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Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh on Monday, marking his first state visit to the country in over a decade and signalling Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East. Putin has only made one other trip to Riyadh, in 2007, and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made a historic first visit to Russia in October of 2017.
“Russia sees the expansion of friendly and mutually beneficial ties with Saudi Arabia as particularly important,” Putin said during the visit. In a brief statement, King Salman remarked, “We look forward to working with Russia to achieve security and stability and fight terrorism.”
The two countries have co-ordinated in recent years on oil markets. In 2016, the signing of the OPEC deal to cut the global oil supply significantly bolstered bilateral relations. However, they have also found themselves on opposite sides of regional conflicts. Russia has supported Syria’s government and President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, while Saudi Arabia has backed insurgents and supported the President’s overthrowing.
Russia began garnering power in the Middle East in 2015 after Syria sent an official request for military aid against rebel groups. Russia initially began deploying airstrikes, soon after sending in armed forces. Following President Trump’s announcement last week that the United States would be pulling out of northeast Syria and Turkey’s subsequent invasion of the Kurdish-controlled region, Russia has taken the opportunity to expand its influence by asserting itself in the territory. The Kurdish administration struck a deal with the Russian-backed Syrian government, and Syrian and Russian forces took over abandoned U.S. positions near the strategic town of Manbij. The move has cemented Russia as the de facto power-broker in Syria.
“We build bilateral relations that rely on positive trends generated by our contacts; we do not build alliances against anyone,” Putin said in an interview during his visit to Saudi Arabia. Russia’s influence in the Middle East has also extended to Turkey, who began receiving shipments of an advanced missile-defence system from Russia over the summer, which lead to the imposition of additional sanctions on Turkey by the Trump administration. Recently, Turkish President Erdogan rejected demands from the U.S. to stop the Turkish offensive in Syria but is expected to fly to Moscow to discuss the matter with Putin. This geopolitical shift marks Russia’s return as a great power rival of the United States.
Russia’s growing power in the Middle East may have dangerous consequences. Russia has been criticized throughout its intervention in Syria for allegedly targeting hospitals and medical facilities during airstrikes, as well as killing civilians. This led to Russia losing its seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2016. In August of this year, a Syrian-Russian military alliance strike on a displacement compound in Syria’s Idlib governorate killed at least 20 civilians and displaced 200. “Since the start of the offensive on Idlib, the Syrian-Russian military alliance has used unlawful tactics to kill and injure hundreds of civilians,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The tragic loss of life and injury to civilians is made worse by the devastating impact these attacks have had on civilian infrastructure, bringing an ongoing displacement crisis in Syria to its breaking point.” According to the UN, the alliance has killed at least 1,000 civilians and displaced over half a million others. It has been known to target schools, places of worship, and medical facilities, as well as committing crimes such as extrajudicial killings, arrests, torture, and enforced disappearances.
The United States’ departure and Russia’s growing presence in the region will only work to compound these ongoing humanitarian crises. However, with Russia’s strengthening bonds with Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and other countries across the region, the Kremlin’s growing international influence is indisputable.