Putin prowls the Middle East
in competition with the U.S.
By Anatoly Medetsky
The Moscow Times
A division of The New York Times
President Vladimir Putin will visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan next month, the Kremlin said Tuesday, for a trip likely to focus on oil and gas, arms sales and terrorism.
The trip, from Feb. 11 to 13, will be the first to those countries by a Russian leader since tsarist times. Last week he visited India, and over the past year he also has paid state visits to South Africa, Algeria, Germany and Finland.
The wide variety of destinations makes Putin look something like the late Pope John Paul II, said Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Middle East Institute, a think tank. "He's as original in his choice of countries as the predecessor to the current pope," he said.
Frequent trips to unexpected corners of the Earth are natural for the president of a country that wants to be a leading world power, Satanovsky said. "He travels to work, just like the leaders of Germany, France and the United States," he said.
By going to Qatar, Putin will also symbolically close the book on a rift between the two countries that occurred when Qatari authorities convicted two Russians of killing former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in a car bombing in 2004.
Putin, whose trip will start in Saudi Arabia and end in Jordan, spoke by telephone with Jordanian King Abdullah II to discuss the visit to the country and to congratulate him on his 45th birthday Tuesday, the Kremlin said.
Jordan's king, Saudi King Abdullah and Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani have all traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin. Putin's return visits will come at the invitations of those leaders, the Kremlin said.
Neither the Kremlin nor the Foreign Ministry released details of Putin's planned trip, but Igor Ivanov, the chief of the Security Council, shed some light on it at a news conference late Tuesday.
Ivanov said Russia had in recent years expanded cooperation with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, especially in the area of security. In these two countries, Putin is expected to sign several agreements on business and culture. Putin will also discuss cooperation in energy and railways, Ivanov said. LUKoil and state company Saudi Aramco have been prospecting for gas in the country, and Russian Railways is participating in a tender to build a $2 billion railway there.
Gazprom, no doubt, keeps an eye on Qatar, which has the world's third largest reserves of natural gas, after Russia and Iran.
Putin's visit could increase the likelihood of more Russian companies doing business in the country. "We so far are unable to work there in earnest. We are only trying to do so," Satanovsky said. "Usually, a presidential visit helps to break through the wall. In the East, personal contacts decide everything."
Any deals, however, might irk the United States and other Western countries that have close ties with Saudi Arabia.
Ivanov said Putin would discuss possible arms deals with the Saudi and Qatari leaders. "I can't guarantee that any contracts will be signed, but the talks will be substantial," he said.
In Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the visit and the possible agreements would show that relations between the countries have advanced, Interfax reported. He did not elaborate on the agreements.
Saudi Arabia is in talks to buy T-90C tanks, a defense industry source said Monday, Interfax reported. Russia has recently bolstered ties in the region, delivering weapons to Syria and Iran.
Qatar, home to the U.S. regional command in the Gulf area, and Saudi Arabia previously have bought their arms from the United States, France and Britain.
In Jordan, Putin will have political consultations about regional issues in which the leaders will "share their views," Ivanov said.
Earlier Tuesday, Ivanov held talks with his Saudi counterpart in preparation for Putin's meeting with the Saudi king in Riyadh. The security chiefs spoke about joint efforts to fight terrorism and reviewed global energy security, a statement from Ivanov's office said.
Saudi Arabia and Russia, the world's first- and second-largest oil producers, respectively, could agree to coordinate their supply tactics to maintain high prices, said Vitaly Naumkin, a Middle East expert at the Oriental Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Such an agreement would help to improve relations with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, of which Saudi Arabia is a leading member, Naumkin said.
First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Saturday that Russia should overtake Saudi Arabia in terms of output in the near future. If that happens, the two countries could jointly make sure that Russia's larger output does not topple prices, Naumkin said.
Ivanov and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, chief of the Saudi National Security Council, also discussed the Middle East crisis, the Iranian nuclear program and the situation in Iraq. They "agreed that it was necessary to search for peaceful, diplomatic settlement of regional crises," the statement said.
Putin's visit will come weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Saudi Arabia and, as the Saudi Foreign Ministry said on its web site, won support for U.S. President George W. Bush's new plan to stop violence and achieve national unity in Iraq.
Staff Writer Nabi Abdullaev contributed to this report.