May 14, 2007

Russia and the Arabs: A historic comeback?

14 May 2007

IN 1917, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, the October revolution destroyed the Romanov Tsars and Lenin seized power in the Kremlin in one of world history’s most decisive moments.

It is significant that one of Lenin’s first acts as leader of the new Soviet Union was to publish the full text of Sykes–Picot, the secret Anglo–French plot to dismember the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces in contravention of pledges made by Britain to its Hashemite client Sheriff Hussein, king of the Hijaz and leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks. Yet the USSR remained anathema to Britain and France’s vassal Arab kingdoms and republics until, spurned by the US refusal to build the Aswan Dam, Nasser, turned to Moscow for arms supplies to rebuild the vanquished Egyptian Army, the Baathist takeover in Damascus and the fall of Iraq’s Hashemite mornarchy.

The Arab–Israeli conflict predictably escalated into a proxy Cold War battlefield between Washington and Moscow for the next three decades. Soviet arms, military advisers and economic aid buttressed the Baathist regimes in Damascus and Baghdad as well as Algiers and Aden, both regimes whose revolutionary pedigree was defined by protracted guerilla wars against French and British colonialism. Even though Anwar Sadat expelled 20,000 Soviet advisers in exchange for Washington’s patronage and Saudi petrodollars on the eve of the October 1973 war, the Soviet Union’s network of client states in Syria, Iraq, South Yemen and Algeria as well as sponsorship of the PLO enabled it to boost its strategic diplomatic military calculus in the heart of Arab world, accusing Israel and Zionism as agents and ideologies of Western imperialism.

Yet the USSR, despite an embassy in Kuwait, subversion in Oman’s Dhofar war and establishment of the Arab world’s only Marxist Leninist regime in South Yemen, was never able to infiltrate fiercely anti–Communist Saudi Arabia or the Gulf oil states. Nor was the USSR able to prevent the massacre of its Tudeh Party cadres in post–Shah Iran, Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein’s overtures to America in the 1980’s, Algeria’s abandonment of its socialist FLN past and, above all, strategic defeat to the Pakistani, Saudi and American intelligence’s clients in Afghanistan.

The 1990’s saw the virtual abandonment of Russian imperial ambitions in the Middle East. The dissolution of the USSR, hyperinflation and the downsizing of the Red Army, the 1998 rouble banking crisis and America’s success after Desert Storm in building military bases across the Middle East and sole role in the Camp David/Oslo peace process diminished Moscow’s role to strategic irrelevance in Arab politics. Yet if Russia has changed beyond recognition since the autumn of 1991, when the USSR vanished in the dustbin of history, so has the Arab world. Vladimir Putin’s state visits to GCC capitals, arms deals with Iran and Syria, diplomatic support for Hamas and Hezbollah and, above all, criticism of American foreign policy in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon has reinserted the Kremlin as a historic new force in the international relations of the Arab world.

Vladimir Putin, unlike his Soviet predecessors, is unencumbered by ideology in his relationships with conservative Arab monarchies. His state visit to Saudi Arabia was designed to forge a new relationship in energy between the world’s two leading crude oil and gas exporters. The House of Saud has its own strategic rationale for its diplomatic equations with Moscow. Saudi Arabia fears an American defeat in Iraq and a precipitate withdrawal from its regional military commitments under a Democratic President in 2008, leaving Gulf geopolitics to the mercy of a resurgent Shia Iran. King Abdullah has done his best to diversify the kingdom’s diplomatic relations, with new economic ties with India, China, Russia and the Asian tiger economies to accelerate his reform/FDI programme. Just as Soviet patronage enabled Nasser, Saddam, Sadat and Assad to extract concessions from Washington and petrodollars from the Gulf, so a Russian role in broking a peace settlement in Palestine or Iraq is in the best interest of a House of Saud sceptical about over-reliance on Washington. Saudi Arabia has, in exchange, assisted the Russians in fighting the jihadi terrorist networks in Chechnya, Tajikistan and the Caucasus.

Russia is also the Great Power with the most open lines of communications with Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, all sworn foes of the Bush White House. Russia hosted Khalid Meshal in Moscow in defiance of both the US and the EU, who view Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Moscow built the Bushehr nuclear reactor, sold Iran TOR surface to air missiles and written off most of Baathist Syria’s $13 billion Cold War debt. Putin, whose FSB secret agents once assassinated a Chechen rebel chieftain in Doha even visited Qatar, the literal home of America’s Central Command in the Gulf. As in Ukraine and Georgia, Putin hopes to use oil and gas as the new weapon of Russian foreign policy and regional influence. Hence his offer to help Saudi Arabia with nuclear plants, arms sales to most Arab and GCC states, Lukoil and Rosneft’s role in King Abdullah’s Saudi gas initiative.

Putin, who opposed Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, has lashed out at US "unilateralism" and questioned the legitimacy of American occupied Iraq. Yet unlike the USSR, Russia has not severed its ties to Israel (home to one million Russian speakers), sponsored revolutionary challenges to the Arab world’s status quo regimes or jeopardised its strategic partnership with the West to give carte blanche to, say, a nuclear Iran or a rejectionist Hamas. Oil, gas, terror, Chechnya, arms exports and diplomatic prestige have all converged to ensure that Russia is once again engaged in Arab geopolitics.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst

1 comment:

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