Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi says he is hoping to bolster trade and political ties with Gulf nations as he attends a conference of gas-exporting nations in Qatar – the first visit to the country in 11 years by an Iranian president.

“Iran is one of the founders of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) because we are among the three most important gas-producing and exporting countries,” Raisi said on February 20 in televised comments before he departed for Qatar.

The journey marks the third foreign trip taken by the ultraconservative Raisi since taking office last August.

Experts from the 11-member grouping began meetings on February 20, with ministerial level talks set for February 21 and a summit of heads of state and government set for February 22.

Shi’ite-led Iran has often had difficult relations with many of the Sunni-majority Gulf nations, especially Saudi Arabia as the two compete for influence in the Middle East.

But in recent years, many of the regional countries have sought to boost ties with Tehran.

The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) in December invited Raisi to visit, and Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said on February 19 that the country was looking to schedule a fifth round of direct talks with Iran despite a “lack of substantive progress” in previous rounds on various difficult issues.

Riyadh and Tehran cut diplomatic relations in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following the Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shi’ite cleric.

GECF member states Russia, Qatar, Iran, Libya, Algeria, and Nigeria together account for more than 70 percent of proven gas reserves.

Other members are Bolivia, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela.

The U.A.E., Peru, Norway, Malaysia, Iraq, Angola, and Azerbaijan are observer nations.

With fears in Europe increasing that Russia will invade Ukraine, natural gas prices are near double the level of late 2020.

Source » rferl