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Russia Leaves U.S. in Shifting Sands When it Comes to Middle East Policy

 By Richard Walker

With America bogged down in a costly war in Iraq, Russia has been busy rekindling old friendships in the Islamic world and establishing important economic links with some U.S. allies in the Mideast, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In January 2008, confirmation that a Russian company was awarded close to $1 billion for constructing a railway across Saudi Arabia did not grab the headlines, yet it was further evidence of how Moscow had successfully
wooed the Saudis. Behind the scenes, there was even talk of bigger deals involving the Saudis and major Russian arms exporters.

Under Vladimir Putin’s presidency, Russia has cleverly restructured its outreach to the Islamic world and the Middle East in particular. When Putin visited Saudi Arabia for the first time in 2007 he articulated what had already become a new Russian realpolitik based on economic strategy. He
pointed out that Russia and Saudi Arabia were the world’s largest energy producers and that made them partners rather than rivals. He stressed that it was easy for the two countries to find what he called “common ground” and he pointed to the fact that as far back as 2004 economic cooperation had become the cornerstone of their relationship.

In that year, the giant Russian oil company, LUKoil, won a 40-year contract to develop a massive gas field in the ar-Rub al-Khali Desert. He told Saudi leaders LUKoil’s investment plan amounted to $2 billion but it was possible to forge cooperation on many other fronts, including nuclear energy.

Putin’s visit encouraged Saudi companies to invest in Russia, and that led to a proposal for a Saudi-Russian bank. For close observers of the Middle East, the Russian strategy of establishing economic links was at the heart of a policy that was aimed at not just competing with U.S. economic dominance in the region but overtaking it at a time when America’s image across the Islamic world was at an all-time low.

Suddenly Russia was seen as having no political agenda in relation to Islam, and that perception was helped by Russia’s determined efforts to avoid conflict with most Muslim nations. Putin’s advisers constantly stressed that Russia was respectful of Islamic traditions. On issues like Iraq, Russia appealed to religious leaders on both sides to end the killing, so as not to be accused of taking sides.

Meanwhile, Russia’s arms exporters and its nuclear energy companies continued to seek new clients. Recently, Moscow, much to the anger of U.S. companies, not only agreed to sell Egypt new air defense systems but to help it build nuclear power plants. And if the U.S. and British oil giants thought they had managed to keep Russian competitors out of Iraq, they were sadly mistaken, because LUKoil, as well as a major Russian engineering firm, may soon sign contracts with the Iraqi government to drill for oil and rebuild a pipeline from Iraq into Syria.

Russia’s most startling economic realignment from its Cold War period has been its growing economic relationship with Israel, and while that has been happening, Moscow has been careful to call for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian issue, without siding only with the Palestinians, as it did in the past.

Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, which officially ends next month, Russian trade with Israel has doubled, amounting to over $3 billion, and much of that has been due to the fact that major deals have been done in the fields of medicine, engineering, energy, aviation and weapons.

On a visit to Israel in 2005, Putin was quick to point out that there was everything in place for the two nations to construct a major partnership. At that time, he was aware that Russian-born Jews, who had been allowed to leave Russia after the end of Communism, made up 20 to 25% of the Israeli population. Many of those Jews still had links to Russia and held joint Russian-Israeli passports.

What Putin did not mention was that some of Israel’s richest men were of Russian origin and had used their Israeli passports to flee Russia to avoid corruption charges.

Irrespective of outstanding warrants for some billionaires, Putin accepted, as did his Israeli hosts, that the two countries had much to gain, especially in terms of energy. By then, it was clear Israel’s dependence on Russian oil and gas had grown annually. Israel appealed successfully to Moscow to persuade Turkey, which received Russian oil and gas supplies, to consider a joint venture with Israel to build a two- or four-tier pipeline that could also carry water and electricity from Turkey to Israel.

In 2007, an agreement in principle was reached with Turkey for the construction of a pipeline from Turkey into Israel. The U.S. was happy about that proposed arrangement, believing the involvement of Turkey created a buffer between Israel and Russian energy giants whereby it would not be easy for Moscow to shut off oil or gas to Israel in the event of a political crisis. Nevertheless, Israel’s ties to Russia are bound to remain strong, given the annual trade between the two.

Richard Walker is the nom de plume of a former news producer.

(Issue # 14 & 15, April 7 & 14, 2008)

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