Russian leader Vladimir Putin travels to Saudi Arabia, a traditional U.S. ally, Monday, offering to act as a peacemaker between Riyadh and Tehran in a diplomatic offensive aimed at balancing Moscow’s relations across the Middle East.
His second aim, say analysts, is to needle Washington. While courting Iran, Russia’s ally in Syria, the Kremlin has also been wooing Tehran’s top foes, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as other major powers in the region like Turkey, a member of the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance.
Putin’s visit coincides with a Pentagon announcement that it is dispatching 3000 additional troops and two squadrons of fighter jets to the Gulf kingdom in an effort, U.S. officials say, to deter Iranian aggression following the drone and Cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities last month, which rattled global energy markets and added to war tensions in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia and the U.S., as well as other Western powers, blame Iran for the attack.
In recent months, Russia’s president has been assiduously courting Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a move which has been compared by some analysts to trolling the U.S. in the Gulf. The Crown Prince hasn’t discouraged the attention — as much a warning, some analysts say, to Western powers and as a rebuff of their criticism for his human rights record.
At the G-20 summit last year in Buenos Aires, just weeks after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Putin was pictured laughing heartily with the Saudi ruler over a shared joke and giving him a high-five. The bonhomie between the pair stood in marked contrast with the shunning by other World leaders and dignitaries of the Crown Prince, who’s widely blamed, despite his denials, for the macabre killing of the journalist, a U.S. resident, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“The Russian government declined to criticize the Saudi authorities over the killing [of Khashoggi], and over the last year has made steady progress in offering itself as a new, reliable friend,” says Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, an independent advocacy organization based in the U.S..
Saudi and Russian officials are scheduled to announce more than two billion dollars-worth of Saudi investment in Russia during Putin’s visit, his first to the kingdom since 2007. The head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Kirill Dmitriev, said Moscow and Riyadh will sign ten major agreements covering agriculture, transport, railways, fertilizers, petrochemicals, and industrial intelligence.
The RDIF opened an office in Saudi Arabia four days ago, its first ever foreign office. The move is being seen by some as a maneuver by the Kremlin to make up for the reduction in Western foreign investment in the wake of sanctions imposed initially on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“I am convinced that the Russia-Saudi summit will give further strong impetus to our multifaceted partnership, contribute to its qualitative growth and strengthen mutual understanding between the two peoples,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last week.
Speaking to broadcasters Saturday ahead of his trip, Putin decried attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, no matter who was behind them. He also urged Iran’s neighbors to “respect” the interests of Iran, a country that has “existed on its territory for thousands of years.” But at the same time he praised increasing cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia.