By Farkhad Sharip (11/28/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Nursultan Nazarbayev accentuated common religious values and historical cultural ties during his three-day visit to Syria and, more clearly than ever before, emphasized the increasingly pro-Arab stance of Astana in the Middle East conflict. He spoke out for the return of the Golan Heights to Syria and backed the ‘legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to defend their interests”. Nazarbayev’s activism indicates Kazakhstan’s wish to play a role as an independent actor both inside and outside Central Asia.

BACKGROUND: Following the visit, government media in Kazakhstan emphasized the “the exceptionally warm and friendly atmosphere” of talks between Nursultan Nazarbayev and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was one of the most extended visits Nazarbayev ever paid to an Arab state. He arrived in Damascus on November 5 and spent three days in intensive talks.

In the present state of bilateral relations, there is little reason to list Syria among Kazakhstan’s important economic and trade partners in the Middle East. By any standards, Syria, beset by chronic economic and political troubles in the tinderbox region is not a model partner for Kazakhstan. In 2006, the trade volume between Syria and Kazakhstan barely made up $17 million (of this, $16 million owing to exports from Kazakhstan), a ridiculous figure compared to the $2 billion trade turnover with Iran. Although bilateral trade increased slightly this year to reach $19.5 million, with meager Syrian export items – construction materials, textiles and cotton – progress in business relations is slow. But Kazakhstan sees considerable investment opportunities in Syrian oil and gas development projects. Kazakhstan in fact weighs the possibility of financing the planned construction of a Syrian gas pipeline.

Most importantly, Kazakhstan regards geographically well-situated Syria as an important gateway to Arab energy markets. The serious impediment in Kazakhstan’s drive is the volatile political situation and complex relations of Arab nations with the United States and Israel. So far, Kazakh diplomats conspicuously avoided any political assessment of Arab-Israeli confrontation. But verbal support for the Syrian stance in the Middle East is what was expected by Damascus from Astana during Nazarbayev’s visit. The Kazakh President did not go beyond praising bilateral “friendly relations”, but at a press conference in Damascus he elaborated on the Syrian-Israeli conflict and spoke of the “necessity” for Israel to return the occupied Golan Heights to Syria. He also expressed support for the Palestinians, adding in the next breath that “Israel has the right to live in peace and security along with all other states in the region”.

On the sidelines of Nazarbayev’s visit to Damascus, the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) quoted the non-resident Kazakh Ambassador, Baghdat Amreyev, as backing Damascus’ official line in its long-standing confrontation with Israel. Amreyev allegedly said in his interview with the Syrian newspaper Al-Baath that “no peace in the Middle East could be established without the return of the 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 liberation all occupied Arab lands. He asserted his country’s support to the exerted efforts to achieve peace and security in the region, particularly the Syrian efforts, calling on western countries, the EU and U.S. to contribute to peacekeeping”.

IMPLICATIONS: There are many reasons to believe that the Kazakh leader picked up this unusual tone in his Middle East discourse not just to please his Syrian counterpart or out of brotherly sentiments for Muslims in the Arab world. In fact, Kazakhstan seeks a more vocal and independent policy in the Middle East. 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 the Middle East conflict. The Foreign Ministries of Syria and Kazakhstan signed agreements on conducting political consultations.

President Nazarbayev received unequivocal support for his interaction and 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 the pledge on the part of Abu Dhabi to pour more investment money into Kazakhstan’s oil sector. Sheikh Khalif ben Zaid reaffirmed his country’s plans to finance the construction of gas processing plants and petrochemical industry 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 the construction and development of Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana. Kazakhstan also profits from shared religious values. The Emirate has already earmarked $3 million for the construction of a grandiose mosque in South Kazakhstan.

Many factors contribute to the acceleration of Kazakh-Arab rapprochement. Astana, growing weary of having to constantly jockey for western investments dependent on democratic prerequisites, is eyeing Arab coffers. Secondly, the intensifying clash of interests between China and Russia in the Caspian region on the one hand, and growing differences within the Russian-orchestrated Eurasian Economic Community on the other, increases the feeling of uncertainty in Astana. At the recent meeting of the Eurasian Economic Community in Almaty, Russian transport minister Igor Levitin practically dashed Kazakhstan’s hopes for a narrow-gauge railway line running from China through Kazakhstan to Iran and Turkey, discarding this project as “premature”. Astana is also likely to face renewed pressure from Moscow for its recent option for the American-favored project of a Caspian seabed gas pipeline in alliance with Azerbaijan.

CONJCLUSIONS: Kazakhstan clearly benefits from expanding contacts with Arab countries economically and politically. Persian Gulf states are potentially efficient hydrocarbon markets and perfectly square with Kazakhstan’s plans for diversification of its energy export routes. Until recently, Kazakhstan, with eyes on the mounting tension between the West and Arab nations, limited its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East to tentative steps towards consolidating relations with Arab countries predominantly in cultural and spiritual areas. During his last visit to Syria, Nazarbayev effectively used cultural factors pledging $4.6 million for the construction of the Abu Nasr al-Farabi mausoleum, and the 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 shifting the accent on active economic and political cooperation with Arab nations. It remains to be seen whether Kazakh diplomacy will go far enough in ensuring a more independent economic and political role of Kazakhstan in the Arab world, but in any case, in the short term at least, Kazakhstan’s progress in this direction will remain largely dependent on western sway in the region.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Farkhad Sharip is an Astana-based freelance writer.