Sunday, January 3, 2010

What Kind of Arabs Does the Youngest Leader of Central Asia Prefers?

The youngest leader in Central Asia, who agreed upon opening Israel embassy at the Iranian border, has actively promoted connections with the Arab world lately. But being in the very center of the “Big game” he is very careful in choosing his partners in the Middle East.

Turkmen and Jordanian leaders

On the 29th of June the Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov paid his first official visit to Jordan. The leader of Central Asian Republic who became a president in February 2007 celebrated his 52-nd birthday in Amman.

King Abdullah and Mr. Berdymukhamedov discussed economic cooperation. The Turkmen president called upon the Jordanians to take part in building a transnational roadway that would link the republics of Central Asia with Iranian ports on the Persian Gulf.

Contrary to the official mass-media of Turkmenistan, the Jordanian press agency Petra informed that the leaders of two countries also discussed “the efforts in reaching stable and true peace in the Middle East” speaking of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For the first time in history the leader of Turkmenistan was discussing this issue, as until recently Ashkhabad distanced itself from the Arab-Israeli problems. In January 2009 Turkmenistan was the only country of Central Asia that didn’t even “notice” the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip.

Berdymukhamedov’s visit to Amman has become a part of the tendency in promoting relations with the Arab world, Jordan in particular, that the new state leader took right after he had come to power. For the last two and a half years the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan became a priority in the Ashkhabad “Arab policy”.

Though diplomatic relations between Turkmenistan and Jordan have been established as early as in 1993 together with other countries of the Middle East, they remained in the embryo state until Berdymukhamedov came to power. In July 2008 the first meeting of two leaders took place in the capital of Kazakhstan. In August 2008 the king of Jordan visited Ashkhabad for the first time in history of relations between two countries. In September Abdullah became the only Arab leader whom Berdymukhamedov called and congratulated with the Ramadan.

A special envoy of the king of Jordan, Abdullah Voriekat, vizited Ashkhabad twice (08.2008 and 02.2009). At the same time the embassy of Jordan was open in Turkmenistan. While foreign ambassadors usually present credentials to the chairman of the parliament of Turkmenistan, this time an exception was made for the representative of the Hashemite Kingdom: in August he was welcomed by president Berdymukhamedov himself. Spearheaded by the leader of the Republic the countries came to the agreement upon creating a bilateral committee on interstate cooperation.

The Arab vector of Ashkhabad

Jordan occupies the leading position in the Berdymukhamedov “Arab policy” regarded by the number of top-level contacts (4 per year). It’s significant that it was at the meeting with the king Abdullah's envoy in August 2008 that the new president of Turkmenistan announced his regional policy calling “the partnership with the Arab countries… one of the main priorities of the Turkmen foreign policy”. Following this statement he has been actively developing relationships with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt for 2007-2009.

In August 2007 Berdymukhamedov visited the United Arab Emirates. In February 2008 the president of this Arab state visited Ashkhabad. In May 2008 the minister of external trade of the United Arab Emirates visited Turkmenistan, in January 2009 the head of the economic department did this as well. Berdymukhamedov granted the new ambassador of the United Arab Emirates an audience, and the parties agreed upon creating a bilateral intergovernmental committee.

The first Arab state that Berdymukhamedov visited after his inauguration was Saudi Arabia. It was a significant step of the new leader of the Islamic Republic, regarding the special status of Saudi Arabia in the Islamic world – being the guardian of the main Islamic relics and the protector of Islam. Then, in April 2007 they reached the agreement concerning the Saudi participation in exploitation of Turkmenistan's oil and gas lot of the Caspian sea. Riyadh promised its assistance to Ashkhabad in medical sphere and HR in the agricultural sector. Parties agreed upon opening embassies.

In October 2007 relations between Turkmenistan and Egypt also started reviving (the Egyptian non-resident ambassador visited Ashkhabad). In February 2008 the deputy minister of foreign affairs of Egypt, Tamer Khalil, came to Turkmenistan. In January 2009 the first international meeting of the Turkmen-Egyptian Committee with participation of the Egyptian minister of international cooperation (also welcomed by the president) took place in Ashkhabad.

Besides, in March 2009 the ambassador of Lebanon was accredited in Turkmenistan for the first time. Several months earlier, in December 2008, the head of the Republic received the vice-president of Lebanese-European “Consolidated Contactors Company” (CCC), Samer Khuri. Since 1950-ies this company was closely connected with FATAH (the members of the Khuri clan originating from the city of Safed in Galilee regarded themselves Palestinians), and since 1990-ies - with the leaders of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Samer Khuri is a CEO of the Palestinian Investment Fund (PIF) that finances various PNA projects. His brother, Wail Khuri, is known for his connections with the Israeli establishment. Notably in the end of the 1990-ies and in the beginning of the 2000 he was a business partner of Yossef Genosar, the former head of the Northern district of Shin Bet, the Israeli Secret Service (1981-84) and ex-representative of three Israeli prime ministers at the negotiations with the PNA chairman Yasser Arafat (1992-96; 1999-2000).

It’s absolutely clear that the contacts with official Beirut, Lebanese and Palestinian businessmen are secondary in the “Arab policy” of Berdymukhamedov. His main partners are Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. All of these are moderate Arab states and are allies of the USA in the Middle East. Moreover, Jordan and Egypt have diplomatic relations with Israel, while the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia secretly maintain economic ties with Israel.

It must be noticed that Berdymukhamedov has no contacts with Syria that is at outs with America and supports Palestinian Islamist organizations (HAMAS and Islamic Jihad). It also comes unto notice that Ashkhabad keeps in touch with the CCC which is linked with the PNA (FATAH, the HAMAS’s adversary), and connected to the Western and Israeli establishment. By the way, the Khuri family whose company has already implemented a large project in Ashkhabad (i.e. the “Olympic city”) is well-known by its highly negative attitude towards Islamic extremists due to its association with the Greek Orthodox church. It is impotant to remind that in January 2009 Turkmenistan was the only state in Central Asia that didn’t show any trace of anxiety concerning the Israeli operation in Gaza Strip against the armed gangs of HAMAS.

Active developing of Turkmenistan's links with moderate Arab countries forms a part of global process that could be nominally divided into three levels: geopolitical, interregional and local.

The Big Game

On the geopolitical level this republic is one of the main objects of competition for political influence and for the energy resources of Central Asia between Russia, the USA, China, the European Union and Iran. It is imposed by the fact that Turkmenistan is the fourth largest gas supplier in the world (after the Russian Federation) in the post-Soviet area. The present “Big game” flare up is caused by the attempts of overcoming energy dependence of the European Union on Russia in the midst of the Georgian-Osetian conflict (08.2008) and the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis (01.2009). For the last 6 month it lead to several of events that draw more international attention to Turkmenistan:
- In March-April there emerged a clash between Ashkhabad and Moscow which made Turkmenistan stop delivering its gas via Russia;
- In April the European Union showed unprecedented thaw in relations with Turkmenistan (the European parliament approved the trade agreement with the Republic, and European Committee opened its representative office in Ahskhabad), but in the beginning of June it laid down unacceptable conditions for partnership in energy sphere;
- In June China took advantage of the Turkmenistan-Russian contradictions and of the delay in dialogue between Askhabad and Brussels and made haste in accommodating Turkmenistan with a loan of $4 billion;
- In April-June Ashkhabad was visited by a number of high-ranking officials of the new US cabinet (Richard Baucher, Richard Morningstar, George Krol), and in June the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan visited Washington (trying to win the American support in the dialogue with the European Union).

The present competition of the world powers for influence in Central Asia is the “Big Game” of the XIX – XX centuries going on after the USSR disintegration. The role of this region depends not only on its resources but also on its strategic location at the borders with Russia and China, Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This “Game” provides favorable conditions for the countries of Central Asia in trading their energy resources, allocation of military and strategic installation of Russia and the USA on their ground and also provides room for maneuver during their sovereignization.

Are Arabs our brothers?

The development of relations between Central Asian republics with the Arab world at the “interregional level” became the inseparable part of the “Big Game”. At the beginning of the 90-ies the Arab countries, following Turkey and Iran, tried to spread their influence upon this region. But Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and even Egypt (with its Al-Azhar University) made the same mistake as Iran did. They used relations with the countries of Central Asia for promoting their religious and political influence. This contributed greatly to the activity growth of the Islamic extreme elements in the region. As a result the governing regimes put development of relations with the Arab world on hold.

The situation started to change at the beginning of the millennium. Due to the tragic events of September 11th and due to the Islamic opposition's activity growth in the Arab countries they refused using Islam as one of the key factors in their Central Asian policy. Its role in the bilateral relations was upstaged on the symbolic declarative level (while the economic partnership and cooperation against the Islamic extremists came to the foreground).

In the meantime the republics of the region started feeling the growing disappointment and even discontent with the behavior of the West. Washington and Brussels discussed strategic role of Central Asia, often reproaching local leaders in the absence of democracy while “investing” little in development of bilateral relations, in economic sphere especially. In the midst of “orange” revolutions in the CIS in 2004-2005, at a time when the president of the Kyrgyz Republic Askar Akayev was dethroned (03.2005), leaders of Central Asia didn’t even view the West as a source of threat. The anti-Western mood reached its climax in the view of the Andijan events in the Eastern Uzbekistan (05.2005). It pushed the republics of the region to the embrace of alternative power centers, not only Russia and China, but also the Arab world.

The chronicles of visits of Central Asian leaders to the Arabian countries since the beginning of the 2000 show the stirring up of relations:

• 2000: N. Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan) – the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority; E. Rakhmonov (Tajikistan) – Qatar.
• 2001: E. Rakhmonov – Saudi Arabia;
• 2004: N. Nazarbayev - Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; I. Karymov (Uzbekistan) - Kuwait.
• 2005: N. Nazarbayev - the United Arab Emirates; E. Rakhmonov – Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.
• 2006: N. Nazarbayev - the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan.
• 2007: N. Nazarbayev - the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Syria; I. Karymov - Egypt; E. Rakhmonov - Egypt, Syria, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates; G. Berdymukhamedov - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.
• 2008: N. Nazarbayev - Oman, Egypt; I. Karymov - the United Arab Emirates; E. Rakhmonov - Algeria, Yemen, Qatar.
• 2009: N. Nazarbayev - the United Arab Emirates; G. Berdymukhamedov - Jordan.

This data shows that strengthening of relations between the republics of Central Asia and the Arab countries started in the 2004-2006 after the two-year break in 2002-2003. One can notice the specific nature of the “Arab policy” of the states in this region.

Kyrgyzstan, being in the state of permanent internal political crisis doesn’t pay any attention to developing relations with the Arab world.
Kazakhstan is trying to conduct "multidirectional” policy, which shows its ambitions to act as the global “intercivilizational” mediator in Asia (it is expressed in Nazarbayev's initiatives of the CICA and in interfaith dialogue Forum). It’s also noticeable that Nazarbayev prefers rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

Tajikistan is not really particular in its connections and has no special preferences. Rakhmonov’s activity in the Arab world comes down to the pleads for economic help for the poor republic.
Uzbekistan, that faced with the destructive Arabian influence in the 90-ies more than its neighbors, is still very careful. Since the beginning of the 2000 Karymov has been visiting the Arabian countries far less frequently than Nazarbayev and Rakhmonov.
Turkmenistan during Niyazov's rule (1991-2006) was in international isolation. In his later years Niyazov went abroad rarely. His successor prefers the allies of the West (Jordan and the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates in particular).

In general the stirring up of relations of the Central Asian countries with the Arab world depends on the following factors:

- The urge of Central Asian regimes to diversify their international connections and gain a foothold in Asia (in the midst of suspicions concerning the West, the desire of getting more independence in relations with the former metropolis and hidden fears of Chinese expansion).
- The urge of the leading Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan) to play more significant role in the Islamic world, in competition for influence with one another and even more with Iran and Turkey. Therefore the Central Asia with its population of 60 million, bordering with the Caucasus, Iran and Afghanistan is worth a lot for the Arab countries.
- The growing role of Islam in national identification of the Central Asian people, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Southern Kyrgyz people especially.

In the midst of the “Big game” and “interregional” policy the activization of relations between Turkmenistan and the Arab countries is highly predictable. But one should also consider internal political factors as well.

Overcoming isolation

At the local level the geopolitical competition flare up in the region and strengthening of connections with the Arabs coincided with the efforts of the new president of Turkmenistan in leading the republic out of isolation. According to the IzRus portal, it is revealed both in internal and external policy of Berdymukhamedov.

The youngest leader of the Central Asian region being in power less that two and a half years managed to accomplish a lot. He has renewed the cabinet; reformed the parliament and conducted parliamentary elections - with participation of the observers from the West, for the first time in history; changed the constitution; restored pension benefits and reformed the education system; started restoring the Academy of science, Opera, rural clinics; permitted opening of Internet-cafes and started introducing Internet at schools.

Herewith Berdymukhamedov raised international activity of Turkmenistan. Firstly, he is more open to the world and he proved that having invited observers to the parliamentary elections in December 2008. For the last year, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, the country was visited by 422 foreign delegations. Secondly, the new president started using the geostrategical potential of his country – its location (at the border with Iran and Afghanistan and close to China) and its giant resources of natural gas, in much more flexible way. The careful separation of Ashkhabad from Moscow is being shaped now, in favor of Beijing and the Western capitals.

On the 29th of June in the light of all these factors the head of Turkmenistan visited Jordan for the first time. In the nearest future one should expect the further consolidation of connections with the moderate Arab countries, which doesn’t exclude promoting relations with Israel as well (all the more so in the midst of activity of the new Israeli Minister of foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman at the post-Soviet region).