On November 5 Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev arrived in Damascus for a three-day visit. Both Nazarbayev and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, seemed satisfied with the talks, which covered investments, bilateral trade, and political ties.
Beset by chronic economic and political troubles in the turbulent Middle East, Syria is hardly an ideal partner for Kazakhstan. In 2006 the trade volume between Syria and Kazakhstan amounted to only $16.8 million (including $16 million in Kazakh), a paltry sum compared with the $2 billion trade turnover shared with Iran. Although bilateral trade slightly increased this year to reach $19.5 million, Syria’s meager export offerings – mostly construction materials, textiles, and cotton – mean slow progress in business relations. But Kazakhstan sees considerable investment opportunities in Syrian oil and gas development projects. Kazakhstan is considering financing oil-processing infrastructure projects and a Syrian gas pipeline (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, November 6).
But Kazakhstan is most interested in Syria as an important gateway to Arab energy markets. Astana has been stymied by the region’s volatile political situation and the complex relations between the Arab countries and the United States and Israel. So far, Kazakh diplomats have conspicuously avoided any political statement regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. But Damascus certainly expected verbal support for its stance during Nazarbayev’s visit. The Kazakh president did not go beyond praising bilateral “friendly relations,” but the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) quoted Kazakh Ambassador Baghdad Amreyev, who is based in Egypt, as backing Syria’s official line in its long-standing dispute with Israel. Amreyev allegedly told the Syrian newspaper Al-Baath, “No peace in the Middle East could be established without the return of land to its owners and the establishment of a just and comprehensive peace.” He added that Kazakhstan “affirmed the need for the restoration of all usurped Arab rights and the liberation of all occupied Arab lands. He asserted his country’s support to the exerted efforts to achieve peace and security in the region, particularly Syrian efforts, calling on Western countries, the EU, and the United States to participate in peacekeeping” (SANA, November 5).
Kazakhstan is gradually expanding its political and economic presence in the Arab world. In Damascus Nazarbayev made known his government’s intention to open a Kazakh embassy in Syria and called on Arab countries to join the Meeting on Interaction and Trust Building in Asia initiative launched by Astana. He also attached great importance to the Organization of the Islamic Conference as a political tool in solving Middle East crisis. The Syrian and Kazakh Foreign Ministries also signed agreements on conducting political consultations (Khabar TV, November 6).
Nazarbayev received unequivocal support for his trust-building initiative in the United Arab Emirates, the next stop on his Arab tour. However, the most substantial part of his talks with Sheikh Khalif ben Zaid Nahaiya was Abu Dhabi’s pledge to pour more investment money into the Kazakh oil sector. The sheikh reaffirmed his country’s plans to finance the construction of gas processing plants and petrochemical facilities in Kazakhstan. A government delegation is expected to visit Kazakhstan to finalize investment projects. The Abu Dhabi Development Fund has already channeled billions of dollars for construction and development of Astana. Kazakhstan also profits from the two countries’ shared religious values. The Emirates has already earmarked $3 million to construct a grand mosque with the seating capacity for 4,000 people in Kazakhstan (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, November 9).
Many factors contribute to the Kazakh-Arab rapprochement. Astana, weary of having to constantly compete for Western investments that come with democratic strings attached, is eyeing Arab coffers. Second, the intensifying clash of interests between China and Russia in the Caspian region, combined with growing differences within the Russian-orchestrated Eurasian Economic Community, is increasing the feeling of uncertainty in Astana. At the most recent meeting of Eurasian Economic Community in Almaty, Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin practically dashed Kazakhstan’s hopes for narrow-gauge railway line running from China through Kazakhstan to Iran and Turkey, dismissing this project as “premature.” Astana is also likely to face renewed pressure from Moscow for its recent option for the U.S.-favored Nabucco project of Caspian seabed gas pipeline in alliance with Azerbaijan (Delovaya nedelia, November 9).
Kazakhstan clearly benefits both economically and politically from expanding contacts with Arab countries. The Persian Gulf states offer efficient hydrocarbon markets and fit well with Kazakhstan’s plans to diversify its energy export routes. Until recently Kazakhstan, with eyes on the mounting tension between the Western world and Arab nations, limited its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East to tentative steps toward consolidating cultural and spiritual relations with Arab countries. During his last visit to Syria Nazarbayev effectively stressed culture, pledging $4.6 million for construction of the Abu Nasr al-Farabi mausoleum and reconstruction of the memorial site dedicated to Sultan Beybarys (it is widely believed in Kazakhstan that both prominent historical figures in Arab history have Kazakh roots). Simultaneously, Kazakhstan is slowly increasing economic and political cooperation with Arab states. It remains to be seen whether Kazakh diplomacy will go far enough in ensuring a more independent economic and political role for Kazakhstan in the Arab world, but, at least in the short term, Kazakhstan’s progress in this direction will remain largely dependent on Western influence.