The new Moscow seeks sheiks for arms deals

RUSSIAN Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin arrived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Nov. 22, as Moscow seeks to broaden its ties with Middle Eastern sheikhdoms hitherto seen as Western client states.

The third stop on this unprecedented Russian tour, Abu Dhabi, had an undisguised purpose - to make money.

``A more active Russian policy in this particular region is not an accidental event,'' said Gudev Viktorovich, a top foreign ministry official, before Mr. Chernomyrdin set off. ``The immense economic and financial potential concentrated there ... could be to the economic benefit both of Russia and the states in the region.''

Chernomyrdin visited Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in mid-November, and Oman is to be the stage of a major bid to attract investment and find customers - mainly for Russian water-desalination plants and weaponry.

Traditionally, the Soviet Union armed its regional allies Iraq and Syria, who often paid in kind rather than in cash, while the conservative Gulf kingdoms relied on the United States and Western Europe for defense needs.

Moscow managed to break the Western stranglehold recently with the sale of an undisclosed number of armored personnel carriers and multiple rocket launchers to Kuwait. And officials here say they have high hopes of selling weapons to the UAE, which long has had a large appetite for arms.

But the competition is tough, especially in a market where the United States, Britain, and France have pressured governments to repay their moral debt to the West for freeing Kuwait by buying billions of dollars' worth of weapons from them.

Chernomyrdin must also overcome the political reservations of his hosts, who are suspicious of Russia as an Iraqi friend, and oppose any move to lift United Nations sanctions against Iraq while President Saddam Hussein is still in power in Baghdad.

Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has been toiling to get such sanctions lifted, because of Iraq's potentially lucrative market and its $7-billion debt to the Russian government.

As part of that campaign, Mr. Kozyrev earlier in November won formal Iraqi recognition of Kuwait's right to exist. Moscow would enjoy a little financial appreciation from its new Gulf partners for this, which Mr. Viktorovich called ``the cornerstone of the entire post-crisis settlement in the Persian Gulf area.''

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