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Putin in landmark visit to Saudi Arabia
Published: Sunday February 11, 2007
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by Lydia Georgi

Russian President Vladimir Putin kicks off a Middle East tour, seeking to enhance ties with traditional US allies in the region after launching a scathing attack on Washington's foreign policy.

Putin arrives in Saudi Arabia Sunday before heading to Qatar and Jordan on a three-day trip aimed at bolstering energy and military links in a region where US influence has been uncontested since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The visits will be the first by a Russian president to the three Arab states and follow Putin's landmark Middle East visit in 2005, when he travelled to Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian territories.

On the eve of his departure, the Russian leader attacked the United States as a reckless "unipolar" power that has made the world more dangerous by pursuing policies that have led to war, ruin and insecurity.

"The United States has overstepped its borders in all spheres -- economic, political and humanitarian and has imposed itself on other states," Putin said at a conference on security policy in Munich.

Such a situation "is extremely dangerous. No one feels secure because no one can hide behind international law," Putin said. US dominance, he said, was "ruinous".

"Local and regional wars didn't get fewer. The number of people who died didn't get less, but increased... We see no kind of restraint, a hyper-inflated use of force."

The United States, he said, had gone "from one conflict to another without achieving a fully-fledged solution to any of them."

The speech added to tensions between the Kremlin and the United States, which have grown after a period of relative rapprochement in the 1990s.

Boosted by his country's oil wealth, the Russian leader has tried to restore Moscow's international clout, making common cause with fellow critics of the United States, notably Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and maintaining a traditional friendship with Iran.

Putin will spend Sunday and early Monday in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of King Abdullah before travelling to neighbouring Qatar, which holds the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world after Russia and Iran.

Putin then heads on Tuesday to Amman, where he is due to hold talks with King Abdullah II and also Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who has just hammered out a unity government deal with Hamas aimed at ending a deadly power struggle.

The Amman talks have an important strategic character as Jordan is the only Arab state other than Egypt to have signed a peace treaty with Israel and is a key to regional stability.

However, Putin's visit to Saudi Arabia looks the most likely to yield concrete results.

Decades of Saudi suspicion about Moscow's intentions in the Middle East have given way to warming relations, with the two sides recently discussing the sale of Russian T-90 battle tanks and Mi-17 military helicopters -- the sorts of arms Riyadh has traditionally bought from the United States.

Putin and King Abdullah are expected to sign a number of agreements during the visit, including accords on trade and counter-terrorism.

Relations have been hampered in the past over Moscow's claims that Riyadh was turning a blind eye while Saudi Islamists supported rebel fighters in Chechnya.

The trip is also notable as a step towards Middle East states closely allied with the United States rather than Syria and Iran, traditional Russian partners that Washington regards as state sponsors of terrorism.