America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Japan, China, and many other nations welcomed the decline of Soviet power at the end of the Cold War. The radical Arab states, by contrast, did not. The Soviet Union had been their primary source of support. Soviet arms transfers to these regimes were what made them powerful, and hence, important. In short, these Arab states did not want Soviet power to decline. As their enthusiastic embrace of the August 1991 coup plot showed, they seemed to think that Moscow’s changed role in the Middle East was not a function of fundamental Soviet economic decline, but simply of the policy preferences of the top leadership. Moscow could still be a superpower if only it chose to act as one.
Similarly, despite all the internal problems Moscow faces, there are many Russian leaders who seem mainly concerned that Russia be acknowledged as a “great power” by others. This is not simply true of the right-wingers, but also of the so-called moderates. They cling to the outward trappings of superpower-dom such as the fact that they, along with the Americans, are formally the co-sponsors of the Arab-Israeli peace process. And they have made an effort to maintain good relations with their old allies–especially those who can afford to pay hard currency for Russian weapons.
Thus, both on the Arab side and on the Russian side there has been a desire for the old relationship to continue. But it just hasn’t worked out. The case of Russo-Yemeni relations provides an instructive example.
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A little background information is required. Until mid-1990, there were two Yemens–a North and a South. The Soviet Union used to give military and economic assistance to both of them. In return, the South provided the USSR with military facilities and the right to fish off its coast. For its part, the North provided Moscow with…well, nothing tangible. If it provided anything in return, the North gave the impression that Moscow’s aid was preventing the country from falling completely under the influence of Saudi Arabia and the West. The North also accepted aid from Saudi Arabia and the West so that they would feel reassured about it not falling completely under Moscow’s sway. Very clever, really.
The two Yemens merged in May 1990. Due to its own problems, Moscow stopped giving aid. And shortly after Yemeni unification, Saudi Arabia and the West virtually halted all aid too. For during the 1990-91 Gulf conflict, the Yemeni government sided with Iraq. With the Gulf war over, the Yemeni government wanted to restore its relations with Saudi Arabia and the West so that aid from them would resume. The Saudis, though, were furious with the Yemenis. They had provided billions of dollars to Yemen over the years. In return, the Yemenis had “bit the hand that fed them,” as far as the Saudis were concerned. And so the Saudis refused to resume their aid. The West too, especially the United States, was angry at the Yemeni government for the same reason. In addition, the West saw little point in providing Yemen with large-scale economic assistance. After all, it didn’t have to worry about a hostile Soviet Union gaining influence there any more.
But Yemen, obviously, still wants aid. Some Yemeni officials hoped that while their relations with the Saudis and the West had turned sour, maybe Russia was still interested. Things wouldn’t be the same as before, but perhaps Moscow could provide something. The Russians and the Yemenis, after all, had been friends for decades. The Russians had never tired of saying so in the past. And if Moscow gave something, maybe–just maybe–the West and even the Saudis would still feel competitive enough with Russia to kick in a little too.
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This may have been the thinking of some Yemeni officials at the start of a three-day conference on “Unified Yemen in a Changing World” which was held by the Yemeni Foreign Ministry in September 1992. But if they thought this way at the start of the conference, they did not think so by the end of it.
The Yemenis initially wanted the conference to focus on Russo-Yemeni relations alone. They eventually decided that other countries might also be important to Yemen’s future. Almost all the second day, however, was devoted to the future of Russo-Yemeni relations–a sign of how important the Yemenis anticipated their ties with Moscow would be.
The first speaker on that second day was an ex-Soviet diplomat who had served in both Yemens previously. His speech began with a lot of verbiage about continued Russian interest in the Middle East, including the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the Arab-Israeli arena, the Gulf, and elsewhere. Eventually, he got around to discussing the issue of Russo-Yemeni bilateral relations.
He began by describing how the Soviet Union had provided a large amount of economic assistance to both the North and the South. He mentioned several of the larger projects: major roads, hospitals, and a cement factory in the North as well as a water desalinization plant, hospitals, and oil exploration projects in the South.
At present, he noted, Russia was undergoing enormous transformation. Its economy could only be described as being in a state of severe crisis. Russia was no longer in a position to give economic help to others, but was now seeking economic assistance itself.
Since Russia had helped the Yemenis for so long, he continued, Moscow now hoped that the Yemenis would in turn help Russia in its hour of need. The best way they could help Russia would be for United Yemen to begin repaying the debt which the former North and South owed to Moscow. In a tone of voice that indicated he was being very generous indeed, the Russian added that Yemen could repay Moscow either in hard currency or in any mutually-agreed upon commodity that Yemen produced–such as oil. The choice was Yemen’s, he concluded.
The furrowed brows, shaking heads, and blank stares on the faces of the Yemeni participants at the conference were all signs that this statement was not what they were expecting. In the Q&A session which followed, a senior Yemeni diplomat indicated–in very diplomatic language–that United Yemen was also experiencing severe financial difficulties and was not in a position to repay anything to Russia, especially not in hard currency or oil.
The Russian diplomat seemed to take this in stride. He said that Moscow fully understood the problem and would never press its old friend Yemen for repayment. But at the same time Yemen must realize the desperate situation Russia was in. Moscow hoped that Yemen would understand if Russia’s situation forced it to sell the debt Yemen owed Moscow to some third party for cash at a discount. Yemen and the new holder of the debt would then be free to make whatever arrangement they chose about repayment.
The Yemenis were stunned. One of the younger Yemeni participants asked, “But would Russia sell the debt to a third party which Yemen disapproved of?” In other words, someone who actually expected the Yemenis to pay up.
The Russian smiled blandly and made no response. He didn’t have to.
On this cheerful note, the first session ended and the second one began. The speaker was a representative of the Russian Chamber of Commerce. He said that despite all the negative publicity about privatization’s slow progress in Russia, it actually was occurring. He then gave a glowing account of the many investment opportunities that Russia now offered. He concluded by urging Yemenis to seize this golden opportunity by investing in Russia now while the best deals were still available.
A Yemeni scholar sitting on my right whispered to me, “Ah yes! With our enormous wealth, first we’ll pay off our debt to the Russians and then invest the rest in their new businesses.”
During the Q&A session, several other Russians participants expanded on some of the points which their colleague had made. Although some of the Western participants asked questions, none of the Yemenis did.
After lunch, the third session of the day began. This time, the speaker was a Yemeni specialist on international law. His presentation began with a painstakingly detailed discussion about how under international law, new governments that come to power inherit all the obligations undertaken by the governments they succeed. He then stated that the Yeltsin government itself acknowledged that Russia was the legal successor to the USSR. He also stated that the government of United Yemen was the legal successor of the previous governments of the North and the South. He then pointed out that the USSR had signed agreements with both North and South Yemen promising additional aid to them which it had not yet provided. Because Russia was the legal successor of the USSR and United Yemen was the legal successor of both the North and the South, Russia was now obliged under international law to provide United Yemen with the economic assistance which Moscow had promised the two Yemens earlier but had not yet delivered. He concluded his presentation by acknowledging that because of Russia’s current economic problems, Yemen could not expect Moscow to deliver this aid immediately. But Yemen was prepared to wait.
“The wait may be a long one,” whispered the Russian scholar sitting on my left.
The Russians did not have much to say during the Q&A period. One Yemeni scholar mentioned that previous Soviet aid to the Yemens was often something less than an unalloyed blessing. He mentioned the case of the Soviet-constructed cement plant in North Yemen. Apparently, the Soviets had built it upwind of a sizeable town. The town has been literally covered in cement dust from the plant ever since. He concluded by suggesting that in addition to providing the remaining assistance Moscow had promised but not yet delivered, Russia ought to pay for the damage caused by the cement factory as well as other poorly constructed Soviet aid projects in the Yemens.
The Russians made no response. Indeed, for the remainder of the conference it was evident that the Russians were annoyed with the Yemenis, and the Yemenis were annoyed with them.
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Neither side, though, should have been surprised. For as Aristotle wrote so long ago, “Where the bond [between two friends] was one of utility or pleasure there is presumably nothing odd about breaking it when they no longer have these attributes; for it was these that underlay the friendship, and when they fail it is reasonable to feel no affection” (Ethics IX.3). And if this conference demonstrated nothing else, it showed both the Russians and the Yemenis that neither could expect any further “utility or pleasure” from their relationship.
Revised version published as “Russia and the Arabs, Still Miscommunicating,” Middle East Quarterly, March 1995.