Russia is also building a nuclear reactor in Iran amid an international standoff with the West, which suspects that the Islamic republic is seeking nuclear weapons. Iran denies this charge.

 

"Russia is determined to enhance co-operation with the Islamic world," Putin told a forum of Saudi and Russian businessmen on his first visit to Riyadh.

 

Saudi Arabia, a staunch Cold War ally of Washington, rolled out the red carpet for Putin, whose country's oil output is exceeded only by the Islamic kingdom's.

 

King Abdullah on Sunday hailed him as "a statesman, a man of peace, a man of justice".

 

Chechnya question

 

Putin, whose country has been trying to restore its international clout,

"Russia is determined to enhance cooperation with the Islamic world"


Vladimir Putin, the Russian president

set the stage for his three-nation Middle East tour with a scathing attack on Washington's foreign policy, describing US dominance as "ruinous".

  

He told businessmen in Riyadh that Russia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country where Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully, and that the country had experience in promoting co-operation between ethnic groups and religions.

  

"Russia is bent on pursuing this approach in all regions, including the Middle East and the Arab Gulf," he said.

 

He apparently made no mention of Russia's military campaigns that have killed thousands in the mainly Muslim breakaway province of Chechnya, which has been wracked by conflict for most of the last 12 years.

 

Putin brought along Mintimir Shaimiyev, the leader of the mostly Muslim region of Tatarstan, who received from Abdullah the King Faisal International Award for Service to Islam, an annual prize worth $200,000.

 

During a meeting on Sunday, Putin and Abdullah "discussed the full range of developments on the regional and international scenes, chiefly ... the Palestinian issue and the situation in Iraq," official Saudi media reported.

  

Putin's visit came amid increasingly open Russian criticism of Western policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Moscow describing as "counter-productive" the boycott of the elected Islamist-led Palestinian government.

 

Middle East peace process

 

King Abdullah, who hosted talks in Mecca last week that led to a breakthrough Palestinian national unity accord, said Russia had an important role to play in achieving Middle East peace through its position as one of the processes sponsors.

 

Putin, whose government is anxious to sell weapons to a country that has traditionally relied on Western manufacturers, also met on Monday with Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the crown prince and defence minister.

 

A diplomatic source has said that Putin's talks are expected to lead to a "verbal understanding" on the sale of about 150 Russian T-90 battle tanks to Riyadh, which is seeking to diversify its defence systems.

 

King Abdullah stressed the importance of the world's two top oil producers cooperating to keep world markets stable after prices soared late last year only to drop back sharply.

 

Putin is now in Qatarwhere he is meeting the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani.

 

Qatar has the world's third largest reserves of gas after Russia and Iran, and analysts said Putin was likely to discuss proposals for a gas version of the oil cartel Opec.

 

He is then due to travel on to Jordan, where he will meet King Abdullah II and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.