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The visit by President Vladimir Putin of Russia to Saudi Arabia is a sign of growing cooperation between Moscow and a traditional ally of the United States.
The trip is also a sign of Russia’s increasing confidence and influence in the Middle East.
It’s Putin’s first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2007. The world, and the region, looked very different then. The year before, Putin had hosted a meeting of the G8 group of leading industrialized nations in his home city of St Petersburg.
Since then, Russia has been excluded from the group over its annexation of Crimea. That happened in 2014 (although on more than one occasion President Donald Trump has suggested that Russia should be readmitted.)
Falling out with the G8 has hardly stopped Russia pursuing its own international agenda. Crimea is not the only time when it has resorted to force to pursue its foreign policy. Moscow’s 2015 military intervention in Syria turned the tide of the civil war there, and ensured the survival of the administration of President Bashar al-Assad.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia, Putin will no doubt have been kept informed of dramatic developments in the wider region. As the Russian leader held meetings in Riyadh, Syrian government forces backed by Russia were reported to be moving deep into territory held by Kurdish fighters–their opportunity to do so one of the consequences of President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the region.
Not surprisingly, given the great importance of oil for the Russian and Saudi economies, that too was on the agenda in Riyadh. “A substantial exchange of opinions took place, on regional problems, on situation at the energy markets, or on oil prices, to keep it simple,” the Russian president’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted as saying in remarks reported by Reuters.
Here too Russia has deepened its cooperation with Saudi Arabia, in an arrangement that has come to be known as OPEC plus. Once seen as a rival to other oil producers, Russia has recently worked with Saudi Arabia–the discussions during Putin’s visit the latest sign of that coordination.
After attacks in September on oil installations in Saudi Arabia, Putin offered to sell the Saudis weapons. Both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. blamed Iran for the attacks–a view which Russia declined to share.
Like Russia, Iran is a supporter of President Assad of Syria. It is also a bitter regional rival of Saudi Arabia.
Putin’s visit to Riyadh may therefore be seen as designed to show that Russia can talk to any of the regional powers.
At a time when the U.S.’s influence in the Middle East is seen as being on the wane—Brookings Institute paper published in January 2019 concluded that, “American influence in the region is certainly on the decline”–Russia wants to be seen as on the rise.