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Saudis oil their Russian ties
By Sophie Lambroschini

MOSCOW - 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 (OIC).

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abdullah held their first talks on Tuesday. Before the meeting, Putin said Russia regards Saudi Arabia as a key Muslim state.

Oil, though, 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 Abdullah to begin talks with the Russian Oil Ministry on Monday.

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, Russia's 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 Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries members are eager to probe their competitor's intentions regarding international oil prices, as Russia is not a member of OPEC. Russian officials have repeatedly offered their oil as an alternative to OPEC's. But Saudi authorities may be hoping to persuade Russia to join forces with OPEC in price negotiations with consumer countries such as the US and the European Union states.

Russian and Saudi officials on Monday signed a five-year agreement on cooperation in the oil and gas sector. Although Russian energy majors such as Gazprom have long sought such partnership deals with Saudi Arabia, O'Sullivan says the 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 aimed at 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 World War II, and remained frosty for decades after. Riyadh was angered by the Soviet presence in East Africa and by the Afghanistan invasion, and kept relations on ice even in the final days of the Soviet collapse.

But when Moscow and Riyadh both showed their support for Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion in 1990, their formal hostilities "began to look absurdly anachronistic", said 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 September 11, 2001, and the subsequent "war on terror". Some say that the US 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 won't 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-old 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 OIC, a body of 59 countries.

In a page-long press release published in the 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 in effect 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, 'Don't think you'll be seceding from Russia. That would be against our principles. Russia has Islamic status and you can only exist as a part of [Russia].'"

Russia's OIC membership bid is expected to be discussed next month during the body's next assembly. Russia will be present as an observer.

Copyright 2002, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036.
Sep 4, 2003

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