Riyadh, Jeddah, Dhahran, Kuwait City, Manama, Doha, and Sanaa (1988)
It happened every time. I would give a talk about Soviet foreign policy toward the Persian Gulf. But no matter who was in the audience (diplomats, journalists, academics, or whatever), all they wanted to talk about was American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The U.S. Information Agency (USIA) had sent me on a speaking tour to several Arabian Peninsula countries in February-March, 1988. I visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and North Yemen.
The message I attempted to convey was that the Soviets were trying very hard to increase their influence in the region, but they faced many obstacles.
Many of the American officials I met in the region weren’t so sure about the second part of my message. At the time, it seemed like the Soviets were encountering no obstacles at all. Moscow had recently signed an agreement with Kuwait to protect some of its oil shipping; this was the first time the USSR had been asked to play an active role in the defense of any of the conservative Gulf monarchies traditionally allied to the West. Moscow had also expanded its ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia and other states while retaining its alliances with Iraq and South Yemen. In addition, Gorbachev had launched diplomatic initiatives to resolve the Iraq-Iran war and the Arab-Israeli conflict which were being taken seriously by the countries of the region. In short, the USSR under Gorbachev seemed to be improving its ties with all states in the region at the same time that America’s relations with them had deteriorated badly in the wake of the Iran-contra scandal.
But whether or not Moscow was successful in its efforts to increase its influence in the region, the question itself was an interesting one–or at least I thought so along with the Reagan-era officials in Washington and our posts abroad who sponsored my trip. But the Arab audiences I spoke with–including officials of highly conservative, anti-Soviet governments such as Saudi Arabia–apparently thought otherwise.
I spoke to a variety of groups: foreign ministry officials, newspaper editors, university professors, and audiences invited to hear me speak at various U.S. embassies or consulates. On each occasion, the moment I finished my talk on the Soviets and the Gulf, people in the audience would begin asking questions or making speeches about America and the Arab/Israeli situation.
After this had happened several times, I once said to the audience, “The question of American policy toward the Arab/Israeli conflict is highly important. But so is the question of Soviet policy toward this area. Don’t you have any questions about that?” Except on one occasion, no one ever did. I was mystified.
The one occasion when someone did respond to my question was in North Yemen–the last Arabian Peninsula country on my lecture tour. It was at an informal meeting in someone’s house. Several Yemeni politicians and professors were present.
Once again, I had given my talk on the Soviets and the Gulf and afterward had been bombarded with questions and statements about American policy toward Israel. Once again, I asked them whether they were completely uninterested in Soviet policy toward the region.
One of the Yemeni politicians responded, “You Americans are worried about the spread of Soviet influence, but we Arabs are not. We know their weapons do not work. We know they offer nothing in terms of economic assistance. We know that their ideology and culture are unattractive to us.
“You Americans think the Soviets have great influence in the Arab world. The Soviets themselves think they do. But we Arabs know they don’t.
“So, to answer your question, we aren’t much interested in Soviet policy in this region. I know you have spent years studying this question, but quite frankly you have wasted your time. One day, you will see.”
At the time, I thought what this Yemeni politician said was utter nonsense. So did the American embassy officials accompanying me. But his prediction came true not long after he made it.
Revised version published as “Russia and the Arabs: Lesson from the Past,” Middle East Times (metimes.com), January 9, 2008.