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Russia: Putin Uses Gulf Trip To Boost Russian Role In Arab World

(RFE/RL) February 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It is rare for foreign leaders to be received in such pomp in Saudi Arabia, but Russian President Vladimir Putin was greeted by King Abdullah himself.

Putin brought along a sizable entourage: the head of the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, Aleksei Miller; Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, a number of other oligarchs, and some high-ranking Muslim officials.

Most important of those was Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev and Vagit Alekperov, the head of the petrochemical giant LUKoil and the only Muslim among the Russian oil magnates. In keeping with local tradition, all female members of the delegation and journalists wore chadors specially tailored for the visit by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Putin completed his historic three-day visit to the Middle East on February 13, after visiting Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan.

Talks Behind Closed Doors

On the surface, no big agreements were reached, although Yakunin did pledge to build a railway between Mecca and Medina.

Addressing Saudi businessmen and financiers, Putin called on them to open Saudi banks in Russia. Putin also promised that Russia would help Saudi Arabia develop a national nuclear program as well as launching several Saudi satellites in addition to the seven already boosted into orbit by a Russian missile in 2005.

For their part, the Saudis promised to allow LUKoil and other Russian companies greater access to Saudi energy projects and to continue talks on buying Russian arms, including the advanced T-90 tanks.

Although the majority of the talks were behind closed doors, many Russian observers believe that the two sides were discussing a future energy strategy -- in particular, plans for a gas cartel.

Gas Cartel

That was the focus of Putin's trip to the tiny Qatar, which is the third-largest producer of natural gas after Russia and Iran.

The plans for such a gas cartel, which first emerged during Putin's visit to Algeria in 2005, are still on the drawing board, but it potentially could include Russia, Qatar, Algeria, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela.

Speaking at a press conference in Qatar on February 12, Putin repeated his earlier statement that a cartel is "an interesting idea," but said that there would be difficulties in making it happen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh (TASS)

Many experts would agree that a gas cartel is an unlikely proposition. Gas differs from the oil in that it is not traded on the stock exchange. And, unlike oil, it is usually sold on long-term contracts that eliminate price fluctuations.

Nevertheless, Russia and other countries who would likely be involved in a gas cartel will probably continue to float the idea as a way of exerting political leverage against the West, which is unnerved by such a proposition.

The Arab Gulf states have traditionally been among the staunchest allies of the United States and largely on the periphery of Russian interests.

Russia had virtually no relations with Saudi Arabia throughout the 20th century. Saudi Arabia did not want to deal with an atheistic Soviet Union, which suppressed Islam. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Saudis supported the Afghan resistance. And Saudi Arabia has been accused of supporting resistance fighters in Chechnya.

New Cold War?

Relations thawed after the visit of Abdullah, then crown prince, to Moscow in 2003. Abdullah established personal relations with Putin and the two countries, the world's biggest exporters of oil and gas, started to discuss cooperation in energy and other fields.

But Russia's interest in Saudi Arabia goes beyond just economics. For Russia, with its 20 million Sunni Muslims, Saudi Arabia, as the spiritual center of the Sunni world, is important for Moscow in terms of balancing its relations between Sunni and Shi'a forces, such as Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas.

Putin's visit comes after his confrontational speech in Munich, which some commentators said revived the spirit of Cold War.

If relations between Russia and the West did descend into a new Cold War, it is perhaps worth remembering one of its lessons. One of the reasons the West won the Cold War was by building a strong coalition, which at the final stage included the majority of the Arab world. Now Putin is doing his best to have the Arab world on his side.

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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