RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – In the first trip to Saudi Arabia by a Russian leader, President Vladimir Putin arrived in the kingdom Sunday, where he is expected to discuss with top Saudi officials the region's hotspots as well as economic and military cooperation.
Saudi King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan met the Russian leader at the airport Riyadh, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
Putin is leading a large delegation that includes almost 60 business executives who are scheduled to meet with their Saudi counterparts to discuss investment opportunities and possible joint ventures between the two countries.
Saudi officials and the country's state-guided media have described Putin's visit as historic, highlighting Moscow's clout as a U.N. Security Council member, one of the so-called Quartet members — which also includes the U.S., the EU and the United Nations — that drafted the "road map" plan for Middle East peace and a significant player in the oil and gas market.
King Abdullah told the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass that Putin's visit would give both sides a chance to discuss a wide range of issues. His interview with the agency was carried by Saudi Arabia's official SPA news agency Sunday.
"Both countries enjoy great economic capabilities, good natural resources, numerous investment opportunities and a distinct cultural heritage," Abdullah was quoted as saying.
"Our meetings are very important because they will advance understanding and cooperation between the two countries," he added, according to SPA.
Putin is expected to meet with King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan and Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal on Sunday, according to Saudi media. On Monday, he is expected to visit a photo gallery at the National Museum.
The raging conflict in Iraq, the simmering tensions in Lebanon and Iran's nuclear program are expected to top Putin's talks with his Saudi hosts. His visit comes a day after the Russian leader lashed out at one of Saudi Arabia's biggest allies, the United States, telling a conference of the world's top security officials in Germany that Washington's increased use of military force was creating a new arms race, with smaller nations turning toward developing nuclear weapons.
Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russian parliament, said last week that arms trade is likely to become a key part of Putin's agenda during the Saudi-leg of a regional tour that will also take him to Qatar and Jordan.
Russia, he said, hopes, in particular, to win a prospective Saudi order for tanks.
Russia has stepped up its military and trade ties with other countries in the region, delivering weapons systems to Syria and Iran, among others.
The Saudi official would not say what kind of military agreements — if any — would be signed between Russia and Saudi Arabia, whose main arms supplier is the United States. But he said the kingdom is seeking to continue diversification in its military sources and improving the capability of its military. He said that will not come at U.S. expense.
"We are not in the game of playing one country against the other," said the Saudi official.
Russian presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko also said the two leaders would discuss military and technology cooperation, along with economic ties and the Arab-Israeli conflict, though no agreements on the military front were expected to be signed, according to the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass.
"Russia attaches special importance to relations with Saudi Arabia, one of the most influential countries of the Arab and Islamic world and a major regional financial and economic center. Besides, we feel a serious impulse on the part of the Saudi Arabian leadership," ITAR-Tass quoted Prikhodko as saying.
Putin is the highest-level official to visit Saudi Arabia from Moscow. No Russian head of state ever visited the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia and Moscow had full diplomatic relations until 1938, when dictator Josef Stalin closed his embassy in Saudi Arabia to save money. Several attempts to re-establish ties during the 1980s faltered over what Saudi Arabia called the Soviet Union's "belligerent attitude" toward its Muslim population. Muslims make up about 20 million of Russia's 145 million population.
In September 1990, the Soviet Union and the kingdom restored diplomatic relations at the height of tensions in the Gulf resulting from Iraq's August 1990 invasion and occupation of Kuwait. A U.S.-led coalition evicted the Iraqi army, ending a seven-month occupation.
In September 2003, Abdullah, then crown prince, went to Moscow, becoming the most senior Saudi official to visit Russia since then-Prince Faisal, who later became king, visited in 1932.
During Abdullah's trip, Russian and Saudi energy ministers signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the oil and gas industry. The agreement also envisaged joint ventures in oil and gas exploration and scientific research.
Russia is the world's second-largest oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia.
In 2004, Saudi Arabia awarded Lukoil Holdings, Russia's biggest integrated oil company, the rights to explore and produce natural gas in an area known as "Zone A," located near Ghawar, the world's largest oil field.
The trip will also be the first for Putin to Qatar and Jordan. His regional tour comes as Moscow has increased its participation in trying to resolve simmering conflicts in the Middle East.