the two countries closer together, said Albert Beloglazov, associate professor from the Institute of International Relations, History and Oriental Studies of Kazan Federal University.
"As head of the Russia - Islamic World strategic vision group, Minnikhanov represents not just Tatarstan but the whole of Russia. The group has been in place since 2006 but was suspended during the Arab spring. In 2014 when it resumed its work the Russian President appointed Rustam Minnikhanov as its chairman," said Mr Beloglazov.
Improving ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia has become one of the major tasks for Tatarstan's leader during this challenging and turbulent time for the region. In this capacity Rustam Minnikhanov represents Russia in the Islamic world. "What is important is that Russia, together with Iran and Turkey, is sponsoring the Astana talks - it's a trilateral format ignoring Saudi Arabia which is a regional leader, too, competing with Iran and Turkey, and in this regard it feels slightly offended and pushed to the side.
"I think Mr Minnikhanov went there with a specific purpose and that was to improve ties on behalf of Russia. Vladimir Putin cannot directly reach out to Riyadh because Saudi Arabia and Iran are sworn enemies. And so Mr Minnikhanov acted as messanger of peace on behalf of Russia. It's a symbolic visit, it signifies that we are focused on making relations better. 
Our alliance with Turkey and Iran does not mean we want to break our contacts with Saudi Arabia. We do have points of convergence, our Islamic regions with a population up to 20 million, and they do the hajj regularly. I think the king also understands that the country needs to take part in all political processes and realizes the fact that Russia has become a very strong player. The Kingdom viewed Minnikhanov as Russia's envoy who is taking the first step towards improving the relationship," the expert goes on to say.
“Tatarstan’s President also took along a large delegation of businessmen, including the Minister of Agriculture, heads of Tatneft, TAIF, KAMAZ, Orgsintez and Ak Bars.”
Albert Beloglazov sees food exports as a priority area of trade cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
“First of all, it’s grain and dairy products. Last year, Saudi Arabia said it would no longer grow wheat and other grain species and switched to imports. In 2016, Russia became the world leader in grain exports but so far we have not worked with Saudi Arabia. Ideologically, it would be an appropriate deal to buy grain and dairy products from a Muslim region, these are Halal products, they are more pure,” he added.
Another important area is oil production. Tatneft has had some positive experience in Libya, Iraq and Syria where a new production technology was used for newly discovered fields. That was before the crisis broke out. Right now Tatneft has some extra capacity which has not been used in the Middle East. The company has experience in working in desert, hot conditions which are similar to those found in Saudi Arabia. Tatneft may get a chance to land a contract which would be also good for Saudi Arabia.
As for Orgsintez and TAIF, Saudis understand that crude sales don’t deliver too much margin and would be interested in exploiting our refining technology.
KAMAZ trucks could prove an asset, too, but they need to be modified like those trucks that take part in the Dakar rally… The test batch of 25 cars seemed to have left Saudis unimpressed.”
Helicopters can be a promising area, though the Tatar plant was not represented during this visit. But Kazan-produced helicopters demonstrated excellent performance during the peacekeeping mission in Chad. Almost all Western helicopters broke down in sandstorms but Tatar aircraft continue to operate.”
Islamic financing and banking is high on the agenda for the sides. “We ran a pilot project in March 2016 with the first Islamic bank called the Center for Partnership Banking. It was located on the property of Tatfondbank. But since the Tatfondbank is struggling and has virtually stopped its operations, the Islamic banking center ceased its work. Today the Republic is looking to its foreign partners to establish a dedicated institution. The issue is that Russian laws do not allow all of the instruments of Islamic banking… Globally, the sector is worth 2 trillion, with more than 500 banks working in line with Sharia laws. So hopefully foreign banks would open there Islamic banking branches here in Russia. The more banking models there are, the more stable the system will be. Again, if there are Islamic banks, Islamic investors would be more eager to invest into our economy,” said Mr Beloglazov.

He also spoke about more intense cooperation with OIC. “We’ve had very good relations with the organization right since the start. OIC sponsors the annual KazanSummit in Tatarstan. In other words, OIC is a window into 57 states. Saudi Arabia is a leader in the body and its HQ is located here, and the current General Secretary is also a Saudi citizen,” says the expert.

During the meeting with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud Tatarstan’s leader gave him an invitation from the Russian president to visit Russia. Mr Beloglazov believes that such a visit “would have an enormous importance for bolstering Russia’s position in the Middle East and in the Arabian Peninsula because plays a systemic role in the Arab League and in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf.

Despite the geopolitical turbulence, the two countries were able to find common ground last year including on oil production cuts.