Shared Oil Markets for Wahhabist Missions in Central Asia
Narrow yet significant tradeoffs will be on the table when Russian president Vladimir Putin visits Riyadh Feb. 11-12 for talks with Saudi leaders. It will be the first state visit to the oil kingdom by an incumbent Russian president.
They will toss back and forth limited and cautious understandings on how to divide up Europe’s oil and gas markets between them, in return for a measure of Russian non-interference in the dissemination of Saudi political and religious influence in the Muslim oil republics of Central Asia.
They will also discuss Russian arms sales to the desert kingdom, including the Russian T-95 tank, which is thought to be under development.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Moscow sources report the Kremlin is scrambling to lend Putin’s Saudi trip the historic dimension of a summit between the heads of two great oil powers. Putin and Abdullah will no doubt talk about US president George W. Bush’s revised strategy for Iraq and Iran’s nuclear aspirations. But in practical terms, the visit is not expected to yield very much, even though Saudi Arabia and Russia certainly have common interests and a mutual desire to promote them together.
They include oil, Middle East peace, Iraq, Russia’s objections to, and Saudi reservations on, the Bush administration’s Iraq and Middle East policies, as well as Iran’s nuclear program and international Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
But, although those interests were first outlined when Abdullah visited Moscow as crown prince four years ago, nothing developed between the two governments in the interim.
The Kremlin has not taken advantage of America’s difficulties in Iraqi to develop any alternative recipes of its own.
The Saudis, for their part, are fond of declaring themselves open to broadening ties with important global players such as Russia, China and India. But when it comes to the crunch, they stick to their time-honored ties to Washington and fall in behind US Middle East regional policies.
Even as the world’s biggest oil producers, Russian-Saudi interests diverge.
The Saudi and Russian leaders will certainly trot out a commitment to a stable world oil market. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s oil experts say that such declarations mean very little. The Saudi commitment to market stability and reasonable oil prices is genuine and traditional, going back two generations of royal rule. As the dominant member of OPEC, Saudi Arabia, like the cartel, accepts that its ability to dictate quota and pricing strategies is contingent on Washington’s energy policy and that of US oil companies.
Putin wants to keep oil prices high, Abdullah prefers stability
Russia, in contrast, owns an interest in keeping prices high.
Moscow has caused considerable pain in recent months by pushing up the price of Russian gas piped to Europe via former Soviet republics.
Therefore, Abdullah and Putin cannot be expected to come to understandings on prices and output. Where they may find common ground is in agreement on how to carve up world oil markets between them. For instance, Riyadh may agree to give Russia its head in oil and gas transactions with Europe by staying out and refraining from dumping cheap Saudi oil products on that continent.
Abdullah will exact a price for his non-interference in Russia’s oil trade in the coin of Moscow’s non-interference in the spread of Saudi Arabia’s political influence and its state religion, the Wahhabi Sunni faith, among Central Asia’s Muslim oil republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan (gas) and Azerbaijan.
The Saudis are anxious to check Iranian Shiite penetration of these strategic countries, but they know their limitations. Their ambitions in Central Asia are necessarily modest, given the intricate web of interests at stake.
For one thing, American companies allied with Saudi Arabia are masters of the oil piped from Central Asia to Europe. For another, the hands of such powers as Russia, Iran and China are thrust deep in the political affairs of this volatile region. China, which is maneuvering hard for a foothold in the region’s oil and gas industries, is the fastest growing market for Saudi oil.
Pushing too hard for influence in the oil republics of Central Asia could therefore cost the oil kingdom dear in other fields. Therefore, any understandings reached by the Russian president and Saudi monarch on oil and Central Asia will be of limited scope.
They also share little common ground on the Middle East peace issue. While Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet, the United States rules the peace brokerage front, leaving Russia far behind as wielder of clout with Israel and the Palestinians.
Even Moscow’s arms sales to Syria and establishment of a big Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Latakia have not bought Putin extra leverage in potential Syrian-Israeli peace talks.
King Abdullah will do his best to enlist the Russian president to the international effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear schemes, but stands little chance of success. Feelers have gone out to the Kremlin ahead of the presidential visit to test how far Putin is willing to go on the Iranian issue for the sake of expanding Moscow’s ties with Riyadh.
Expectations consequently dipped.
The Russian tank that never was
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources note the only area in which Russian-Saudi cooperation has taken off in recent years is the war on Islamic terrorism. The Saudis have partly made good on their 2003 pledge to cut off the flow of funds to Chechen rebels and other Islamist extremist groups in Russia. If asked, the Saudis may agree to enforce further restraints.
Saudi rulers may also issue a statement of intent regarding their first ever purchases of Russian weapons.
By tradition, Saudi armed forces use Western systems. Since last summer, bilateral discussions have been in progress for the sale of an estimated 300 Russian T-95 battle tanks and a quantity of Mi-17 helicopters. The Russian state arms export company Rosoboronexport has sent several teams to Riyadh to promote the sales. The tank’s suitability to desert conditions has been scrutinized by Saudi arms experts.
But the tank itself is an enigma or a phantom.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that no Western military authority has any information about the T-95. The Russians claim to have produced a small number for testing, but no trials have been credibly reported. Moscow has never released so much as a photograph of the T-95. Therefore, American intelligence sources suspect that the new tank is still not far off the drawing board and Putin proposes to hard-sell it for the purpose of procuring Saudi orders to finance the project’s further development.
The Russian president has higher expectations from his trips to Qatar and Jordan than his talks in Riyadh, according to our sources in Moscow.
He believes he can establish close rapport with their rulers and so open up new paths for Russian influence to penetrate the region, especially in the Persian Gulf emirates which for Moscow are virgin territory. The Russian president sees new horizons there for Russian entrepreneurs and economic opportunities.
For Saudi rulers, Putin’s visit is important to showcase their dynamic foreign policy and blur their image as an American protectorate. But, notwithstanding its global dimension, the Russian president’s Riyadh visit may not be counted on to yield policy departures either Russian or Saudi. Neither is ready to make the major concessions that would lead to a strategic turnabout in the relationship.