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Saudi Arabia’s King Salman arrived in Moscow on Wednesday in the first-ever official visit by a Saudi monarch to Russia, in a mission that signals an expanding Russian role in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East as the Syrian civil war approaches an endgame.
The king’s visit to Moscow would have been unthinkable just two years ago, when Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict on the side of President Bashar Assad.
These dynamics have come to define a new balance of power in the Middle East,” says Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House in London.
“Arab states are now faced with the challenge of maintaining their relevance in the face of this change, and this means needing to keep lines of communication with Russia open.” One mystery about the King’s visit was why the kingdom’s other high-profile leader, his 32-year-old son and newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, did not join him on the trip.
Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has become a key broker in the political struggle in Libya, and is improving ties with predominantly Sunni Arab Gulf states who seek Russia’s help in curbing the influence of Iran—an ally of Moscow and an archrival of Saudi Arabia.
Along with other Gulf states, the Saudis embraced the election of President Donald Trump, who they hoped would end years of friction with President Barack Obama, whose initial embrace of the Arab Spring uprisings, mild prodding on human rights, and nuclear diplomacy with Iran alienated the autocratic regimes along the Persian Gulf.
Yet, despite feteing Trump during the president’s first foreign voyage in May, the Saudi government’s enthusiasm has faded as the Trump administration has struggled to find ways to check the expansion of Iran’s influence on the ground in the region.
Analysts say that Russia’s ability to outflank western powers in Syria is reshaping the face of the region.
“Russia’s resilience in the face of such efforts has been strengthened by the lack of serious Western action to push for political change in Syria.