King Salman bin Abdelaziz’s visit to Russia is the first by a Saudi king. It will be watched closely around the world, especially in the US.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman (2nd L) stands next to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (2nd R) during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival at Vnukovo airport outside Moscow, Russia October 4, 2017.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman (2nd L) stands next to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (2nd R) during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival at Vnukovo airport outside Moscow, Russia October 4, 2017. (Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is hosting Saudi King Salman bin Abdelaziz, the first-ever Saudi monarch to visit Russia.

The visit is in the global spotlight as the US is Saudi Arabia's strongest ally, who has traditionally been at odds with Russia.

“Russia cannot be an alternative to the United States for Saudi Arabia because Washington provides the best security partnership,” Al Sharq Forum's Research Director, Galip Dalay told TRT World.

Moscow has increased its influence in the Middle East in recent years, beginning with its intervention in the Syrian war, which has helped to improve the fortunes of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad in the long-running conflict.

Additionally, Russia has aligned itself with Iran in Syria – a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the US or Saudi Arabia.

Dalay said Russia’s increasing presence in the Middle East pushes regional powers to approach Moscow, but this would not change Saudi Arabia’s allegiance to the US.

“Obviously, Iranian influence in the region will be on the top agenda,” said Dalay. 

Iran and Saudi Arabia's historical rivalry 

Riyadh has actively supported Syrian rebels fighting Assad's forces while Russian troops and Iranian militias have sided with Assad up until now in Syria. 

The level of Saudi Arabia’s support for the opposition decreased after Riyadh began facing economic problems.

Riyadh had vetted the opposition groups it has supported, never backing the groups who had links to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is considered to be a terrorist organisation both by Riyadh and Moscow. 

The dynamics changed after Russia, Turkey, and Iran struck a deal at the Astana peace talks for four de-escalation zones in Syria to prevent civilian casualties. 

In one of those de-escalation zones in Idlib, five hundred Iranian troops will be deployed alongside Russian and Turkish troops.

Riyadh is concerned about the growing influence of its arch-rival Iran. Militia groups backed by Iran have long had a role in the fighting and control of different areas of Syria. 

The discussion on Syria is likely to focus on whether the regime in Syria will change once Daesh is defeated, Assad's future, as well what peace talks between Saudi-backed opposition activists and Damascus can achieve and the creation of new de-escalation zones. 

But the most crucial point for Saudis is the growing influence of Iran in the region. The king may seek assurances from Russia that its ally Iran will not have a permanent role in Syria. 

“Moscow is following a selective policy in the international affairs, policies that it can influence,” said Dalay. 

However, he added that Iran has its own agenda in the region and acts accordingly.

“Saudi Arabia is seeking help on Iran. Russia wouldn't try to suppress Iran to balance Tehran’s growing influence,” said Dalay.  

Problems as oil prices fall

The drop in the oil price during the past three years has overstretched both Russia and Saudi Arabia's budgets, making an extension of joint-cuts in oil production beyond March 2018 more likely.

Moscow said last month it had discussed with Riyadh extending a $1 billion energy project deal but no specific decisions had been made ahead of a November 30 producers' meeting in Vienna.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said in an interview broadcast on Monday that the planned $1 billion fund to invest in energy projects was part of efforts to strengthen cooperation in oil, gas, electricity, renewable energy and other projects.

Russian firms are also discussing deals with Saudi Aramco, such as providing drilling services in Saudi Arabia, and Russian oil giant Rosneft's interest in crude trading, he added.

Russian Economy Minister Maxim Oreshkin said on Tuesday investors were interested in a nuclear energy plant Saudi Arabia wanted to build and Saudis would be offered investment opportunities, including in the shipping company, Sovcomflot.

A Russian energy source said a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was expected to be signed between Novatek and Saudi Arabia on a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, known as Arctic LNG-2, that aims to start up around 2020.

He said details were still being discussed. Russia would like Saudi Arabia to become a shareholder in the project but the source said there were also other roles the kingdom could take.

Saudi Aramco and Saudi Basic Industries Corp (SABIC) is expected to sign an MoU with Russia’s biggest petrochemical firm Sibur to examine opportunities for building petrochemical plants in the two countries.

The Saudi king is being accompanied by a hundred Saudi businessmen, who will be seeking to do business with the Russians. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies