There is a growing feeling in Europe that Moscow is consciously working towards the establishment of a "gas cartel," stretching from Algeria to Central Asia, to use as a political and economic weapon in its dealings with Europe.
Although the officials of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), which was created in May 2001, claim it to be a talking-shop only and not a cartel-in-the-making, the Europeans are quite wary of its proceedings.
In a recent report by Nato’s economic committee, there is a detailed description of how Moscow has been trying to a draw Algeria, Libya, Qatar and central Asian countries into a Russian-backed cartel, "Opec for gas," which will straddle about two-thirds of the world’s total gas reserves and wield huge control over the gas market.
During the three-day tour that took him to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, Putin consciously worked in the direction of increasing cooperation among the major gas producers, and even openly broached the possibility of the so-called gas-cartel.
"Who said that we rejected the idea of creating a gas cartel? We haven’t rejected anything. I said that it was an interesting proposition. Are we going to create this cartel, do we need it, that’s another discussion," he said while responding to media reports about Moscow’s controversial role in concocting a gas cartel.
Putin’s visit to Qatar, which has the world’s third largest gas reserves after Russia and Iran, was indirectly focused on selling the cartel idea. Whereas, in Saudi Arabia, his main intent was to project Russia as a potential and reliable partner who could provide "cost-effective" military hardware, as well as technological support in the field of telecommunication.
Apart from offering to build the much-desired civilian nuclear-energy technology in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Putin announced that Russia would launch six Saudi-made information satellites for Saudi Arabia this year.
At the same time, he discussed the possibility of selling 150 Russian T-90 battle tanks and an unknown number of Mi 17 helicopters to Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, his team also signed numerous MoUs – ranging from cooperation in the fields of culture, aviation and banking — with the Saudi counterparts.
On the last leg of his tour, with a view to making Russia’s presence felt in the Palestinian issue, Putin went to Jordan to exchange ideas on the subject with King Abdullah II.
Washington’s influence in the Middle East is a blatant reality with which Moscow has been living for decades — though with a visible uneasiness. Putin’s visit was a direct attempt to make inroads there and take full advantage of Washington’s current predicament in Iraq, which has drastically shaken America’s image as a dependable guarantor of security and stability in the region.
The Bush administration’s growing precariousness on the question of its Iraq policy has indubitably created unprecedented anxiety among its close, traditional allies in the region.
In such a shaky scenario, where President Bush is finding it hard to assuage the genuine apprehensions of the regional leaders Putin, being a shrewd player, has made a move to carve a role for Russia in the Middle East political arena.
To achieve this, Putin is even ready to swallow the involvement of some Arab countries’ alleged support to the Chechen fighters.
In fact, during his Middle East yatra, he kept on chanting the unusual mantra of Russia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious complexion, and the role of Russian Muslims in the development of the country.
In its capacity as a member of the Quartet — along with the US, the European Union and the United States — Russia has been involved in the Middle East process, but its involvement has always been eclipsed by the belligerent attitude of Washington, which has close ties with both Tel Aviv and the Arab capitals.
President Bush’s fiasco in Iraq, and his desperation to "show" some progress on the Palestinian issues in the last half of his stint have certainly provided an opportunity to Vladimir Putin to jump into the fray and encroach upon the Americans’ influence in the Middle East.
The apparent success of his recent Middle East visit indicates that Putin’s strategy is working well.
Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.