Armenia Explores Diplomatic and Economic Prospects in the Arab World

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Despite all the internal and external challenges plaguing the country now, Armenia is flexing its nascent diplomatic muscles around the world. In some cases, other countries are approaching Armenia because they have interests in the Caucasus. It remains to be seen how Armenia’s inexperienced leaders will take advantage of the developing relations, balancing one country’s interests against the others and pursuing its own agenda through the trials and tribulations of international politics.

One of the untapped fields for Armenia in terms of international relations has been the Arab world, where large diasporan communities have existed since the Genocide a century ago.

During the Soviet period, the central government made sure to assign ethnic Armenians to its embassies in Arab countries. However, since Soviet foreign policy was guided more ideologically, Moscow’s interests were different than Armenia’s today. Since independence, Armenian leaders have viewed and treated Arab countries through the prospective of the Soviet rulers as backward and part of the third world. It took some time to awaken to the fact that business opportunities were shifting to the Arab world despite turbulence in the region. First world countries like France and the US are making overtures there; branches of the Louvres and the Guggenheim are opening in Abu Dhabi.

Also neglected by Armenia’s leadership was the high standing of the Armenian communities in Arab countries. Unlike the Turks, Muslim Arabs appreciated and respected the creative and hardworking Armenians living with them.

Despite the distorted views presented by the Western media, countries like Iraq and Syria were dynamic, viable and self-sufficient nations, if not paragons of democracy in Western eyes. The governments and peoples of those countries held in high regard the Armenians and their contributions to their respective societies.

Egypt has played a pivotal role in the Middle East, always wielding great influence throughout the Arab world. Although few in numbers in a large country with a population of 102 million currently, Armenians there have played an important role in politics, the economy and education since Nubar Pasha served as prime minister in the 19th century.

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With the booming of the oil industry, the focus of economic activity has shifted to the Gulf region. Armenians from other Arab countries have gravitated to that region to play the same role as they had in other Arab countries.

Turkey recognized before Armenia did where the action was and developed its business in the region, while influencing those countries culturally through its media. Because of those activities, Egypt, for example, had become a hub of anti-Armenian propaganda, through its news media and academic publications. Fortunately, that trend was reversed when Turkey had a standoff with Egypt over Libya and hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey and Azerbaijan had their way in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (formerly Islamic Conference), where the Nagorno Karabakh conflict was presented as a religious war between Christians and Muslims. Through such a misrepresentation of the truth, they won over fanatical countries like Pakistan, which sent its pilots to Azerbaijan during the 44-Day War. The organization was founded in 1969 in Saudi Arabia and it has 57 members. Incidentally, Armenia’s former foreign minister, Eduard Nalbandyan, while serving as ambassador to Egypt, was able to allow Armenia to become an observer member to the Islamic Conference.

In a belated reaction, Armenia’s new government is awakening to the importance of the Arab world and, in particular, to the value of the affluent countries of the Gulf region. It was its former president, Armen Sarkissian, who had the vision to open up connections with those countries. He first visited the Gulf countries and then became the first Armenian statesman to set foot in Saudi Arabia on December 26, 2021.

Riyadh had not established diplomatic relations with Armenia since the latter’s independence. During a meeting with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known by the acronym MBS, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, he lay the groundwork for establishing diplomatic relations with that oil-rich country. Sarkissian had a large circle of friends amongst the ruling classes of many countries in Europe and the Middle East. The current administration in Armenia failed to capitalize on that resource to promote the interests of their country, for the short-sighted reason that Armen Sarkissian was appointed during the Serzh Sargsyan administration. Following that same logic, they refused to consult consummate diplomats like Eduard Nalbandyan and Vartan Oskanian, despite the paucity of seasoned ambassadors in the country.

Instead, they rely on their own cronies, notwithstanding their inexperience in statecraft.

However, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan took a positive initiative by traveling to Qatar on June 13, along with a large delegation. Pashinyan was received by Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in the latter’s office at the Amiri Diwan. The Armenian delegation signed a number of memorandums of understanding in the fields of health, education, science investments and media.

Simultaneously, Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan has held phone conversations with his counterpart in Saudi Arabia, Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, to follow up Sarkissian’s diplomatic initiatives.

Such rapprochements were made possible mostly because of Turkey’s waning influence in the region; Saudi Arabia has been the top contender to be the leader of the Sunni world, a position coveted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had a fallout with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. In the meantime, a controversy developed between the Gulf countries, headed by Riyadh and Qatar. Mr. Erdogan threw his support on the side of Qatar, further exacerbating relations with Riyadh. Through Washington’s good offices, a crisis was averted and now, Mr. Erdogan is kowtowing to the Saudi prince to entice him to invest in Turkey and maybe salvage that country’s collapsing economy.

Along with plans to develop relations with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Armenia cut an aviation deal with Sharjah to launch its own national airline through a joint venture with Air Arabia, based in Sharjah.

The Arab world presents a variety of opportunities as well as serious risks. Armenia’s government must exercise caution and circumnavigate those pitfalls. One such risk was how to balance relations between the Arab countries and Israel. But that risk has already been abated, because Washington was able to twist the arms of the Arab side to sign the Abraham Accord between Israel and the Gulf countries.

Just recently, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett paid an official visit to the Gulf region. Although Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal diplomatic relations, they are cooperating with each other unofficially.

Since the beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab countries had been supporting their Palestinian brethren through funds and arms. But since these potentates survive at Washington’s pleasure, they had to abandon the Palestinian cause to save their own seats of power.

For a long time, Armenia hesitated to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel so as not to alienate the Arab countries, which hosted many large Armenian diaspora communities. Since relations between Israel and the Gulf countries have thawed, one major risk has been eliminated. But as soon as Armenia had sent its ambassador to Israel, the 44-Day War broke out and Yerevan recalled its ambassador as the former was selling drones to Azerbaijan. Now that issue is also resolved, not because Israel made any amends but because any hostility or disrespect toward Israel costs a reprisal from Washington.

Armenia needs the Arab countries more than the latter need Armenia. Armenia particularly needs their investment potential.

With the improvement of relations between Israel and oil-rich Arab countries and with Turkey’s waning influence in the region, it is time for the country to take solid steps to win friends and breathe some life into its economy.

 

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