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U.S. allies in the Mideast consider their options as Russia’s Putin visits the Gulf

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, right, meet at the Saudi Royal palace in Riyadh on Monday. (Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Riyadh on Monday for his first state visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in more than a decade, emphasizing not only coordination between three of the biggest oil producers in the world but also Moscow’s growing influence in the Middle East.

The timing may be especially fortuitous for Putin. President Trump’s announcement last week that the United States would be pulling out of northeast Syria, as well as his equivocation over the conflict with Iran, has left many traditional U.S. allies in the region nervous.

Some, such as the Syrian Kurds, already argue they have been abandoned, but the wider implications are still being felt in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and even Jerusalem. Notably, Russia maintains relations in all those cities, even as it works with rivals in Tehran, Damascus, Syria, and Ankara, Turkey, and faces U.S. sanctions.

“We build bilateral relations that rely on positive trends generated by our contacts; we do not build alliances against anyone,” Putin said in a joint interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, Sky News Arabia and RT Arabic that aired Sunday.

Putin’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE marks his first state visits to the countries since 2007. It shows continuing warming ties between Russia and the two Gulf States, which were traditionally Western allies with little ties to Moscow during the Cold War and which, until recently, maintained relatively modest trade links.

It is part of a strategy that puts Moscow at the center of Middle East politics. Putin recently announced he intends to visit another U.S. ally, Israel, early next year. Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia to meet with Putin last month, just days before a bitterly contested election.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Israel, had viewed the Trump presidency as a chance to reinvigorate their relationship with the United States. But while they appeared to favor Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and other world powers, as tensions across the Persian Gulf grew, there were increasing doubts.

A crippling attack on key Saudi oil facilities last month raised new questions about Saudi Arabia’s ability to protect itself, even with its expensive relationship with the United States and the masses of U.S.-made weapons it buys. The United States announced Friday it would be sending 1,800 troops to Saudi Arabia, but the president emphasized the financial aspect of the deal.

“Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing,” Trump told reporters. “That’s a first.”

The announcement that troops would be sent to Saudi Arabia came as U.S. forces were abruptly pulled out of northeastern Syria, allowing a Turkish offensive that threatened to devastate Syrian Kurds, who had been instrumental in the fight against the Islamic State.

The U.S. pullout resulted in a last-minute agreement between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Kurdish forces, once on opposing sides of Syria’s long-running civil war. Since an intervention in 2015, Russia has been allied with Assad, providing air power and other support in an often brutal conflict.

Russia had played a key role in three days of negotiations that led to the agreement between the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a primarily Kurdish military alliance in Syria’s northeast, a Kurdish intelligence official told The Washington Post.

Moscow has good relations not only with the Kurds and Syria, but also with Turkey. Though Turkey is a member of NATO and an ally of the United States, Russia began deliveries of its S-400 missile defense system to Turkey in the summer, hastening a spat between Ankara and Washington, which suspended Turkish involvement in the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program in response.

The S-400 system is considered one of the most advanced missile defense systems in the world, but most U.S. allies have avoided purchasing it for fear of angering Washington. Last month, after the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, Putin jokingly suggested at an event in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the kingdom should have purchased the weapons.

“The political leadership of Saudi Arabia just needs to make a wise state decision,” Putin said, pointing to the purchase of the S-300 missile system by Iran and the S-400 missile system by Turkey. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, also in attendance at the event, was shown smiling after the remark.

Russia ultimately remains far weaker than the United States in a variety of ways. Its economy has suffered greatly under sanctions, and it has suffered a number of humiliating military setbacks in recent years; even its vaunted S-400 system remains untested in real life.

But with longtime partners Syria’s Kurds finding themselves at odds with Trump’s Middle East plans, and even those with many friends in Washington such as Israel’s Netanyahu unsure of their footing, allies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE may see Russia as a more reliable alternative — even if it is opposed to the United States and allied with many of their own rivals.

In his interview with Arab media outlets on Sunday, Putin emphasized the positives of his relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE but made no secret of his government’s ties to Iran and Syria. He said that while his government did not need to mediate, it could play a role.

“What you can do is maintain a friendly conversation with them and present some ideas from a friend’s perspective,” Putin said. “I am convinced that as highly intelligent people, they listen and analyze everything they hear.”