Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Saudi King Abdullah, during welcome ceremony at the airport in Riyadh Feb. 11.
Dmitry Astakhov  /  AFP - Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks on Sunday with Saudi King Abdullah, right, during a welcome ceremony at the airport in Riyadh. Putin arrived in Saudi Arabia Sunday on the first leg of a Middle East tour to enhance ties with leaders in the region.
updated 2/11/2007 8:54:33 PM ET 2007-02-12T01:54:33

President Vladimir Putin, making the first visit by a Russian leader to Saudi Arabia, met King Abdullah and other senior officials Sunday for talks that touched on regional tensions including Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

Putin’s visit to this traditional U.S. ally comes as Saudi Arabia is opening up to other countries, particularly in Asia. Russia is the world’s second-largest oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia. Moscow represents a potential ally with considerable political clout as a member of both the United Nations Security Council and the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace mediators.

The U.S. is the main supplier of weapons to the oil-rich kingdom. But relations have been strained since the Sept. 11 attacks and Saudi Arabia may be looking to Russia to diversify its military suppliers.

King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan greeted Putin at the airport in Riyadh Sunday evening. The leaders met later for talks that covered the Palestinian issue, the situation in Iraq and bilateral cooperation, the official Saudi Press Agency reported. No further details were provided.

Russian leads business delegation
Putin arrived at the head of a large delegation that includes almost 60 business executives who came to meet with their Saudi counterparts and discuss investment opportunities and possible joint ventures.

Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russian parliament, said last week Russia hopes to win a Saudi order for tanks.

In an interview with the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass before the visit, Abdullah said the meetings will advance cooperation and understanding.

“Both countries enjoy great economic capabilities, good natural resources, numerous investment opportunities and a distinct cultural heritage,” Abdullah was quoted as saying.

In 2004, Saudi Arabia awarded Lukoil Holdings, Russia’s biggest integrated oil company, the rights to explore and produce natural gas in an area known as “Zone A,” located near Ghawar, the world’s largest oil field.

Abdulaziz Sager, a Saudi who is the chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, wrote in the Saudi paper Arab News that while commercial interests lie at the heart of Russia’s renewed interest in the Gulf, two strategic factors guide its approach to the region.

“First, Russia’s slow but sure re-emergence as a great power makes it necessary for Moscow to showcase its clout,” wrote Sager. “And second, the concern that the Middle East security scenario and its spin-off could hurt the Caucasus and Central Asia, and perhaps Russia too.”

Trip follows criticism of U.S.
Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia comes a day after he leveled his harshest criticism yet of the U.S. government, saying it “has overstepped its national borders in every way” and is fostering a new global arms race. Relations between the former Cold War foes have been strained by disagreements over an array of international issues including U.S. criticism of Russia’s record on democracy under Putin.

Putin is the highest-level Russian official to visit Saudi Arabia from Moscow.

The two countries had full diplomatic relations until 1938, when dictator Josef Stalin closed his embassy in Saudi Arabia to save money. Several attempts to re-establish ties during the 1980s faltered over what Saudi Arabia called the Soviet Union’s “belligerent attitude” toward its Muslim population, notably in Chechnya. Muslims make up about 20 million of Russia’s 145 million population.

In September 1990, the Soviet Union and the kingdom restored diplomatic relations at the height of tensions in the Gulf from Iraq’s August 1990 invasion and occupation of Kuwait. A U.S.-led coalition evicted the Iraqi army, ending a seven-month occupation.

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