x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 October 2017

King Salman and Putin hold 'substantive' talks in Moscow

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin today for historic talks that focused on Syria and further cooperation on oil production

King Salman, left, meets Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Pavel Golovkin / AP Photo
King Salman, left, meets Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Pavel Golovkin / AP Photo

Moscow // Saudi Arabia’s King Salman met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin today for historic talks that focused on Syria and further cooperation on oil production.

Mr Putin described the talks in Moscow as “substantive and meaningful”. He also said he had accepted the king’s invitation to visit Saudi Arabia.

“This is a landmark event,” Mr Putin said in televised comments before the meeting at the Kremlin’s opulent St Andrew’s Hall. King Salman called Russia a “friendly nation” and said his four-day visit would boost growing ties between the world’s two largest oil exporters.

“We strive to continue the positive cooperation between our countries to achieve stability on world oil markets which promotes the growth of the world's economy," King Salman said.

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In a sign of the improving relationship, Saudi Arabia signed preliminary agreements with Russia to buy S-400 air defence systems, as well as anti-tank weapons and multiple-rocket launchers, the Saudi Arabian Military Industries said.

Russia agreed to help the kingdom develop its own military industries including a plan to “localise the manufacturing and sustainment of parts of the S-400” system and the of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle and its ammunition in Saudi Arabia, Sami said.

King Salman’s four-day trip to Russia is the first time a Saudi monarch has paid an official visit to Moscow following decades of frosty relations. Although the Soviet Union was the first country to recognise the nascent Saudi state in 1926, relations plummeted sharply, and the two countries had no official diplomatic relations throughout the Cold War.

The dramatic improvement in relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia comes even though both countries support different sides in the six-year war in Syria. Mr Putin sent in Russia’s military to prop up Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian leader, in 2015, while the Saudis are financing rebel groups. But Russian military success on the ground in Syria has resulted in Saudi Arabia pressuring opposition groups to hold peace talks with Damascus.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said after the talks that Mr Putin and King Salman had discussed conflicts in the Middle East, as well as reconfirmed the need to fight terrorism. He also said the Saudi monarch had again expressed his support for a Russian-backed plan to create “de-escalation zones” in Syria. Mr Putin has said the zones are vital for ending the conflict. Saudi Arabia had previously been opposed to the plan because it involves Iran.

Mr Lavrov said Russia supports Saudi efforts to unite splintered rebel groups in Syria in a bid to pave the way for peace talks to bring an end to the war. Syrian opposition groups are due to meet in Riyadh this month in an attempt to iron out their differences.

Russian state media hailed King Salman’s visit as evidence that Russia’s backing for Mr Al Assad had made Mr Putin “master of the Middle East.”

“The Russian president has proven that he doesn’t abandon his friends when they are in trouble,” read an article published by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

Russian analysts say that King Salman is seeking to diversify Saudi alliances because of uncertainty over Donald Trump’s Middle East polices.

Both Russia and Saudi Arabia rely heavily on oil revenues and were hit by the slump in world energy prices. Cooperation between the world’s two largest exporters, as well as other OPEC members, has helped stabilise global oil prices in recent months at around $50 a barrel.

Mr Putin said on Thursday the Kremlin was open to extending a deal to cap production to the end of 2018. The agreement was due to expire in March 2018. Oil rose after Mr Putin’s statement.

Cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia “breathed life back into Opec” and made his country more optimistic about the outlook for oil than it has been for several years, Saudi energy minister Khalid Al Falih said on Thursday

The countries also moved to deepen ties in the energy sector, with Russian firm Sibur agreeing to joint oil-refining projects with Saudi Aramco.

As many as 100 Saudi businessmen are accompanying King Salman on his trip to Moscow. The king’s 1,000-strong delegation took up all the rooms in the five star hotels around the Kremlin, state media reported.

The Kremlin talks were attended by Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, a mainly Muslim republic in Russia’s south. Although Chechnya has a population of just over one million, Mr Kadyrov is one of Russia’s most influential officials. He recently hosted Ahmed Maiteeq, the deputy Libyan prime minister in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

*With additional reporting from Bloomberg and Reuters