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Putin, flanked by Russian fighters, jets into Middle East to meet Saudi’s MbS

President Vladimir Putin was escorted to the Middle East by four Russian fighter jets on Wednesday for a rare trip abroad, during which he will discuss oil, Gaza and Ukraine with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Putin’s meeting with the prince known as MbS comes after oil prices fell despite a pledge by OPEC+, which groups the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and allies led by Russia, to further cut output.

The Kremlin chief’s plane was flanked by Sukhoi-35S fighter jets, which the defence ministry showed flying beside his Ilyushin-96 aircraft from Russia to the United Arab Emirates.

In Abu Dhabi, President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan welcomed his “dear friend” and UAE jets greeted the Kremlin chief with a fly-past trailing the colours of Russia’s flag.

“Our relations, largely due to your position, have reached an unprecedentedly high level,” Putin told him. “The UAE is Russia’s main trading partner in the Arab world.”

The Russian delegation includes top oil, economy, foreign affairs, space and nuclear energy officials.

Putin said Russia and the UAE cooperated as part of OPEC+, whose members pump more than 40% of the world’s oil, adding that they would discuss the Israeli-Hamas conflict and Ukraine.

After the UAE, Putin is due to travel to Saudi Arabia for his first face-to-face meeting with MbS since October 2019. His last visit to the region was in July 2022, when he met Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran.

It was not immediately clear what Putin, who has rarely left Russia since the start of the Ukraine war, intends to raise specifically about oil or geopolitics with the crown prince of the world’s largest crude exporter.

The trip to meet MbS, just days after a key OPEC+ meeting was delayed, appeared rushed. One source had told Reuters beforehand that MbS had plans to visit Moscow.

Putin, who last visited the region in mid-2022, is due to host his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Thursday.

The Kremlin said that as well as oil, Putin and MbS would talk about the war between Israel and Hamas, the situation in Syria and Yemen, and issues such as ensuring stability in the Gulf, while an aide said Ukraine would also be discussed.

Putin and MbS, who together control one-fifth of the oil pumped each day, have long enjoyed close relations, though both have at times been ostracised by the West.

At a G20 summit in 2018, just two month after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate, Putin and MbS high-fived and shook hands with smiles.

MbS, 38, has sought to reassert Saudi Arabia as a regional power with less deference to the United States, which supplies Riyadh with most of its weapons and which is the world’s top producer of oil.

Putin, who sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022, says Russia is engaged in an existential battle with the West – and has courted allies across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia amid Western attempts to isolate Moscow.

Both MbS and Putin, 71, want – and need – high prices for oil – the lifeblood of their economies. The question for both, is how much of the burden each should take on to keep prices aloft – and how to verify the burden.

President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Abu Dhabi