Putin hosts Saudi King, signaling development of an unlikely friendship

Despite a history of fighting on opposite sides of countless conflicts, Russia and Saudi Arabia are strengthening ties. Talks between their leaders will address concerns over oil and the Syrian conflict. Some fear that Russia is trying to replace the US, but experts are not worried. 

Yuri Kadobnov/AP
Russia President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman posed for a photo at a welcome ceremony in the Kremlin on Oct. 5. Two countries are continuing to strengthen ties.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Thursday opened talks in the first official visit of a Saudi monarch to Russia that's expected to focus on oil and the war in Syria.

At the Kremlin's opulent St. Andrew's Hall, Putin in televised remarks hailed the king's visit as a "landmark" event. Salman in his reply called Russia a "friendly nation" and said his country is committed to strengthen ties "in the interests of peace and security."

Relations between the two countries have often been strained. During Cold War times, the Saudis helped arm Afghan rebels fighting against the Soviet invasion.

The kingdom, much like Russia, has been hit by the fall in oil prices since mid-2014. Despite regional disagreements, the two major oil-producing nations found common ground on energy policy in November, when they led a deal between OPEC and non-OPEC states to cut production in a bid to shore up crude prices. So far that deal is holding.

Saudi Arabia's top energy officials are expected to take part in the talks, and the chief executive of oil giant Saudi Aramco is also visiting Moscow this week.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told Russian news agencies earlier Friday that non-OPEC states would be willing to extend the output cut "if necessary."

Russia and Saudi Arabia are expected to announce large investments and joint ventures to further cement relations. Trade volume between the two countries reached $2.8 billion last year, according to official Saudi press.

Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund, announced in 2015 plans to invest $10 billion in Russia over the next five years, though only a fraction of that has so far been put up.

The Saudis have also been eyeing Russian nuclear power technologies and appear ready to expand food imports from Russia, which is set to remain the world's biggest wheat exporter this year. Food security is a major concern for Saudi Arabia, which stopped local production of livestock feed and wheat due to water scarcity.

Analysts say Salman's trip to Moscow is the clearest sign yet that Russia's strategy in the Middle East, including its high-risk show of military power in Syria, has paid off.

Salman's visit caps off a number of visits to Russia over the past two years by Gulf royals, including by his heir and son.

"A number of Gulf leaders have been going with greater regularity to Moscow and I think for a simple reason: Russia has made itself much more of a factor in key parts of the Middle East as the US has taken a step back in some ways, particularly in Syria," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

The Saudi monarch's visit comes after decades of strained relations. Since the Saudi state's founding 85 years ago, the kingdom and Russia have been on opposite sides of major conflicts – Saudi Arabia sided with the US in the Cold War, and helped arm mujahidin fighters against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in 1979 to 1989.

More recently, tensions were high over the war in Syria. Russia and Iran have staunchly backed Syrian President Assad while Saudi Arabia has supported the Sunni rebels fighting to oust him.

However, relations have begun to improve in recent years and Salman's heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has held several meetings with Putin.

At the core of Saudi Arabia's regional woes is its rival Iran, which is backed by Russia. The Shiite-led regional power has spread its footprint throughout the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia is at war with Iranian-allied rebel fighters in Yemen and is embroiled in a diplomatic standoff with Qatar, which has found support from Tehran.

Though Salman's visit signals closer Russian ties with Sunni Arab Gulf states, Russia's support for Iran is not expected to change.

The US, meanwhile, remains Saudi Arabia's top weapons supplier and its most critical Western ally.

Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Russia has no capacity to replace the United States as Saudi Arabia's key ally.

"That said, it's clear that Russia has been able to play a weak hand very well and step into vacuums everywhere where the US has retreated," he said.

Saudi-US ties were strained under the Obama administration over its backing of a nuclear agreement with Iran and its handling of the Syrian conflict. Relations improved under the Trump administration, but Washington's focus in Syria continues to be on fighting the Islamic State group, not on ousting Assad.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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