On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his 1,500-person entourage joined Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in a landmark visit.
The leaders of two of the world’s energy superpowers struck a deal on weapons sales during the historic visit and also discussed extending a pact to curb oil production.
While diplomatic visits like this aren’t unusual, what makes this one particularly noteworthy is that until very recently, Washington D.C. stood alone as the diplomatic destination for leaders in the middle east like King Salman.
The Israelis and Turks, the Egyptians and Jordanians — they’re all beating a path to the Kremlin in the hope that Vladimir Putin, the new master of the Middle East, can secure their interests and fix their problems.
Russia had been a major power in the Middle East during the Cold War, and at the time, had armed Arab states against Israel. When communism collapsed, so did the country’s power in the Middle East which gave rise to U.S. diplomatic dominance in the region.
American power in the middle east is noticeably diminished currently, which is a testimony to Russia’s intervention in Syria after Putin shored up support for President Bashar al-Assad after the U.S. insisted for years that Assad needed to go.
Things began to change in 2013, when President Obama decided not to attack Assad. U.S. policy makers had grown preoccupied with developments in Asia, and the American people had grown tired of seemingly endless wars in the Middle East.
But by 2015, Putin had sent in troops to defend the Syrian leader. At the time, the United States’ allies in the region were all firmly against Assad, and were disillusioned when the U.S. military wasn’t deployed to end his reign.
“It changed the reality, the balance of power on the ground,” said Dennis Ross, the former chief Mideast peace negotiator for the U.S., and former advisor to several presidents including Bush and Obama. “Putin has succeeded in making Russia a factor in the Middle East. That’s why you see a constant stream of Middle Eastern visitors going to Moscow.”
With America’s absence, Russia’s power grew in the region and for evidence, one need only look at Turkey.
Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had spent years urging America to act against Assad, said that talks with the U.S. “couldn’t get any results.”
Turkey recently joined Russia and Iran to de-escalate the Syrian conflict, and Erdogan says the union is “achieving a result.” This is a far cry from two years ago when the tension between Putin and Erdogan threatened to boil over after the Turkish military shot down a Russian jet on the Syrian border. And now? Putin flew to Ankara for dinner with his “friend” Erdogan just last Friday after Turkey agreed to buy Russian S-400 air defense missile systems in a move that ruffled the feathers of fellow NATO members.
The rise of Russia in the Middle East is a story that will undoubtedly continue to develop. As America’s commitment to its alliances in the region weaken, the Kremlin will continue to gain ground.