© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a ceremony to receive diplomatic credentials from newly appointed foreign ambassadors at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, December 4, 2023. Sputnik/Pavel Bednyakov/Pool via R
By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Vladimir Soldatkin
RIYADH (Reuters) -Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday had hastily arranged talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on oil, Gaza and Ukraine, hours after visiting Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates.
It was not immediately clear what Putin, who has rarely left Russia since the start of the Ukraine war, intended to raise specifically about oil or geopolitics in a meeting with the de facto ruler of the world’s largest crude exporter.
The meeting with MbS, as the prince is widely known, comes after a fall in oil prices despite a pledge by OPEC+, which groups the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and allies led by Russia, to further cut output.
In introductory remarks shown on Russian television, Putin thanked the crown prince for his invitation, saying he had originally expected MbS to visit Moscow, “but there were changes to plans”.
Their next meeting should take place in Moscow, he said, adding: “Nothing can prevent the development of our friendly relations.”
The crown prince told Putin their countries could “work together for the good of the whole world”, according to an official interpreter.
Russia’s defence ministry had earlier shown the Kremlin chief’s Ilyushin-96 aircraft flanked by Sukhoi-35S fighter jets on its flight from Russia to the United Arab Emirates.
Putin’s delegation included top oil, economy, foreign affairs, space and nuclear energy officials as well as business leaders.
At his first stop in Abu Dhabi, President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan welcomed his “dear friend”, while a fly-past of UAE jets trailed the colours of the Russian flag.
“Our relations, largely due to your position, have reached an unprecedentedly high level,” Putin told him. “The UAE is Russia’s main trading partner in the Arab world.”
Putin said Russia and the UAE cooperated as part of OPEC+, whose members pump more than 40% of the world’s oil, adding that they would discuss the Israeli-Hamas conflict and Ukraine.
He then headed to Riyadh for his first face-to-face talks with MbS since October 2019 – days after a key OPEC+ meeting was delayed because of disagreements – superseding what should have been an MbS visit to Moscow.
Putin’s last visit to the region was in July 2022, when he met Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran. The Russian president was due to host his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Thursday.
PUTIN AND MBS
The Kremlin said that, as well as oil, Putin and MbS would discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, the situation in Syria and Yemen, and issues such as ensuring stability in the Gulf, while an aide said Ukraine would also be discussed.
Putin and MbS, who together control one-fifth of the oil pumped each day, have long enjoyed close relations, though both have at times been ostracised by the West.
At a G20 summit in 2018, just two months after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate, Putin and MbS high-fived and shook hands with smiles. Wednesday’s first encounter was just as warm and relaxed.
MbS, 38, has sought to reassert Saudi Arabia as a regional power with less deference to the United States, which supplies Riyadh with most of its weapons.
Putin, who sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022, says Russia is engaged in an existential battle with the West – and has courted allies across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia amid Western attempts to isolate Moscow.
Both MbS and Putin, 71, need high prices for oil, the lifeblood of their economies. The question for both is how much of the burden each should take on to keep prices aloft – and how to verify their contributions.
Last month, OPEC+ delayed a meeting by several days due to disagreements over production levels. The Saudi energy minister said OPEC+ also wanted more assurances from Moscow that it would make good on its pledge to reduce fuel exports.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia in OPEC+ have been uneasy at times. A deal on cutting exports almost broke down in March 2020, but they managed to make up within weeks and OPEC+ agreed to record cuts of almost 10% of global demand.
Since war broke out between Israel and Hamas in October, Putin has cast the conflict as a failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East and has sought to further develop ties with Arab allies and Iran, as well as with the Palestinian militant group.