Putin arrives in Saudi Arabia as Middle East kingmaker: 'Something is afoot'

Russian president travelled to Riyadh for only the second visit in 12 years 

Oliver Carroll
Monday 14 October 2019 21:40 BST
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman. (REUTERS)

The hosts spared little effort in preparing a welcome fit for another century.

Vladimir Putin — in Saudi Arabia for only the second time in his presidency — was greeted in Riyadh by an honour guard of Arabian horses and royal soldiers. He was transported to the present, by electric buggy, for a grand reception inside King Salman’s palace.

Monday’s state visit on the one hand underlined the maturing relations between two enfants terribles of international politics.

Ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia, ostensibly a strategic ally of the United States, have grown close following the 2018 OPEC+ oil agreement to manage oil prices by limiting output. Today, the signing of 30 contracts worth $2bn was the material result of the new level of co-operation.

But Mr Putin’s visit also had a wider significance, emphasising Russia’s expanded responsibilities in an increasingly unstable Middle East.

Moscow today finds itself at the centre of two major crises in the region.

First, the fall-out from the Turkish assault on Kurdish troops in northern Syria following and Donald Trump’s decision to pull out US troops and abandon one-time Kurdish allies. The chaotic and bloody clashes that followed forced a Kremlin-brokered deal between the Kurds and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Syrian troops are now in control of several towns along the northern border previously controlled by Kurdish troops.

In a conference call with journalists, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged the existence of a deal between Mr Assad and the Kurdish forces, but gave no details. He declined to offer clarity on whether the deal amounted to more than a surrender; or whether the Kurds would retain any control over any territory once Syrian forces establish themselves along the northern border.

A second tension spot follows September’s drone and cruise missile attacks on Saudi oil fields. Those attacks, which came just four weeks before Mr Putin’s visit, reduced oil production by half and left the region teetering on open conflict.

As far as Riyadh and most Western governments were concerned, only Iran could carry out such an attack. But Moscow has so far refused to criticise Teheran, a prominent ally in its Syrian campaign. In an interview given to several local TV channels on the eve of his Saudi visit, Vladimir Putin insisted he had “no information” about who conducted the attack.

“Until it is clear and understood who stands behind such attacks, it is not desirable to go around blaming the innocent,” he said. Mr Putin instead used the opportunity to offer Russian suface-to-air missile defence systems to the Saudis. That prospect, while not particularly realistic, is likely to cause unease in Washington, Riyadh's long-standing arms supplier.

Russia’s policy of talking to everyone is a major factor why it has emerged as a major player in the region. But it is also increasingly a cause of tension.

“Iran has long been a toxic issue for Saudi Arabia and Russia, ” says Yury Barmin, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. “Before, the countries agreed to ignore the issue, but that’s no longer possible since Iran’s behaviour is directly impacting Russian interests and the predictable oil production that lies at the heart of the OPEC+ agreement.”

Russia had few levers to influence over its ally, the expert adds. But it was also likely to offer Riyadh a deal to stop Iranian military expansion in northern Syria. The Saudis will also be encouraged by any guarantee to keep rivals Turkey in check, he said.

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The chaotic clashes between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria have created obvious complications for Moscow. Russia had looked to disengage and hand over to the Syrian regime where possible; this development does anything but that. But more concerning is the emerging risk of a confrontation between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member.

In his daily conference, Mr Peskov described such a prospect as “unthinkable.” Moscow and Ankara remained in “close contact,” he said, complete with a hotline between the two militaries.

Later, Yury Ushakov, an aide to Vladimir Putin, told journalists that the Turkish operation and regional stability would be a “major topic of conversation” in discussions with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

But that alone was unlikely to be the main reason for Vladimir Putin’s visit, said Mr Barmin.

“Something is afoot,” he added. “Putin never goes on state visits unless major things are happening. We just don’t yet know what it is.”

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