On October 5, King Salman became the first ever Saudi monarch to visit Russia. President Vladimir Putin, who first invited the king to Moscow more than two years ago, hailed the visit as a “landmark event.” Billboards lined city streets welcoming the king in Arabic and Russian, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had strong words of praise for Saudi Arabia’s leadership.
After the summit, Salman and Putin signed a packet of documents on energy, trade, and defense, and agreed to several billion dollars’ worth of joint investment. In addition, there are reports that Saudi Arabia agreed to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense system, making it the second U.S. ally to do so. (Turkey was the first.)
The summit is just one more milestone in the recent trend of warming Russian-Saudi ties. In June 2015, then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attended the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum—the first time the prince became publically involved in energy issues according to press reports at the time—where he met with Putin. The following month, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund committed to invest $10 billion in Russia over five years, the largest-ever foreign direct investment in the country according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund. During a visit to Moscow this spring, meanwhile, Bin Salman said that “relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia are going through one of their best moments ever.”
Given the two countries’ opposite orientations dating back to the Cold War, these recent developments are remarkable. Whether the rapprochement will last is unclear. What is certain, however, is that Russia’s new Saudi ties show Putin’s sway in the Middle East remains on the upswing.
A HISTORY OF DISTRUST
Since Saudi Arabia’s formal establishment in 1932, Moscow and Riyadh have been at odds in almost every Middle Eastern war or dispute besides the Arab–Israeli conflict. Through it all, Moscow has always understood Saudi Arabia’s importance in the region and has periodically reached out to the country
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