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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 February 2007, 19:12 GMT
Putin in first Saudi state visit
By Stephen Eke
BBC Russian affairs analyst

Russian President Vladimir Putin
No Russian leader has yet visited Saudi Arabia
Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Saudi Arabia at the start of a Middle East tour that will also take him to Qatar and Jordan.

It is the first time a Russian head of state is to visit these countries, considered allies of the West.

Moscow sees them as key to building new economic, political and even military ties with the Arab world.

Mr Putin is beginning what may be his last major visit to the Middle East as president.

Russian diplomats deny any notion of grandstanding, however, pointing to rapidly growing trade with the region, which in the case of Saudi Arabia, tripled last year.

Military ties?

King Abdullah II of Jordan has travelled to Russia six times over recent years; the Emir of Qatar has also visited.

While talks between Mr Putin, the accompanying Russian businessmen and diplomats, and their Arab hosts, are expected to focus on trade and business, Moscow has cautiously suggested introducing what it calls "military and technical ties" into the equation.

Some Russian commentators have suggested Mr Putin may be about to flex Russia's muscle by visiting countries traditionally considered to be pro-western.

But senior diplomats have played that idea down, stressing that the major factor is the potential market for conventional and hi-tech weaponry they represent.

Russian Sukhoi Su-30MX jet fighters sold to Venezuela
Russian arms - like these Sukhoi jets - could be part of talks

Russia had close links with the Middle East during the Communist era, but the end of the Soviet Union saw it marginalised and struggling to maintain influence.

In recent times, Moscow has built close links with Israel - an enemy in Soviet times - and with Iran, where Russian engineers have built the country's first, controversial, nuclear power station.

Russia's once-close political and ideological links with Syria, the Palestinians and Egypt have taken second place to a much more pragmatic factor - where can Russia make money by selling its machinery and weaponry.


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