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Russia: Saudi State Visit To Moscow Forges New Ties Based On Oil, Global Politics

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz today began a three-day state visit to Moscow -- the first by a Saudi leader since 1932. The visit appears to reflect Russia's growing stature on the global oil market. But the trip may also signal both countries' quests for new roles in international politics.

Moscow, 2 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and Saudi Arabia are taking steps to strengthen relations after a break of some 75 years. This week's three-day state visit by Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is set to cover issues ranging from oil cooperation to the Middle East, Iraq, and Russia's bid to join the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Abdullah held talks today. Before the meeting, Putin said Russia regards Saudi Arabia as a key Muslim state.

Oil is high on the agenda. Russia is now the world's second-largest oil exporter, second only to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi arrived ahead of Crown Prince Abdullah to begin talks with the Russian Oil Ministry on 1 September.

Oil and gas specialist Stephen O'Sullivan heads the research division of the United Financial Group investment fund. He says Abdullah's visit is in recognition of Russia's 11-percent increase in production so far this year.

"Clearly over the past two or three years, Russias influence over the world oil market has risen dramatically -- essentially, in proportion to its growing production," O'Sullivan said. "And the visit of the Saudi crown prince is just a reflection of that."

O'Sullivan says OPEC members are eager to probe their competitor's intentions regarding international oil prices. Russian officials have repeatedly offered their oil as an alternative to OPEC. But Saudi authorities may be hoping to convince Russia, a fellow producer country, to join forces with OPEC in price negotiations with consumer countries like the United States and the EU states.

Russian and Saudi officials today signed a five-year agreement on cooperation in the oil and gas sector. Although Russian energy majors like Gazprom have long sought such partnership deals with Saudi Arabia, O'Sullivan says today's agreement may also clear the way for smaller companies who may until now have considered Riyadh "too difficult" to do business with.

This week's state visit is not only about oil. Abdullah's trip is repairing bilateral ties forged in 1926, when the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize the Saudi Kingdom. But relations were severed ahead of the second World War, and remained frosty for decades after. Riyadh was angered by the Soviet presence in east Africa and the Afghan invasion, and kept ties on ice even in the final days of the Soviet collapse.

But when Moscow and Riyadh both showed their support for Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion in 1990, their formal hostilities "began to look absurdly anachronistic," according to Igor Timofeev, a historian specializing in the Middle East.

Diplomatic relations were restored in 1992. But many observers agree that the true reunion came only a decade later, in the aftermath of 9-11 and the subsequent war on terror. Some say the U.S. offensive in Iraq may have Riyadh -- which is suspected of harboring Islamic extremists -- worrying about its own future. Timofeev says Abdullah's visit may be a way of shoring up Moscow's support: "There are already threats. You have the example of Iraq. We wont analyze here how everything happened [in Iraq], but we know that it happened by [circumventing] the United Nations. And in order for something like that not to repeat itself and to avoid similar risks, Saudi Arabia needs support among well-respected countries like Russia, the [EU states], India, and China."

With this in mind, the Saudi leader will attempt to reassure Putin that Saudi charities provide no support to Chechen rebels in their four-year war with Russia.

Riyadh is not the only possible benefactor. Closer ties with Saudi Arabia would also improve Russia's standing in the Islamic world. Last month, Putin announced that Russia may seek to join the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), a body of 59 countries.

In a page-long press released published in today's "Vremya Novostei" daily, Saudi Information Minister Fouad al-Farsi appeared to give his backing to Russia's OIC bid. The press release said, in part, that Moscow's membership would "stimulate Russia's contacts with the Muslim world."

As a major economic power and a founding OIC member, Saudi Arabia's support may prove key for Russia.

Formally, Russia is not eligible for OIC membership because its 20 million Muslims account for less than 25 percent of its population. But Moscow may still find a persuasive argument for joining the OIC -- which, according to Timofeev, would effectively cut Chechen separatism off at the knees.

"It is a well-known fact that territorial integrity is a condition [of membership in] the Organization for the Islamic Conference," Timofeev said. "This means that if Russia joins this organization, 59 Muslim countries will be telling the Chechens, 'Dont think youll be seceding from Russia. That would be against our principles. Russia has Islamic status and you can only exist only as a part of [Russia]."

Russias OIC membership bid is expected to be discussed in October, during the next assembly of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Russia will be present as an observer.