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Russia's president will visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan
Russia's president will visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan at the invitation of the Middle East countries' leaders February 11-13, the Kremlin press service said Tuesday. Energy projects and the situation in the Middle East are expected to dominate Vladimir Putin's agenda in the Arab nations. It will be the first visit by a Russian leader to Saudi Arabia in the history of bilateral relations. Diplomatic contacts between the two countries, severed in the 1930s, were restored only in 1990 but remained fairly inactive. In September 2003, the current Saudi King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, then crown prince, paid a visit to Russia, which marked a revival of bilateral ties. Russia, home to 20 million Muslims, has recently taken a course toward rapprochement with the Islamic world, and was granted observer status in the 57-nation Organization for the Islamic Conference (OIC) in December 2005. Vladimir Putin's two-day visit to Saudi Arabia, which has substantial clout in Islamic countries, is significant considering that both nations are the world's two leading oil producers. In January 2004, Russia's top private crude producer Lukoil won a tender to develop the 29,000-square-mile (11,200-square-mile) Block A natural gas field in the Rub el Hali desert in Saudi Arabia. Lukoil signed a 40-year contract with the Saudi government to explore and develop the natural gas deposit. Russia's energy giant Gazprom is also showing interest in energy projects in the country. In 2003, Russia and Saudi Arabia began discussing a gas initiative of Prince, now King, Abdullah to develop Saudi Arabia's gas sector with Russia's assistance. The total value of all projects was estimated at $20-25 billion. Also in 2003, the two countries signed a framework agreement on oil and gas cooperation. In the same year, Russia and Saudi Arabia signed an oil and gas agreement that provided for joint control over oil supplies in order to maintain oil prices at an acceptable level. Apart from energy projects, the Russian leader and the Saudi king are likely to discuss the situation in another Muslim nation, Iraq, whose U.S.-led invasion Moscow has consistently opposed. Unlike Russia, Saudi authorities have hailed U.S. plans to reinforce the military contingent and have even been reportedly considering a military presence in Iraq, whose Sunni minority they support. Qatar, the second leg of Putin's trip, is also an interesting energy partner for Russia. The Middle East nation controls the world's third-largest gas reserves of 11.2 trillion cubic meters while Russia's Gazprom is the world's largest gas producer. The countries established serious contacts during Putin's presidency in the past few years when senior Russian trade and diplomatic officials expressed their commitment to energy cooperation. Unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Jordan does not have any substantial oil or gas resources but it hosts many Russian oil companies, which had contracts in Iraq and had to move to neighboring Jordan following the U.S.-led invasion. The two countries are mulling geological exploration in Jordan and joint projects in Iraq, as well as the construction of a new pipeline from Iraq to Jordan. Jordan's geographical location also makes it an important hub in the zone of interests of large Russian companies operating in the Middle East and connected to potential markets and middlemen, with access to Israel, Syria, Iraq and northern Saudi Arabia.
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