|Saudis oil their Russian
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
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
As a major economic power and a founding
OIC member, Saudi Arabia's support may prove key for
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
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