Russia demonstrates its listening skills

President of Yemen Ali Abdalla Saleh has become the first Arab leader to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin since the latter's re-election.

On Tuesday, President Saleh, after arriving in Russia on a two-day working visit, was received in the Kremlin. He also held talks with State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. This visit, which would seem to be a routine one at first glance, turned out to be highly significant in terms of understanding Russia's policy in the Middle East.

On the whole, Russia's Middle East diplomacy has taken on a new urgency under Putin. One can now say that Arab leaders have finally reconciled themselves with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the fact that Moscow no longer plays the role the USSR once did. Nevertheless, Russian diplomacy has managed to occupy its own niche in this region.

An active member of the group of the four mediators in the Middle East peace process and a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the G8, Russia must have its own opinion on all the region's problems. However, the principled position of Russian diplomats is that all resolutions and plans for the Middle East must be drawn up with consideration for the opinion of the countries in the region. Not a single, most beautifully worded or financially backed project - whether the point at issue is a peace settlement or democratic reforms - can be implemented if the Middle East countries do not accept it. Initiatives must come from the region, and not be imposed from outside, Moscow believes.

Yemen has been claiming the role of a regional centre of force of late. Recently, Sana set forth a number of initiatives concerning the Iraqi and Arab-Israeli settlement. They do not contain any fundamentally new points that have not already been put forward, for example, by the four intermediaries of the Middle East peace process (Russia, the EU, UN and the USA) or some Arab leaders. For example, Yemen proposes that the occupying troops in Iraq be replaced with international forces under the relevant UN mandate. Yet another proposal provides for the deployment of international forces between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories, and freeing the Middle East from weapons of mass destruction.

However, the fact that the proposals are presented as an official plan requiring some action - response, discussion - is a positive factor, even though they are familiar. More and more Arab states are stating that they are prepared to take an active part in the destiny of the Middle East and do not need externally imposed projects. It is another matter that for some reason Arab leaders cannot coordinate their plans and each of them sets forth similar initiatives, which do not tally with one another. Nevertheless, Arab countries have started revising their positions and are hoping for support on this difficult road. At this stage, it is important for them that they are heard. Although it may seem strange, this can be considered to be the most important thing for the region now - and Moscow is a good listener.

It is safe to say that Russia along with the EU and UN are creating a certain reasonable counterbalance to the USA's active Middle East policy, which is far from always well considered. The Middle East appreciates Moscow's efforts in this direction.

The region's leaders justly link Russia's growing international influence with Vladimir Putin. In order to become closer acquainted with the Russian president, some of them have included Moscow in the annual schedule of their trips abroad.

The Yemeni president is visiting Russia for the second time in the past 18 months, following an official visit in November 2002. Until the turn of the century, it was almost unthinkable that a Middle East leader would make such frequent visits to Moscow. King Abdullah II of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have become exceptions to the rule in the past few years. The King of Jordan paid his first official visit to Russia in August 2001 and then paid working visits to Moscow in November 2001, July, November 2002 and November 2003. Sharon has also included Moscow in the schedule of his annual trips abroad. As premier, he has visited Moscow on three occasions since 2001. For the sake of comparison, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak paid official visits to Russia in 1997 and 2001. He is expected to visit Russia within the next few months.

Perhaps, Russian-Egyptian meetings will become as frequent as Russian-Jordanian or Russian-Israeli ones and other Arab leaders will come to Moscow after Mubarak. The point is that they hope that the balance of forces will be observed in the region and practice shows that this is difficult to achieve without Russia.

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