(AFP) — Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, on the first official trip to Russia by a ruler of the oil-rich Sunni powerhouse, was set to meet President Vladimir Putin to discuss energy contracts despite discord over the Syrian conflict.
While they are partners on the oil market, on the foreign policy front, Moscow and Riyadh are on opposite sides of the war in Syria, with Russia supporting President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia supports the opposition.
Salman and Putin are expected to discuss major defense and energy contracts, as well as extending oil production cuts ahead of the OPEC oil cartel meeting in November.
Saudi Arabia and Russia are heavily dependent on oil exports and the global plunge of the price of crude that began in 2014 lashed both of their economies.
Members of OPEC, of which Saudi Arabia is the biggest producer, have joined with non-member Russia and other countries in cutting crude output in a pact that has helped prop up prices.
On Wednesday Putin said an extension of the OPEC deal was possible and could last “at least to the end of 2018″.”Russian-Saudi contacts are important and their potential is rather great,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.”The political will of Moscow and Riyadh for deeper cooperation on the widest range of issues is clear,” he added.
– Awkward start –
The 81-year-old monarch’s three-day visit got off to an awkward start on Wednesday evening after landing at Moscow’s Vnukovo-2 airport when the escalator he uses to descend from his plane malfunctioned.
The escalator stopped midway, forcing the king to walk down himself, to be met by Russian officials including deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin and a military brass band.
King Salman arrived with a delegation of more than 1,000 people, reported Kommersant business daily. Kommersant also said Putin and Salman are due to discuss an arms deal worth more than $3 billion (2.5 billion euros) to supply Riyadh with S-400 air defense systems.
Russian energy minister Alexander Novak told TASS news agency on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia is investing $1 billion into energy projects in Russia though he did not elaborate or specify whether these deals would be signed during the visit.
The Kremlin said ahead of the visit that Salman and Putin would also discuss “the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, especially focusing on conflict situations in the region.
“The two diverge on both Syria — where more than 330,000 people have been killed since war erupted in 2011 — and Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been bombing Huthi rebels since 2015, drawing criticism from Moscow. Putin visited Riyadh in 2007 and last met Salman in Turkey in 2015.
The Saudi king’s Kremlin meeting with Putin was expected to begin at 1000 GMT, to be followed by a state dinner. The countries’ foreign ministers were set to meet later in the day.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed Salman’s visit as “truly an epoch-making event in our relations,” in an interview published on Wednesday by the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat