Vladimir Putin's visit to Saudi Arabia on February 11 was the
first ever for any Russian or Soviet leader. Putin also visited
U.S. allies Jordan and Qatar. Coming from Munich, where Putin
delivered his most bellicose anti-American speech, he further
delineated a Russian Middle Eastern policy at odds with
Washington's in an interview with Al-Jazeera. Putin reiterated
Russia's opposition to the Iraq war and disputed the justice of
Saddam's execution. He was also critical of U.S. democracy
promotion in the Middle East, attributing the empowerment of Hamas
and Hezbollah to January 2006 parliamentary elections promoted by
Washington. At the same time, he justified Russia's refusal to
recognize Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations due to
their electoral victories.
Also during his visit to the Saudi capital, Putin stunned the
world with an offer to sell Saudi Arabia "peaceful" nuclear
reactors. In addition, he offered 150 T-90 tanks and other weapons.
During his Middle East tour, the Russian president indicated
Russia's willingness to sell helicopters, build rocket-propelled
grenade (RPG) factories, provide sophisticated anti-aircraft
systems (the Carapace (Pantsyr), TOR M1, and Strelets), and
sell the Saudis expanded satellite launches and an opportunity to
join the Russian satellite navigation system, GLONASS.
During his visit to Qatar, the third largest natural gas
producer in the world, Putin said that Iran's proposal to form an
OPEC-style cartel of gas producers was "an interesting idea" -after
his minister had dismissed it out of hand-and invited Saudi banks
to open wholly-owned subsidiaries in Russia.
Putin summed up Russia's new foreign policy and Middle East
policy as follows:
From the point of view of stability in this or that region or in
the world in general, the balance of power is the main achievement
of these past decades and indeed of the whole history of humanity.
It is one of the most important conditions for maintaining global
stability and security….
I do not understand why some of our partners [Europe and the
U.S.]…see themselves as cleverer and more civilized and
think that they have the right to impose their standards on others.
The thing to remember is that standards that are imposed from the
outside, including in the Middle East, rather than being a product
of a society's natural internal development, lead to tragic
consequences, and the best example of this is Iraq.
This Realpolitik was praised in Arab capitals, where the
old Soviet anti-Western and anti-Israel stance is still remembered
fondly. King Abdullah I of Saudi Arabia bestowed the King Faisal
Award on Putin, calling him "a statesman, a man of peace, a man of
justice" -quite a turnaround from the jihad against the Soviets
funded by the Saudis 20 years ago during the Soviet occupation of
Afghanistan. It is also worth noting that Saudi Arabia officially
decries the 100,000 killed and 500,000 displaced Muslims in
Chechnya, while private groups based in the Gulf support terrorists
At Odds with the West
A number of factors drive Putin's recent rhetoric and actions in
the Middle East. First, by embracing Middle Eastern monarchies and
Islamist authoritarianism in Iran, he signals Russia's ongoing
movement away from Western norms of internal political behavior.
This has important implications, as 2007 and 2008 are election
years in Russia. Putin is loudly rejecting the American approach of
democracy and human rights, which has stumbled and sputtered in the
Second, Russia is following the Soviet model of opposing first
the British and then the U.S. presence in the Middle East by
playing to anti-Western sentiment in the "street" and among the
elites. Putin's Munich speech, his Al-Jazeera interview, and his
press conferences in Jordan and Qatar solidified the Kremlin's
public diplomacy message, emphasizing its differences with
Third, the Russian leadership is concerned about high Muslim
birthrates in Russia, especially as the Slavic Orthodox population
is declining. Russia is facing an increasingly radicalized Muslim
population along its southern "soft underbelly," particularly in
the North Caucasus, where two Chechen rebellions, even though they
were effectively crushed, led to the spread of Salafi Islam. Many
young Russian Muslims view themselves more as members of the global
Islamic Ummah (community) than as citizens of Mother Russia.
Keeping Muslim powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran at bay,
preventing them from supporting insurgencies in Eurasia, and toning
down radicalization are unspoken but important items on the
Finally, Russia is a high cost oil producer, the largest oil
producer in the world, the largest oil exporter outside of OPEC,
and the largest gas producer. As such, it seeks to maintain high
energy prices-usually generated by tensions and conflicts in the
Middle East. Russia is perfectly willing to sell weapons to both
sides of the growing Sunni-Shia divide. This was evidenced when it
offered the same nuclear reactors and the same anti-aircraft
systems to both Iran and to the Arab Gulf states, which are
increasingly nervous about Iran' s growing military power and
nuclear ambitions. Аs one Russian observer put it, weapons
sales create allies. Russia is using weapons and nuclear reactors
the way imperial Germany used railroads-to bolster influence and to
undermine the dominant power in the Middle East.
What Can Washington Do?
Clearly, the new Middle East-in which U.S. power and prestige
are threatened in Iraq and where Moscow is challenging America's
superpower status-will be a more competitive and challenging
environment. Today's Middle East needs to be viewed with the
realism and toughness that its history and culture require.
The U.S., as a status quo power in the Middle East, should
bolster its relations with pro-Western regimes in the Gulf. While
some weapons sales and business projects will inevitably take
place, only by maintaining a security umbrella in the Gulf can the
U.S. maintain more clout in the region than Russia.
The U.S. should continue dialogue with Moscow on issues of
mutual concern, such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and
destabilizing weapons sales. But more importantly, it should
provide military assurances to Gulf countries against Iranian
encroachment, which Russia is incapable of giving. It should expand
cooperation in the fight against terrorism, which threatens the
Middle Eastern monarchies. And it should be competitive in
proposing cutting-edge economic ventures, an area in which Russia
lacks expertise, while granting access to U.S. capital markets for
After a 20-year hiatus, Russia is forcing its way back through
an open Middle East door. Washington decisionmakers had better take
Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian
Studies and International Energy Security in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.