Russia defends Iran, backs Bashar Assad in Syria and criticizes Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Riyadh would seem a risky balancing act – but is instead a pragmatic move rooted in mutual interest.

Putin arrives in Saudi Arabia on Monday, his second visit to the country after his 2007 trip. Just days earlier, Riyadh ignored his proposal (though apparently made in jest) to buy Russian air defense systems, and even more recently, approved the United States’ deployment of about 3,000 troops on its territory, including fighter squadrons, an air expeditionary wing and air-defense personnel.

The signs are clear that Riyadh remains firmly in the orbit of Washington’s influence, at least when it comes to security and defense. But Moscow doesn’t seem to hold it against Riyadh – in fact, relations with the Saudis have never been better. Putin has been seen chatting cordially with Saudi Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at international meetings, and has spoken about his personal rapport with both MBS and with the Saudi king himself. The friendship has been well echoed in economics: trade turnover, while still comparatively low, is on a quickening rise (it grew by 15 percent in 2018 and by 38 percent so far in 2019), there’s talk of a $1-billion joint oil facility, and further investment deals are expected to be inked this week.

At the same time, Moscow is an ally of America’s public enemy number one: Iran. Saudi Arabia has blamed the regime in Tehran for strikes on two of its oil facilities last month, and hosts US troops on its soil to deter any supposed Iranian aggression. Riyadh is embroiled in a devastating military conflict against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and is on the opposite side to Moscow in the Syrian civil war, where the Saudis arm anti-government rebel militias, while the Russians aid the government of Bashar al-Assad.

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