Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (L) meet in the Kremlin in Moscow on Friday. King Salman is on a three-day visit for talks that are expected to focus on the Syrian crisis and energy. Photo by Alexei Nikolsky/EPA-EFE//Sputnik/Kremlin
Oct. 8 (UPI) -- LONDON -- Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud's historic visit to Russia was capped with multibillion-dollar agreements in energy and arms in what was considered a significant turning point in bilateral relations.
King Salman's trip to Moscow, the first visit by a Saudi monarch to Russia, continued Riyadh's attempts to expand its network beyond its traditional allies, such as the United States. There has been a perceived lack of engagement from Washington in recent years, although efforts by the Trump administration have somewhat eased those concerns.
Russia President Vladimir Putin welcomed the king's visit as a "landmark event" that would improve bilateral ties. King Salman said the visit was intended to strengthen ties with Russia "in the interests of peace, security and development of the world economy."
The government-regulated Saudi media reported on the visit extensively but mostly ignored the historically rocky relationship between the two countries. The Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat carried an interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who called King Salman's visit a "real turning point" in relations that would take cooperation between the two energy heavyweights to a "completely new level."
Cooperation on energy and business ventures was expected but the meeting allowed the delegations of the two countries to discuss issues on which they were not entirely in agreement. Saudi Arabia and Russia support opposite sides in the Syrian civil war and Riyadh was displeased with Russia's intervention to save the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
During a news conference with Lavrov, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the kingdom and Russia agreed on the need to preserve Syria's territorial integrity and state institutions and highlighted efforts to unify the Syrian opposition to find a political solution to the conflict.
Among the deals announced in Moscow was Riyadh's purchase of Russia's S-400 air defence system. Also, a memorandum of understanding was signed to have Russia help Saudi Arabia develop its own domestic military industry.
Saudi Arabia has traditionally looked to the United States and the United Kingdom for its military supplies but with the tenuous security situation in the Gulf, Riyadh has increased military spending and sought alternative suppliers such as Russia and China.
Writing in the Russian daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Yuri Barmin, an expert on Russian Middle East policy, said it was important for Russia to "maintain the image of a key player in the Middle East and relations with Saudi Arabia play a key role."
"Americans have started withdrawing from the Middle East... Iran has begun to play a more important role... With these two factors combined Saudi Arabia has come to understand that nobody except Russia may help to balance Iran," wrote Barmin, adding that Moscow has indirect levers of influence on Tehran.
While in Moscow, King Salman said Iran must "stop meddling in internal affairs of the countries of the region and halt its activities to destabilise the situation in the region."
After several years of fighting over energy-related market share, which, coupled with international sanctions, almost crippled the Russian rouble, both countries agreed to extend oil production cuts to next year, leading to a 2 percent spike in global oil prices.
King Salman also invited Putin to visit Saudi Arabia.
"Your majesty, thank you very much. Thank you for the invitation. I remember my previous trip to your country and I will certainly take up your invitation to visit Saudi Arabia again," Putin said, the state news agency RIA Novosti reported.