Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting Saudi Arabia after a long gap of 12 years. The visit, which starts on Monday, comes at an inflecting point in the ties between the two countries. Though Putin and Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman have apparently shared a good rapport, the two countries share widely diverging interests and affiliations.
Russia is a staunch ally of Iran, the biggest enemy of Saudi Arabia. And Riyadh is constantly waging a war of attrition with Tehran for one-upmanship in the region. Putin also props up Syrian President Bashar al Assad, whom both Saudi Arabia and its closest ally, the United States, want to see ousted. Besides, Putin has also been a vocal critic of the Saudi-led war against Yemen.
Given the fault lines in the relations between the two countries, what will be on the agenda when the Russian strongman sits down with Saudi King Salman? Russia has said Putin is primarily on a peace mission. The Russian leader will hope to ease tensions in the region, which was capped off with an attack on an Iranian oil tanker.
Putin will also be interested in balancing the Russian power play in the region by wooing US allies like Saudi Arabia. Putin was notably among the few world leaders who warmed up to Saudi Crown Prince Mohmmad bin Salman (MBS) after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi earned made him hugely unpopular in the western world.
"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," said Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, according to the VOA News.
It has also been observed that MBS has seemingly encouraged Russian attentions even as Saudi Arabia remained a strong ally of the US. Observers interpret this new found bonhomie with Russia as a warning to the US where scrutiny over his human rights record has caused him much unease of late.
Aside from the strategic layers to the Russia-Saudi summit, Putin also means to enhance business with Saudi Arabia. Reports say oil deals, along with the Iran issue, could top the agenda. One of the major outcomes of Putin's visit will be a Saudi Arabian announcement that Riyadh will make more than two billion dollars-worth of investment in Russia.
More bilateral agreements could be signed in areas like agriculture, transport, railways, fertilizers, petrochemicals, and industrial intelligence, according to Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF).
"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.
Above all else, Putin has branded his visit as a peace-making mission. He said Russian ties with Saudi Arabia have improved over the years and he's expecting further Saudi role in solving regional issues.
"In Soviet times, relations between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union were at a rather low level. In recent years, the quality of our relations has changed dramatically. We consider Saudi Arabia a friendly nation," Putin said ahead of the visit.
"We are working especially closely with Turkey and Iran, as you all know. But I believe that without Saudi Arabia's contribution towards a Syrian settlement, it would have been impossible to achieve a positive trend. Therefore, I would like to express our gratitude to both the King and the Crown Prince for this constructive approach. I am confident that my visit will help to build up the momentum both in developing bilateral relations and enhancing cooperation in international organizations," he added, according to Asharq al-Aswat.