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Putin makes rare visit to Mideast

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the talks at the Al Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday.Sergei Savostyanov/Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — His plane flanked by four fighter jets, President Vladimir Putin of Russia began a rare trip Wednesday to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two oil-rich Gulf nations that have resisted pressure to take sides in the Ukraine war.

The talks touched on international crises, primarily Israel’s 2-month-old war with Hamas — a conflict that has played into Putin’s geopolitical aims by distracting Western leaders from the war in Ukraine.

The Emirati president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, called Putin his “dear friend” at the start of their talks, and after Putin arrived in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, called him a “very dear guest for the kingdom.”

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“We have great opportunities in front of us in the future,” Prince Mohammed told the Russian leader in a video released by the Saudi government.

Putin told the crown prince that he had taken advantage of his invitation “to come and talk with you and with all our friends,” and insisted that their next meeting “should be in Moscow.”

Upon his arrival in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, his first stop on the trip, Putin was greeted with pomp: His limousine drove through the grounds of a sprawling palace flanked by camels and Arabian horses whose riders held Russian flags. Jets trailed the Russian tricolor in the sky, and Putin was also welcomed with a 21-gun salute, the Emirati state news agency reported.

“We see Putin in the West as a pariah, but this visit highlights that he is welcome” in other places, said Anna Borshchevskaya, a Russia specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Kremlin foreign policy priorities continue to resonate outside the West, which helps Putin to continue his war on Ukraine.”

In their meeting, Putin and Sheikh Mohammed discussed the potential to develop their countries’ relationship into a “strategic partnership,” the Emirati state news agency reported. They also talked about the war in the Gaza Strip, the need to work toward a permanent peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and developments in Ukraine, the report said.

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Sheikh Mohammed expressed his desire to “build bridges of cooperation and development with different countries in the world,” the Emirati news agency said.

In their opening remarks, both leaders emphasized the deepening trade and investment ties between their two countries, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Putin’s trip, announced unexpectedly by the Kremlin on Tuesday, came amid signs of eroding support in the United States for Ukraine, which is frantically trying to secure more Western aid for its effort to drive Russian forces from its territory.

Before his visit to Abu Dhabi, Putin had not traveled beyond China, Iran, and the former Soviet states since he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

A prominent Emirati political scientist, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, downplayed the significance of Putin’s visit for the UAE, describing it as “symbolic.”

Abdulla said that the Russian leader “has very few friends,” while the UAE “wants to be a friend of everybody.”

In recent years, the UAE has designed its foreign policy around hedging against its dependency on the United States.

The Emirati leader has traveled to Russia twice over the past two years, and his country was celebrated as the guest of honor at Putin’s flagship investment forum in June.

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Late Wednesday afternoon, Putin left the UAE for Saudi Arabia and talks with Prince Mohammed, the de facto leader of the kingdom.

The Saudi crown prince also has maintained close links to Putin since the invasion of Ukraine despite pressure from Western powers to isolate Russia. He has positioned himself as a potential mediator in the conflict.

Putin’s talks in the Middle East were the first in a series of diplomatic meetings planned for this week. On Thursday in Moscow, the Russian leader will host President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran, the leader of another key player in the region.

The outbreak of the war in Gaza has diverted attention from Ukraine and allowed the Kremlin to attract the sympathy of people in many developing countries where support for the Palestinian cause is widespread.

Putin condemned the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the armed group that rules Gaza, which killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities. He called it a terrorist act and tried to preserve working ties with Israel while also arguing that the dominance of Western elites allowed for the crisis to happen in the first place.

Grief and anger have spread in Arab countries since the Israeli military responded to the Hamas attack by bombarding and invading Gaza, where more than 2 million Palestinians live.

The assault has killed more than 16,000 people in Gaza — a bombing campaign of an intensity that has few precedents in this century. In protests across the Middle East, people have expressed fury not only at Israel but also at the United States, Israel’s main international backer.

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“We’ve seen anti-Americanism at an all-time high,” said Abdulla, the Emirati political scientist.

But it is unclear how much Putin will be able to gain from that, though.

Abdulla said that despite the anger at the United States, one of the main messages Arab states had received since the war was that “America is back” — militarily and politically — after a long period during which regional leaders worried that US interest in their region was waning.

“There is very little that Putin can bring to the situation in Gaza,” Abdulla said, describing Russia as “irrelevant” to that war, in which the United States has been the dominant international player.

In the Kremlin account of Putin’s arrival in Saudi Arabia, the Russian president told Prince Mohammed that it was important for them to share their assessments of “what is happening in the region,” and said their meeting was “certainly timely.”

In the kingdom, the world’s largest oil exporter, oil markets are also likely to be an important item on the agenda for Putin’s talks, Borshchevskaya said.

Joint efforts on oil production — coordinated through the OPEC+ group of oil producers — have contributed to the development of strong ties over the years between Russia and Saudi Arabia and personally between Putin and the Saudi crown prince, particularly after the resolution of an intense oil price war between the two leaders in 2020.

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However this year, points of friction have opened again as Saudi Arabia leads OPEC+ in an effort to slash oil production and prop up prices, with limited success so far. While the kingdom has made a voluntary oil production cut of 1 million barrels a day, Russia has contributed smaller cuts to its exports, but not its production — despite Saudi attempts to convince Russian officials to take more action.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.