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Opinion: Defining “Sultan” and “Emperor” | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan after their news conference in Istanbul December 3, 2012. (REUTERS/Osman Orsal)

Two transformations that had a direct impact on the Arab world took place concurrently during the last century. First, Turkey revived its interest in Arab affairs, seeking to establish better ties after long ignoring us. The second was the fall of the Soviet Union.

In an interview I conducted with a senior Arab official more than 25 years ago, I suggested forming a specialist group to look through the Turkish and the Russian historical archives. These two powers have played significant roles in the history of the region throughout the centuries and their historical documents are worth studying, both to learn something new about ourselves and to learn more about these two countries, their behavior and their intentions.

That task should have been undertaken by one of the Arab League’s special institutions, but such an organization does not exist. Or the task could have been undertaken by a qualified academic institution, such as the American universities of Beirut or Cairo, which are known for their love of knowledge and sense of curiosity.

The more powerful Russian and Turkish influence gets, the more I recall that interview. Note that, with some exceptions, Arab countries have not established significant diplomatic missions in either Moscow—before or after the fall of the Soviet Union—or in Ankara.

One might say they are just two world capitals, yet no one can deny the roles Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu are playing. This is evidenced by Russia’s influence in Arab affairs, as well as the keen interest Turkey—which we have long neglected—is showing in our region.

We should know who our allies and enemies are. We should also show them who we are. This is our greatest challenge, because the epitome of ignorance is not to know who your allies and enemies are.

The pedantic among us write that Erdoğan is the new Selim I, an Ottoman sultan, and that Putin is the new Peter the Great, which is true but simplistic.

When a sultan or a tsar seeks his ministers’ counsel on Arab affairs, he asks himself: What interest do we have in that region? What are the gains and the losses? Thus in order to know where our interests lie, we should examine the historical documents of the Russian and Ottoman empires.