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Saudi's king in Moscow: An unexpected rapprochement

Saudi's king in Moscow: An unexpected rapprochement
From Al Jazeera - October 4, 2017

Moscow, Russia-Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry hailed this week's visit of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Moscow as "historic".

Diplomats rarely mean what they say, and the word is a bit of a cliche in their lexicon.

But this time, it may be true.

Riyadh and Moscow have been at odds for decades. The two oil superpowers produce almost half of the world's crude - and fiercely compete for market shares. Moscow's efforts that propped up Syrian President Bashar Assad's government have pitted Russia against Saudis and other Sunni Arab states.

Yet, in the past year, an unexpected rapprochement between the two nations has been in the making amid Moscow's deteriorating ties with the US, and US President Donald Trump's unpredictable policy shifts.

"Our main hope is that the visit will give a new, powerful impetus to the development of bilateral ties, because the potential of our ties is much richer than the de-facto situation," Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Friday.

A deal on Syria?

Saudis no longer demand Assad's immediate removal from power and do not lambast Russia's military operation that has entered its third year on Saturday.

Damascus now claims that 92 percent of Syria's territory has been "liberated" from its foes - and Russian air strikes and unrelenting political backing played a major role. Observers in Moscow claim the king's visit has to do with a region-wide reassessment of political sympathies.

"Three years ago, Washington's actions mattered the most," Anatoly Tsiganok, a Moscow-based defence analyst, told Al Jazeera. "Now, the situation has changed cardinally, that is why now Middle Eastern nations pay attention to Russia."

A Kremlin adviser claims that King Salman's visit is related to the losses pro-Saudi opposition groups suffered in the Syrian war.

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"In Syria, Saudi Arabia has suffered a defeat, without doubt, and now there is a threat that the pro-Saudi forces in Syria, mostly the al-Nusra Front, will simply face massive purges," Sergei Markov, head of the Institute of Political Research, a Moscow-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

"The most important task for the king would be to make sure that all pro-Saudi forces are not destroyed and integrated in post-war Syria," he said.

King Salman may further soften his stance on four "de-escalation zones" in Syria that have been announced by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

In turn, Moscow toned down its criticism of Riyadh's military operation in Yemen.

Oil prices and overcoming sanctions

In mid-2014, oil price collapsed from above $100 a barrel.

Russia and Saudi Arabia predictably panicked, and tried to work out an oil output reduction that would boost the price. But they failed to iron out an action plan, and Russia even pledged to increase production.

Meanwhile, American shale crude flooded the markets, and long-term perspectives for "traditional" hydrocarbon producers started to look gloomy.

Last December, Moscow and Riyadh convinced OPEC and 11 non-OPEC nations to reduce their oil exports by 1.8 million barrels per day.

By late September, oil prices rose to $60 a barrel because compliance with the deal "was exceptionally good," Moscow-based oil analyst Sergey Khestanov told Al Jazeera.

Arms and atoms

An old rivalry

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