Putin's visit to the Middle East will not be a mere formality


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya) - Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan February 11-13, an official trip no Russian leader has ever made before (Boris Yeltsin's attendance at the burial ceremony for Jordan's King Hussein in 1999 does not count).

As a result, the visit is expected to be highly productive.

Russian cooperation with the three countries has been given a powerful boost in the past few years under Putin, but unlike previous visits by their leaders to Russia, it will be the Russian president's first trip there.

Jordanian King Abdullah II has visited Russia six times since 2001. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, was in Russia in 2001, and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud visited Moscow in 2003 when he was the Crown Prince.

In fact, the period between 2001 and 2003 was a time of growing political and economic cooperation between Russia and the three Arab countries.

It was also a time of change in the Middle East, marked by the 9/11 tragedy in the United States, the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and the derailing of the Middle East peace process that began in 1991.

The world changed, along with the lineup of forces in the region and the attitude of Middle East countries to one another and to the rest of the world. Above all, they have been forced to confront internal problems previously out of public view.

I am referring primarily to their political reform programs and to the radicalization of Islam.

At the same time, Russia diversified its foreign policy by revising its pro-Western leanings of the 1990s and focusing on internal stability, and by maintaining an ethnic and confessional balance also dependent on the Islamic factor.

Russia has increasingly been positioning itself as an intermediary between the West and the East, although the results of those efforts are not yet clear.

Russian policy in the past few years has been characterized by an unprecedented rapprochement with the Muslim world, efforts to strengthen business ties with Arab countries, and significant initiatives in the Middle East peace process.

The Middle East is learning to trust Russia, as demonstrated by the observer status it was granted in the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 2005, and the establishment of the Russia-Muslim World Strategic Vision Group in 2006.

The Group's goal is to elaborate a common vision of regional crises - the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iran - and to coordinate mutual interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Moscow has welcomed the assistance Islamic countries have given Russian Muslims, provided they do not use ethnic and religious factors against Russia.

On the other hand, Muslim countries need Russian assistance in their struggle against Islamophobia. Some Muslim countries would like Russia to become a counterbalance to the United State in the region.

President Putin has said: "We are not going to compete against any country in any region. Cooperation is what we want. Russia has always had a substantial interest in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East as a whole, because historically it has maintained stable and deep ties with the region.

"We are advancing to new, higher levels of cooperation with some regional countries. We sense the interest of their business communities to develop relations with their Russian partners. We feel that our views on a number of major acute international problems are similar or coincide with the views of regional leaders, as diplomats say."

In other words, Russia will promote its political and economic relations with the countries of the region, including those historically influenced by the West (such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan), on the basis of mutual benefit. Unfortunately, Russia's economic ties lag far behind its positive political relations.

Trade with Qatar stands at $55 million, with deliveries of Kamaz trucks making up $50 million. Trade with Jordan almost tripled in 2005, but is still only $140 million. Trade with Saudi Arabia soared to a record-high $250 million in January-November 2006.

Of the three countries, economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia seems to be the most promising. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Russia have mentioned the possibility of increasing trade to $2-$3 billion, although the intention has not been confirmed officially.

Prospects for cooperation with the other two countries are also bright. For example, Jordan has offered major projects to Russian businesses.

The oil and gas sector and coordination of energy deliveries will be the main venues of bilateral cooperation, although there are interesting possibilities in power generation, transportation, construction, and research and technology, including space exploration.

Military-technical ties, which have become a traditional part of Russia's relations with the region's countries (including Jordan), may become a new element in its contacts with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Therefore, much depends on Putin's visit to the Middle East, which will not be a mere formality or polite gesture.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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