Saudi Arabia's King Salman welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 14 2019. Picture: ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/ AFP
Saudi Arabia's King Salman welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 14 2019. Picture: ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/ AFP

Riyadh —Energy superpowers Saudi Arabia and Russia on Monday signed a deal to bolster cooperation among the world's oil giants, as visiting President Vladimir Putin sought to defuse political tensions in the Gulf.

Putin's visit follows attacks on Saudi oil installations that Riyadh and Washington have blamed on Moscow ally Tehran.

At a ceremony in Riyadh, Putin and his host, Saudi King Salman, signed several multimillion-dollar investment contracts targeting the aerospace, culture, health, advanced technology and agriculture sectors.

Key among the deals was the agreement to bolster cooperation among the so-called OPEC+ countries — the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries plus 10 non-members of the cartel.

Moscow is not a member of Opec, but it has worked closely with the group to limit supply and push up prices after a 2014 slump that wreaked havoc on the economies of Russia and cartel heavyweight Saudi Arabia.

Monday's deal seeks to “reinforce cooperation ... and strengthen oil market stability”, Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said at the signing ceremony.

Putin said “Russia attaches particular importance to the development of friendly, and mutually beneficial ties with Saudi Arabia”.

Role of ‘peacemaker’

Moscow and Riyadh, a traditional US ally, have made a striking rapprochement in recent years, marked in particular by King Salman’s first visit to Russia in October 2017.

A year later, when the Saudi crown prince was under fire over the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Putin went out of his way to shake his hand at a G20 summit.

In an interview with Arabic-language television channels ahead of his visit, Putin praised his good relations with the Saudi royals.

“We will absolutely work with Saudi Arabia and our other partners and friends in the Arab world... to reduce to zero any attempt to destabilise the oil market,” he said in the interview broadcast on Sunday.

Russian political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said that Moscow, with its older ties to Iran and new links with Saudi, could “play the role of peacemaker” as tensions soar between Tehran and Riyadh.

These tensions spiked in September after the attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities that halved the kingdom’s crude output and set oil markets alight.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility. But US officials and the Saudis blamed Tehran, charging that the rebels did not have the range or sophistication to target the facilities. Tehran has denied involvement.

Last week an Iranian tanker was hit by suspected missile strikes off the coast of Saudi Arabia, sparking fresh fears of war.

Syria war

Kremlin adviser Yuri Ushakov said Syria's eight-year-old war would also feature in the leaders’ talks on Monday.

Russia and Iran back President Bashar al-Assad, while the Saudis support the opposition seeking his overthrow.

But “it is important for Russia that an Arab country participates in the political settlement in Syria”, said Lukyanov.

For now “only three non-Arab countries” — Turkey, Russia and Iran — are hosting talks, the analyst said.

In terms of business, the visit is expected to result in about 30 agreements and contracts, according to Ushakov.

A dozen of these, in the advanced technology, energy and infrastructure sectors, will be signed by the Russian sovereign wealth fund and are worth about $2bn.

In October 2017, Russia and Saudi Arabia also signed a memorandum of understanding paving the way for Riyadh’s purchase of Moscow's powerful S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems.

The sale never materialised, however, as Saudi Arabia eventually opted to purchase a US system.

After Saudi Arabia, Putin will travel to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday to meet the powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.

AFP