After WWII, as the Russian threat became apparent to the West, somewhat belatedly, and Soviet interest in the Arab world, heretofore a Western preserve, became a region of critical focus. The West sought to create a barrier of friendly Arab states to stymie the Soviet advance to the Persian Gulf. However ,Nikita Khruschev and his Arabist advisors realized the vulnerability of Western policies in the Arab world and “leaped over” the Western alliances, such as the Baghdad pact which was created built to contain the Russian bear. In doing so the Russians junked the paranoia Stalin mindset that all the new nationalists were enemies of Russia. Arab nationalists like Abdul Nasser were welcomed as fellow fighters against Western colonialism. The Russians accepted that enemies of the West as typified by Nasser and Arab nationalists in Iraq and Syria were friends of the Russians. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But many experts of the Middle East were convinced that Islam would never allow the Communist Russians to replace the Western powers in the Arab world. It seemed that on almost every point Islam was antithetical to the Communist doctrine. Communism was man made. Islam is God’s construction. The two are incompatible…it would seem, but in fact the two systems of belief had a number of congruent pillars of faith.
Yevgeny Primakov Arab. expert and leading Russian Diplomat and historian of the Arab. world
As Bernard Lewis spelled it out, there were aspects of Communism that were extremely attractive to the Arab intelligentsia. As he wrote, ” The Ulama of Islam are very different from the Communist Party. Nevertheless, on closer examination, we find certain uncomfortable resemblances. Both groups profess a totalitarian doctrine, with complete and final answers to all questions on heaven and earth; the answers are different in every respect, alike only in their finality and completeness, and in the contrast they offer with the eternal questioning of Western man. Both groups offer to their members and followers the agreeable sensation of belonging to a community of believers, who are always right, as against an outer world of unbelievers, who are always wrong. Both offer an exhilarating feeling of mission, of purpose, of being engaged in a collective adventure to accelerate the historically inevitable victory of the true faith over the infidel evil-doers.” As he continues, the traditional Islamic division of the world into the world of peace and the world of war also shows distinct similarity to the Communist world. An evil world of enemies looking for opportunities to destroy the Marxist utopia. (Bernard Lewis. “Communism and Islam,” International Affairs, Royal Institute of International Affairs)
Today communism is nearly extinct except in American universities, but the threat has expanded and intensified. Now as the war in the Ukraine goes on, as the anchors on American television are loudly proclaiming the world is against the Russians, with even Russian vodka is being taken off the shelves, Putin has apparently miscalculated and unleashed a new wave of Russophobia. However one region remains largely silent. While there are a few tepid admonishments from the Arab leaders, there are no denunciation coming from the leaders or the people. In the U.N. the Arabs and Middle East States mostly abstained rather than vote against Russia. Why?
There are five basic reasons.
- There is an enduring Arab hatred toward the West, particularly among the intelligentsia class, as the peasants of the Arab world worry mostly about survival and bread for their families. It can seen in the railings of the Arab intelligentsia against westoxication, the emulation of upper classes of the Western way of life, in political opinions, dress, deportment etc. The culture of the West is seen by the intelligentsia as corrupting the Islamic way of life. Any war, ideology, event or trend that works against the interests of the West are always applauded by these people who are opinion makers and are those sought out by American academics as voicing the attitudes of the people in the Arab world. Many are clerics, including many who live in the West, who constantly encourage their congregations to abjure the Western way of life. In summation among the Arabs there is an atavistic impulse to destroy the symbols and edifice of Western culture. One of the driving factors in the growth of the Jihadi movement has been to cleanse the Islamic world of Western culture.The Russians have neatly and opportunistically integrated themselves into this impulse and adroitly keep it current. (Walter Laqueur, The Soviet Union and the Middle East. Galia Golan Soviet Policies in the Middle East)
- The Cultural similarities. Russian scholars frequently try to convince their fellow scholars in the West that Russia is not a Western country. But most Western scholars ( in the View of the Russians) continue to view Russia through the lens of a Western perspective. In reality there are, within the Russian culture , many similarities to the Arab culture. Their predilection for authoritarian rule, deep seated belief in their victimhood, suspicious Western covertness, dating first from the Napolean invasion, to the weak Western attempt to stop the communist movement after WWI, to the misguided American relegation of Russia to a second rate county after the demise of the Soviet Union, probably unintended, but deeply resented none the less. Like Arabs, Russians have deeply rooted traits exhibiting pride, extolling honor, and are sensitive to perceived slights, whether real or imagined.( Dmitri Trenin, Russia and A second book by Trinin, What is Russia up to in the Middle East) and Agantsy by Roderic Braithwaite. In an article written in 2021 for an online periodical, ” Russians and Arabs,” based on my own experience, after detailing many of the factors of a cultural clash I wrote, “But in a number of ways the Egyptians and Russians were more attuned to each other’s culture; for example the docile acceptance of authority, the security paranoia, living close to the ground with few-if any- amenities.”
- The Strongman factor. Arabs love a strong leader and not necessarily a very pleasant one. Among many Arabs, especially the Sunni, Saddam Hussein was seen as the new Saladin. After all he confronted 34 nations and won…as he told it….. and many believed him. Even today his image has a strong following among many Arabs. Lee Smith, a Middle East scholar who I invited to lecture my class wrote a book entitled The Strong Horse: Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations , in which he related the Arab penchant for despots, quoting Bin Laden that people always bet on the strong horse. The Iraqis had a term for people like Saddam, sharqawi, the neighborhood bully, who, while he may be disliked, is feared and many young men seek to curry his favor. Putin fits that image. He may not instill the fear that Stalins did, but as a Russian professor who visited my class, told us, Putin ( ex-KBG) “has the files on everyone.” But as the Post war interviews of the Iraqi confidantes clearly depicted, Saddam ruled by fear. But neither he or Putin was/is a mad man
- Russian clever and forceful diplomatic strategy in the Arab world. there is no getting around it the Russians have maneuvered themselves into enviable position in the Arab world. They deal happily with Israel and Syria, Turkey, Algeria,. Egypt Iraq and outside the Arab world, Iran. They have the knack of getting along with implacable enemies. As Dmitri Trenin puts it, “once rigid,zero-sum ideological and geopolitical player, Moscow has recently transformed itself into a paragon of pragmatism.” But as he clearly states, Putin does not shy away from brutal pressure, as he did on Turkey forcing proud Erdogan to apologize for shooting down a Russian fighter on the Turkish- Syrian border. When Putin speaks people listen….or should. Reading Yevgeny Primakov’s Russia and the Arabs gives a number of clues as to why the Russians have so well in the Arab world. The Russian intelligence seem to have a sensitive nose for the currents that pass through the Arab masses and are flexible enough to change gears when necessary. They are also duplicitous in a way not available to the West. For example in the 60’s the Russians were supplying the Kurds with arms to fight the Iraqis while at the same time flying bombing missions on those same Kurds in support of the Iraqi government.
The Protocols of Zion. A fraud but Still a best seller in the Arab world
- Finally an Arab friend of mine was shocked when her relative in Iraq proclaimed his hopes that Russia wins in the Ukraine. The reason? Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky is a Jew. The Protocols of Zion is far from dead in the Middle East. I am certain that among many in the Arab world this is reason enough to root for Russia.