|PUTIN’S VISIT TO THE MIDDLE EAST WILL
NOT BE A MERE FORMALITY
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna
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.
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
In fact, the period between 2001 and 2003 was a time of
growing political and economic cooperation between Russia and the three
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Therefore, much depends on Putin’s visit to the Middle East,
which will not be a mere formality or polite gesture.
expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily
represent the opinions of the editorial