View from Dubai: Time to look East

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

WASN’T it the British politician, Benjamin Disraeli, who argued that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in the world of diplomacy, only permanent interests? The late British prime minister should know. For there is no other nation that has practised the mantra with greater success and panache than the British.

Watching Saudi Arabia roll out the red carpet for President Putin of Russia last week, I was reminded of England’s first Jewish prime minister and his earthy wisdom. King Abdullah canonised the former KGB chief and martial art expert as a ‘man of peace and justice.’ Nothing wrong with that, of course. Except Saudi Arabia happens to be a staunch ally of the United States and this is the first ever visit by a Russian leader to the home of Islam.

Saudi Arabia refused to have diplomatic relations with Russia or the late Soviet Union for its treatment of the large Muslim population in the country and neighbouring Central Asian republics. It was not long ago that Saudi Arabia had supported and encouraged the decade-long resistance against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Without doubt, the Afghan jihad, actively supported by both Saudi Arabia and America, played a critical role in bringing down the Soviet empire. But things are changing now. And how.

Clearly both Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the world’s largest oil producing nations, are in a hurry to make up for the last time. So it was no coincidence that just ahead of his visit to the Middle East, Putin unveiled a blistering attack on the US leadership accusing it of inflaming the Middle East and undermining world peace with its clumsy handling of Iraq. Don’t be surprised if Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Arab-Muslim world and oil producing nations, today is seeking defence cooperation with Russia. Moscow will also launch six telecommunication and remote sensing satellites for Saudi Arabia later this year. But what really takes the cake in this budding relationship is Putin’s offer to help Saudi Arabia develop nuclear energy. What is going on? The world is changing folks. That’s what is going on. And about time too. The Arab and Muslim world has depended for far too long on its traditional allies in the West. And what has it got in return? Only contempt and wanton indifference to their concerns and problems.

In fact, most of those concerns and problems are a legacy of our Western friends who through their long association with and colonisation of the Middle East have transformed the cradle of the world civilisation into the battleground of big powers. I hate going on and on about the Palestinian dispossession and how it makes the Middle East and greater Muslim world politically and psychologically volatile. It’s an undeniable reality though that the continuing suffering of Palestinian people remains the single source of Muslim anger and growing extremism around the world. The Arabs and Muslims find it hard to ignore the fact that colonial powers played a decisive role in driving the Palestinians out of their homeland to gift it to the Jews, a people historically persecuted across the Christian Europe.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shockingly politically incorrect as he may sound, has really got a point when he demands to know why should the Palestinians and Muslim world pay for the wrongs committed by the West.It’s hardly a state secret how the victors of the World War I and II divided the greater Middle East among themselves over the last century. Winston Churchill of Britain is said to have drawn up the map of the new Middle East on a breakfast napkin at the Yalta summit of 1945 with FD Roosevelt of United States and Joseph Stalin of Soviet Union. The Arab and Muslim world continues to pay a daily price for that mutilation at the crossroads of history on a daily basis. From the ever-festering Palestine-Israel conflict to Lebanon civil war to the current mess in Iraq, which one of our problems is not the legacy of the big powers?

The Arab and Muslims have got nothing but condescension and derision from the West for their genuine friendship and fawning admiration. The least the Arabs could have got was a note of acknowledgment, if not gratitude, for the critical role their oil has played in the West’s —indeed the world’s —economic progress and development. Instead all they’ve got is relentless exploitation and old- fashioned conspiracies.In fact, it was this mindset that originally forced the Saudis and Iranians to sever their economic ties with the manipulative British in the beginning of the last century and reach out to the new world power, America, in the first place. The two oil producing neighbours had got sick and tired of sheer dishonesty and the games played by British oil companies in their dealings with the simple and uninitiated leaders of the two countries. Unfortunately, the Arabs’ experience with Uncle Sam despite their uninhibited admiration for all that America stands for —or once did —has been equally disappointing. The Arab regimes’ political, emotional and strategic dependence on the US over the past half a century or so has only made this relationship all the more complex and frustrating. This has encouraged and emboldened the US to take its Arab allies for granted while constantly appeasing their bete noire Israel.Which is why the Arab and Muslim world needs to make some bold and strategic decisions and choices, and soon, to introduce a much-needed equilibrium in their relationship with the world powers. The Middle East has to gradually and decisively curtail its hopeless dependence on the West in general and US in particular. This is in their mutual interest and necessary for the long-term health of their relationship. The world is undergoing dramatic changes. And as our friend Tom Friedman of the New York Times insists, it is not a flat world anymore. It will not forever remain a US-controlled and West-dominated world. The new Russia under comrade Putin with its new money to splurge has not only got its old, superpower confidence back, but it is keen to play a more assertive role on the world stage. On the other hand, the emergence of new Asian players like China and India with their incredibly-fast booming economies and rich human resources has forced the whole world to sit up and take notice.

The Arab and Muslim world would ignore these historic changes at its own cost. It has to break free of its American and Western fixation. The Arab countries must not only diversify their economies from oil and gas but also reach out to new and more dependable allies and friends in nations such as Russia, China and India. It is time to look East. Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries have already taken some tentative steps in this direction.

King Abdullah’s very first foreign visit after taking over as the leader of the world’s largest oil producing nation took him to China and India last year. Saudi Arabia has already clinched some major energy cooperation deals with China and is planning to build a major storage-refinery facility in the country. This is encouraging. But as the leader of the Arab-Islamic world, Saudi Arabia will have to do more to make its foreign policy less US-centric. And others in the neighbourhood must follow suit. They must evolve a foreign policy that is more nuanced and balanced, in tune with the phenomenal changes that are taking place around them. This is the least they can do to salvage their dignity and independence. Never again must the Arabs and Muslims put all their eggs in one basket. That’s not good diplomacy. And it’s risky too. They must do everything possible to cut their dependence on big players altogether and look inwards for solutions to their problems. The Makkah peace summit of the last week that brought peace to the Palestinian Territories —and the Taif peace accord before that, in 1989, put an end to the civil war in Lebanon —have demonstrated that the Arabs and Muslims are capable of solving their own problems. They only have to try.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at aijaz@khaleejtimes.com

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