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Putin courts investments in trip to Saudi Arabia

October 14, 2019

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Saudi Arabia seeking to capitalize on his country's growing influence in the Middle East. Both parties stand to gain a lot.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman in discussions, with interpreters on October 14, 2019.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/M. Metzel

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday for his first visit to the kingdom in over a decade. Putin is seeking trade and investment opportunities in the region, where Russian influence has grown in recent years.

Saudi Arabia and neighbor the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are likewise interested in Russian ventures that could help the Arab countries diversify their oil-dependent economies. Putin will visit the UAE on Tuesday. 

New investments are essential for the Russian economy, which continues to suffer under sanctions related to the country's military action in Ukraine and the low price of Russian oil, a key export. It is likely that Russia will not meet its economic growth goals for 2019. 

Russia's sovereign wealth fund is expected to come away from the visit with deals worth more than $2 billion. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is after assistance in launching a satellite. 

Read more: Will Russia splash rainy day cash?

Seeking to mediate between Saudis and Iran

Russia and Saudi Arabia, a long-standing ally of Washington, have enjoyed a notable rapprochement in recent years, marked in particular by King Salman's first visit to Russia in October 2017.

Putin's tour is seen as a chance for Russia to deepen cooperation on energy and oil and to drum up investment from the Saudis, but also to underline Russia's growing influence and interest in the Middle East.

The national flags of both countries lined the streets of Riyadh as the one-day visit got underway. Putin was accompanied for the trip by his energy minister and the head of Russia's sovereign wealth fund.

Speaking ahead of the trip, in an interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television, Putin expressed a wish to ease tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. 

Russia has been successful in strengthening relations with both Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and its Shiite rival Iran. Moscow has also accrued power in the Middle East by sending troops to Syria, where it backs President Bashar Assad in the country's civil war.

The Russian president said he enjoyed "very friendly personal relations" with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He said Russia was also mulling investments in Saudi Arabia.

No 'negative impact' on US ties

It's unclear whether there will be movement on Saudi plans to buy the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system — a development that could stir up more unease in Washington. 

The Saudis, along with the US, blamed Iran for drone and missile strikes in September. Those attacks rattled oil markets and exposed weaknesses in Saudi air defense systems.

When asked about concerns in the US that Riyadh was cozying up to Moscow, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said he saw no issue.

"We don't believe that having close ties with Russia has any negative impact on our relationship with the United States," he told reporters on Sunday. "We believe that we can have strategic and strong ties with the United States while we develop our ties with Russia."

rc, kp/msh (AP, dpa)