THE ARABIAN TOUR

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Moscow does not intend to play by Cold War rules in the Middle East

President Vladimir Putin’s trip to Saudi Arabia and Qatar was the first visit by a Russian head of state in the history of Russia’s diplomatic relations with these countries. It indicates that Russia’s political and economic dialogue with the Arab monarchies is being taken to a qualitatively new level.


President Vladimir Putin’s trip to Saudi Arabia and Qatar was the first visit by a Russian head of state in the history of Russia’s diplomatic relations with these countries. It indicates that Russia’s political and economic dialogue with the Arab monarchies is being taken to a qualitatively new level.

It is worth noting that back in 1926, Soviet Russia was the first state to recognize the unification of Arab lands under the power of the Saudi dynasty. Unfortunately, and contrary to common sense, diplomatic relations between Moscow and Riyadh were completely frozen from 1938 to 1991. Talk of warmer bilateral relations didn’t start until 2003, when then-Crown Prince (now King) Abdallah visited Moscow and signed a five-year energy sector cooperation agreement. It is good to see that Russian-Saudi cooperation is developing successfully now. There is the Russian-Saudi Business Council, for example, representing the interests of the largest companies in Russia and Saudi Arabia. These days, everyone can see the strategic benefits of partnership between Russia and Saudi Arabia in resolving problems such as achieving peace in the Middle East, countering international terrorism, maintaing stability in the petroleum market, providing religious and humanitarian contacts and cooperation between citizens of the same faith in both countries.

President Putin moved on from Riyadh to Qatar, and then to Jordan. The small Arab state of Qatar is the world’s third-largest producer of natural gas, after Russia and Iran (producing around 15%). Thus, cooperation with Russian gas companies, especially Gazprom, seems very promising. There were some suggestions, of course, that Putin’s visit to Qatar would include a discussion of Iran’s controversial “gas OPEC” proposal; but according to presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko, that issue is not on the agenda. “There is little prospect of establishing a full-fledged organization like OPEC,” said Prikhodko. It would only be a matter of coordination and cooperation in the gas sector, in terms of exchanging information about modern technologies.

The third country visited by President Putin was Jordan. Unlike Saudi Arabia or Qatar, it is not rich in natural resources – but Russia has closer historical links with Jordan. King Abdullah II has visited Russia six times in the past few years, and trade turnover is rising steadily, along with the Russian business community’s interest in the Jordanian market. Russian companies are prepared to participate in developing and modernizing Jordan’s rail and pipeline networks, and building thermal and hydro-electric power stations and oil refineries.

At the political level, Moscow – being a Quartet member and maintaining close contacts with all participants in the Mideast conflict – seems like an ideal mediator for confidential negotiations: between the Arab states and Israel, for example, or the Arab states and Iran. A number of intra-regional disputes seem unresolvable at present, largely due to the lack of negotiation mechanisms. Saudi Arabia proposes Mecca as a negotiation venue; Jordan proposes using its capital, Amman; Syria proposes using Damascus; and the Iranians are only prepared to negotiate on their own territory. There are too many dividing lines in this troubled region of the world – not to mention the nightmare scenario in Iraq.

Guided by its own geopolitical and economic interests, Russia is striving to stabilize the situation, reconcile opposing sides, and establish economic cooperation with all states in the Middle East. In this respect, there is a clear and advantageous difference between Moscow’s position and the position of the United States. But America’s policy is backed up by aircraft-carrier armadas in the Persian Gulf, a network of military bases, and a contingent of 150,000 troops in Iraq. It would be stating the obvious to say that the Arab countries are extremely tired of such intrusive “guardianship.” They would be glad to see Russia emerge as an alternative to America’s pressure and dictates. But Moscow does not intend to play by Cold War rules in the Middle East.

Does that leave Moscow with any room for maneuver, and can “pure diplomacy” become an alternative to military pressure? Moscow appears to realize that every significant move it makes into Mideast markets will have to overcome substantial competition (including non-economic competition) from the “dominant force” – the United States. All the same, Russia has just made another move: this is clearly and unambiguously indicated by the fact and the route of President Putin’s Middle East tour.

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