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By Katya Golubkova and Olesya Astakhova
MOSCOW May 15 Middle East crude producers played down the threat of a competitive battle with Russia over Asian markets at a Moscow energy conference on Thursday, even while Russian comments emphasized its push to the east.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told ministers from OPEC countries including Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Iran and Kuwait and some former Soviet states at the 14th International Energy Forum that Moscow would play an active role in Asian markets.
"Energy producers will target these countries," Medvedev said. "Cooperation with the Asia Pacific (region) is important to us not only from the prospect of the future and existing market but also from the point of speeding up development of our country."
Russia for years has been negotiating to sell more oil and gas to Asia and planning new pipelines. The Kremlin has recently stepped up the efforts to shift eastwards as Russia has been hit by trade sanctions in the worst stand-off with the West since the Cold War over the Ukraine crisis.
OPEC countries, meanwhile, have also been looking more to Asian markets as demand has fall from the United States due to its boom in shale oil and gas output.
Saudi Arabia, which said this week it would step in to cover any potential shortage arising from the Ukraine crisis, played down suggestions that Russia could hurt its competitive position.
"Every one knows that (growth is in Asia), that's true, but that doesn't mean that there is no demand in the rest of the world," Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi told reporters in Moscow.
"Russia has its customers, we have our customers. There is no threat (to our supplies)."
The main focus is on China, where demand for liquids is forecast to grow by 8 million barrels per day (bpd) to reach 18 million bpd in 2035, surpassing the United States in 2029, according to BP.
Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to visit China next week and hopes to sign a gas deal.
Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) together account for around half of the world's total oil output.
Relations between Russia and OPEC came unstuck in 2008, when the cartel urged Moscow to support its decision to limit oil exports to push up global prices from around $40 per barrel. Moscow did not support the move.
Medvedev jokingly asked those attending to raise their forecasts for the price of oil during a survey at the event.
"Here is a tool lying at the table, via which as I understand you will later determine the price for energy resources, including oil ... Try to raise it," he said.
Earlier this week, Naimi said OPEC should maintain its current output cap of 30 million bpd when it comes up for review at the group's meeting on June 11 in Vienna.
On Thursday, Naimi described current oil prices as "fair, excellent for everybody".
OPEC also faces the problem of accommodating rapidly rising oil output from Iran and Iraq, both aiming to restore full output after sanctions and civil strife.
These two countries see themselves as special cases because of production lost to sanctions - Iraq for decades under Saddam Hussein to 2003 and Iran over the past two years for its nuclear programme.
Iran's oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, said he hoped OPEC countries would make room for its oil production.
Asked whether he thought OPEC members would cut oil production to make room for Iran, Zanganeh told reporters: "I think they will do it, I am sure they will do it. They have told me directly face-to-face that they will go along with us and make room for Iranians."
Zanganeh also said Iran, despite being under Western sanctions, would increase output and exports this year and next, and that over the next three to four years, Iran's mid-term plan was to increase production to 5.7 million bpd of oil and condensate.
Saudi's Naimi, when asked to comment whether his country was ready to cut production to make room for Iran, pointed reporters to the Iranian oil minister. "Go and ask him," Naimi said, refusing to comment further. (writing by Elizabeth Piper and Katya Golubkova; editing by Jane Baird)