Czech - Arab Relations: Past and Present

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In this week's edition of Talking Point we take a look at the Czech Republic and the Arab world. As we will see, relations between the two regions have changed dramatically since the days of communism. Today, the Czech Republic and the Arab world enjoy a much more casual relationship then in the past - the continual development of diplomatic, trade, and cultural links are just a few of the defining characteristics of the changing times.

One of the Czech Republic's leading specialists on the Middle East is Lubos Kropacek, deputy head of the department of near East and African studies at Charles University. He recently spoke at a discussion hosted by the Prague institute for international relations entitled 'Communication Between Europe and the Arab world'. Mr Kropacek illustrates the past relationship between the Czech Republic and the Arab world:

"Since the cold war relations between Czech society and the Czech Republic, former Czechoslovakia and the Arab world has changed a great deal. Under the communist regime Czechoslovakia had certain partners in the Arab world which were chosen on the principals of their communist ideology. Among those countries were those which were considered officially by the regime as their partners in the struggle against Western imperialism."

The most significant role that the former Czechoslovakia played in the Middle East during the communist era was that of one of the region's top supplier of arms. The first of these was the mutual agreement between Czechoslovakia and Egypt which involved the first non-American shipment of arms to the region in the cold war era. It was the Czechoslovak - Egyptian arms deal which eventually led to the Suez War in 1956. Through the sale of Czechoslovak arms the Soviet Union hoped to gain political and military influence in the region in order to challenge the authority of the United States. Czechoslovakia, along with the Soviet Union, supported hostility towards Western influence which became the ideological companion to the spread of the communist ideology throughout the region.

"Then there is of course a commercial aspect with our relations with the Arab world. Under the communist regime our commerce, Czechoslovakia's commerce with certain Arab countries was the main source of hard currency for the former Czechoslovakia, which is not the case now. Now the main trade relations we have are directed towards the countries of the European Union or towards the countries of the Western world. The part played by third world countries in our commercial relations is only about six percent and a quarter of this amount comes from out relations with the Arab East."

The commercial aspect formed another major component of Czech - Arab relations during the cold war. Czechoslovakia used the Arab world as a market for its goods. Goods produced under the centrally planned economic system, prevalent in communist states, were often considered lower in quality to their Western counterparts. However, goods produced in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were much cheaper then their Western equivalent - allowing many poorer nations in the Middle East the opportunity to obtain manufactured goods. Through trade Czechoslovakia supported the development of many countries in the Middle East.

"Of course, with the end of the cold war this has lost any foundation, and on the other hand Czechoslovakia and then starting in 1993 the Czech Republic was able to establish relations with those Arab countries with which the former Czechoslovakia did not have any possibility of having diplomatic relations. I mean mainly the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula including Saudi Arabia, our diplomatic relations date only from the 1990's."

Today, the Czech Republic has diplomatic relations and embassy's throughout the Middle East, illustrating the increasing economic and cultural links that the two regions enjoy. I asked Mr Kropacek what the future holds for Czech - Arab relations?

"Our country will very soon join the European Union. It is well known that the European Union has already concluded partnership agreements with a number of Arab countries. There is the so called Barcelona process going on which was started in 1995. And according to which, the countries of the Mediterranean area, which means a great number of Arab countries, should become members of an area of partnership in the economic as well as the cultural field. Myself, I am working in the cultural field and I hope that also the interest for our neighbours, because the Arab countries are immediate neighbours of ancient continent of Europe, and that these relations will develop and will develop in peace, for the common good of both parts of this multilateral partnership. The Czech Republic should also bring her knowhow and her experience with the Arab partners to the European Union and to also be a useful member of the European Union even in this respective area."

Finally, I asked Mr Kropacek if the Czech Republic's current stance on Iraq could endanger the positive relationship that this country has with many of the countries in the Middle East:

"The newspapers and other media have published that the opinion polls, that the great majority, over 60 percent are against the war with Iraq. The role to be played by the Czech chemists, in case of conflict, is to be considered humanitarian. Of course, they will stand clearly on one side of the conflicting parties but their role in case of an attack by chemical weapons, it is in case of, it is something which is not necessary, which is not inevitable defiantly, and the war is not inevitable. So their role, the role of the Czech chemists, would be humanitarian, to help those who would be effected by either chemical or biological weapons."