x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 November 2017

King Salman lands in Moscow as Saudi Arabia and Russia look to strengthen ties in historic visit

As the leaders of the world's two biggest oil exporters, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely discuss cooperation on oil production and try to align differences over Syria

King Salman became the first reigning Saudi monarch to visit Russia when he arrived in Moscow last night for a trip analysts said would cover oil production woes, and attempt to align differences over Syria and Iran.

As the leaders of the world's two biggest oil exporters, King Salman and Vladimir Putin are expected to agree to further strengthen measures to stem the drop in the global price of fossil fuels.

Investment deals on a natural gas project and petrochemical plants could also be signed during King Salman's trip and plans for a US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) fund to invest in energy projects are likely to be finalised, according to Reuters.

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“Oil and Syria will dominate the visit agend,” said Saeed Alwahabi a Saudi analyst. “The massive delegation will also focus in setting the broader lines for cooperation between the countries under the Saudi Vision 2030 umbrella. A lot of agreements are expected to be signed,”

Although the two countries agree when it comes to oil production and cutting output until March 2018, Riyadh and Moscow have clashed on their policy in Syria where the two countries support opposing sides in the war.

Riyadh supports Sunni-dominated rebels fighting Bashar Al Assad's forces while Russia has sided with the Syrian president and the Shiite militias supporting him, which are backed by Iran.

This places Russia in cooperation with Tehran, Saudi Arabia’s arch nemesis, whose growing influence in the region has become a main concern for Riyadh, other Arab countries and the US.

While the meetings, that will take place in the Kremlin, reflect the strengthening of ties between the two countries, it is Moscow’s relationship with Iran that will probably be the biggest point of contention in the talks.

The day before King Salman arrived, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov accused troops from the US, Saudi Arabia's staunch ally, of carrying out "bloody provocations" against Russian soldiers in Syria.

"The activities of US-led forces raise many questions … In some cases, these forces have indirectly encouraged other terrorists to attack strategic positions rightfully regained by Damascus, or they have deliberately engaged in bloody provocations against our forces," Mr Lavrov said in an interview with the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.

The Russian foreign minister appeared to be referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the US-led coalition is backing in a drive against ISIL in eastern Syria, mainly in the city of Raqqa.

Russia last month accused the SDF of trying to sabotage a separate offensive by its ally, the Syrian military, against ISIL around the city of Deir Ezzor, where Russia lost one of its own generals in late September.

"Today all actors must abandon their geopolitical ambitions and contribute fully to the restoration of stability and security of Syria and throughout the Middle East and North Africa," Mr Lavrov said, calling for a lifting of sanctions against the Assad regime to help Syria's recovery.

Despite the differences, Saudi Arabia is looking to stay in constant dialogue with Russia to better understand the situation, Mr Alwahabi said.

“On Syria, there has been a shift in Saudi Arabia's foreign policy towards Russia. While keeping a low profile in Syria currently, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman wants to keep a solid intelligence and political cooperation with the Russians in Syria and beyond,” he said.

However, both countries have a long road in developing enough trust before aligning political goals in the region.

“Since the 1990s, Saudi Arabia's relations with Russia continue to be limited as the Saudi-US relations always comes. Economically, Saudi Arabian-Russian bilateral trade in the last decade was steady around $1bn even though there have been unsuccessful initiatives to deepen the economic relations between the countries,” said Mr Al Wahabi.

Although this will be the first official trip to Russia by a Saudi king, ties have been well primed in the last two years by the crown prince.

King Salman’s son, Prince Mohammed, visited Moscow earlier this year and in 2015 just to work on a $10bn investment in Russia from a sovereign wealth fund.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman arrives in Russia. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
Saudi Arabia's King Salman arrives in Russia. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

The king will be accompanied by ministers and the heads of state-owned energy companies Saudi Aramco and Gazprom. The delegation will also present Saudi's Vision 2030, often referred to as Prince Mohammed’s brainchild aimed at ending the kingdom’s dependence on oil.

However, what analysts are unsure of is how the two countries will emerge from the talks when it comes to regional issues of Syria’s civil war and Iran’s increasing influence in the region.

“This will be very difficult and likely where most of the heavy ground work will need to be done,” said a Washington-based analyst. “Regardless of what happens though, this is very important for Russia as it shows how effective it has been in increasing its role in the Middle East.”

Riyadh has shifted its stance from seeing Moscow as an unreliable partner a year ago to one that it is willing to cooperate on multiple levels as both countries have found political and economic advantages in working together.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow hoped the king's trip would breathe life into a relationship with huge potential and was interested in maintaining dialogue with Riyadh "about the Middle East and Syria in particular."