Putin Meets UAE and Saudi Leaders in Rare Trip

Escorted by four fighter jets, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a rare one-day lightning tour to the Middle East during which he visited Saudi Arabia after a short trip to the United Arab Emirates.

Putin landed on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, which is hosting the United Nations COP28 climate talks. He was escorted to the presidential palace, where he was greeted with a 21-gun salute and a flyby of UAE military jets trailing smoke in the colours of the Russian flag.

The Gulf nation’s President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan called Putin his “dear friend”.

“I am happy to meet you again,” Sheikh Mohammed said. He later issued a statement saying they discussed “the importance of strengthening dialogue and cooperation to ensure stability and progress”.

The Russian leader echoed those sentiments.

“Our relations, largely due to your position, have reached an unprecedentedly high level,” Putin told Sheikh Mohammed. “The UAE is Russia’s main trading partner in the Arab world.”

The meeting was part of Russia’s quest to stake out a more influential role in the Middle East, with oil cooperation and the Israel-Hamas war on the agenda.

The two leaders discussed, among other things, bilateral cooperation in the energy industry and advanced technologies, according to Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency.

Putin then jetted off to Riyadh, where he met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud – their first face-to-face meeting since October 2019.

In introductory remarks shown on Russian television, Putin thanked the crown prince for his invitation, saying he had originally expected MBS to visit Moscow, “but there were changes to plans”.

Their next meeting should take place in Moscow, he said, adding: “Nothing can prevent the development of our friendly relations.”

Putin’s meeting with the Saudi crown prince came after oil prices fell, despite a pledge by OPEC+, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as well as allies led by Russia, to further reduce output.

However, it was not immediately clear what Putin, who has rarely left Russia since the start of the Ukraine war, intended to raise specifically about oil or geopolitics with the crown prince of the world’s largest crude exporter.

On Thursday, Putin will host the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow. Following that, the UAE will welcome Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday and Saturday.

Putin’s rare trip to the region is his first since July 2022, when he met Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran.

The Russian leader has made few international trips after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for him in March, accusing him of deporting Ukrainian children.

Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia have signed the ICC’s founding treaty, and are not obligated to arrest him if he enters their territories.

On Israel’s two-month bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip, Putin has decried the war as a failure of the United States diplomacy. He has suggested Moscow could instead play the role of a mediator due to its friendly ties with both Israel and the Palestinians.

Putin’s Middle East trip is also a part of his efforts to demonstrate that Western attempts to isolate Moscow through sanctions for its war on Ukraine have failed.

“He seems to be pretty delighted to be on the ground in Abu Dhabi,” said James Bays, Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor. It is unclear how this visit will be seen in Washington, as the UAE also has close ties with the US, he added.