Russian president Vladimir Putin is a busy man. In the last little while, he has spoken to, or met with, a whole array of Middle East leaders.
Indeed, the road to Moscow is increasingly well-travelled, while the one to Washington is far emptier these days.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken 11 times on the phone with Putin over the past year and only three times with U.S. President Donald Trump, according to a tally of the calls reported on their respective websites.
While Netanyahu has visited Moscow four times in the past year, he has visited Washington twice since Trump was elected president in 2016.
For Israel, setting ground rules with Moscow over their part in the Syrian civil war is of the utmost importance. The two countries keep in constant touch, lest one mishap gets them embroiled in conflict.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of a country that is a member of NATO, in the past year has spoken 20 times on the phone with Putin and only seven times with Trump.
Erdogan’s decision to purchase Russia’s advanced S-400 missile system, which Moscow says will be delivered next year, is a sign of the times.
Other leaders of countries who have traveled to Moscow this year include Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
He chose Moscow over Washington for his first and so far only official overseas visit – in fact the first ever by a Saudi monarch to Russia.
His crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, now the effective ruler of the kingdom, met with Putin at the recent Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Russia has refrained from criticizing Saudi Arabia or the crown prince over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. The murder has sorely tested the kingdom’s relations with the United States, other Western nations, and Turkey.
The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, flew to Moscow to meet with Putin on the eve of his visit to Washington in April, earning a rebuke from the Trump administration.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, one of the seven polities that constitute the United Arab Emirates, declined an invitation to Washington this spring.
But, though a U.S. ally, he traveled to Moscow in June, his seventh trip in five years, signing a strategic partnership agreement with Putin.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in October made his fourth visit to Moscow, compared with one to Washington. He signed a strategic partnership agreement with Putin, marking a shift of a U.S. ally toward Russia.
All of this illustrates the personal rapport Putin is establishing with Middle Eastern leaders.
Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria has given Putin perhaps the single biggest boost, as he has managed to ensure the survival of President Bashar al-Assad, who at the time seemed doomed to defeat at the hands of his enemies.
Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri also favors a greater Russian role and has visited Moscow several times in recent years.
“Russia has managed to create the perception in the Middle East that it is more powerful, more capable and more relevant than the United States,” asserted Riad Kahwaji of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, based in Dubai, another of the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s not how much power you have. It’s how you use it. The United States has all these troops and bases, and Russia has a fraction of that. But Russia uses its power more effectively.”