Russia is looking to its Middle Eastern neighbours to help it recover from sanctions – and is finding Arab states eager to scale up economic ties.
A host of Arab ministers showed up to the St Petersburg International Economic Forum on Thursday, indicating that even as sanctions bite the Russian president Vladimir Putin is still able to draw friendly Arab governments to visit.
While Russia’s deputy industry and trade minister Viktor Evtukhov said no significant governmental representatives from the European Union attended the event, he emphasised that Middle East states had sent “everyone”, including “top-level representatives and mid-level representatives”.
Arab ministers were keen to pitch for Russian business and to stress their political support for the country.
Mounir Abdel Nour, the Egyptian minister of industry, trade and investment, who attended the conference, said: “Russia is a reliable partner – unlike many other countries.”
Mr Nour and Alexy Miller, the ceo of Gazprom, discussed increasing Russian liquid natural gas deliveries to Egypt at the conference, the company said in a statement to Bloomberg.
The Arab Republic of Egypt, as the country is formally known, counted the Soviet Union as a key ally under the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser from 1956 to 1970.
Ali Khalil, the Lebanese finance minister who is part of the Hizbollah-associated Amal movement, said he saw a need for “a strengthening of … Russia’s political role in the Middle East”.
Mr Khalil also offered to broker a trade of Lebanese vegetables for high-tech Russian equipment.
Imad Fakhoury, the Jordanian minister of planning, was somewhat more circumspect: “It’s a multipolar world today, and we are living in the 21st century. Jordan has … good relations with both western and eastern countries.”
Zayed Al Zayani, the Bahraini trade minister, said he “would like to see Russia use Bahrain as a basis for Russian investments in the GCC and Middle East”.
“There are a lot of synergies that exist between Russia and Bahrain and we believe that it is time to explore these.”
The chairman of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, Abdullatif bin Ahmed Al Othman, said that he met Alexander Novak, Russia’s minister of energy, who agreed with Mr Al Othman that “a breakthrough should be achieved in Russia-Saudi relations”.
Mr Evtukhov said that the enthusiasm of Arab ministers for closer relations was “very pleasant to hear”.
“There is pressure on economic players to stop their cooperation and contracts with Russia … so we’ll develop ties elsewhere,” he said. “Russia and the Arab world have had a long relationship.
“Russia-Middle East relations … will become the top priority of Russian foreign policy in the next few years,” he predicted.
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