THE government showed no restraint in talking up President Anastasiades’ official visit to Saudi Arabia, which was described as “historic”, a “big national success”, “particularly beneficial for the Cypriot people” and the “achievement of a foreign policy objective”, among other things.
The president, the Disy leader, the government spokesman and foreign minister took turns to emphasise the supposed importance of the visit just in case there were people who were not convinced that it was “particularly beneficial” for them.
Literally speaking it was an “historic” visit, this being the first time a president of the Republic visited Riyadh since independence. Diplomatic relations had cooled after the 1963 troubles, which led to Saudi Arabia closing its embassy in Cyprus, and it was only in 2015 they were restored with the opening of a Cyprus embassy in Riyadh and the Saudi ambassador in Athens being accredited to Nicosia as well. But despite the government’s efforts it was difficult to see the visit as historic in the broader sense of the word.
Perhaps this was indicative of the lack of measure with which our politicians deal with diplomatic relations, a tendency bequeathed by Archbishop Makarios who saw himself as an international player despite the smallness and insignificance of his country. Anastasiades is displaying similar traits, having come up with the trilateral alliances and presenting himself as a major contributor to regional stability and co-operation. As there are elections, his communications team may have decided to promote the president’s diplomatic initiatives and his drive to make the most of Cyprus’ alleged, geo-strategic importance.
The hyperbole surrounding the Saudi Arabia visit was part of this narrative and is not without its merits especially at election time. Nobody can dispute that Anastasiades has built good relations with neighbouring countries including Israel, Egypt and Jordan even if his trilateral alliances have produced little more than high-sounding declarations of little practical import. This gives him an advantage over rival candidates none of whom has any real diplomatic experience with the possible exception of Giorgos Lillikas who had served as foreign minister but has no chance of winning. It was thanks to his diplomatic skills that diplomatic relations were restored with Saudi Arabia.
There is another reason for the government attaching such significance to the visit and this is related to the rather simplistic view, promoted by our foreign ministry, that Cyprus should strengthen relations with countries that are on bad terms with Turkey. What can be achieved by this policy, we have never been told, but it is all part of the dubious theory, also supported by many commentators, that by forging strategic alliances we will be in a much better position to deal with Turkey. Saudi Arabia’s relations with Turkey are strained because of the latter’s close ties with Iran and the competition over the leadership of the Islamic world.
Speaking about the visit on Friday, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said that in the previous years “a change of stance of the country (Saudi Arabia) was noticed, at the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC)” in relation to the Cyprus problem. “It is no longer a walk in the park for Turkey at this organisation,” he said, a point also made by Anastasiades the previous day. “Many countries have stood up to Turkey’s appetites at this organisation, led by Egypt, the Emirates, etc.” He did not, however, envisage the Saudis taking a stand on the Cyprus problem, even though at his meeting with Anastasiades, King Salman “supported respect for international legality and the UN Security Council resolutions”.
So even if, as Kasoulides said, the visit was “crowned a complete success, and the targets we set, regarding the upgrading and strengthening of relations with Saudi Arabia were achieved,” what is the benefit for Cyprus apart from ensuring Turkey has a hard time at the OIC, even assuming this will be the case? And what has Cyprus offered to receive assurances that “a new upgrade of relations will follow”? Anastasiades touched on the subject, explaining how his visit was “particularly beneficial for our Saudi Arab friends”.
He said: “As a member of the EU we could contribute, as we do for other friendly countries, significantly to decisions regarding either relations with the EU or the broader region, that is, the broader security of the region.” In other words, Anastasiades offered to promote Saudi interests at the EU, presumably as he has been doing for the Russian Federation.
It is astonishing that the president had no qualms about publicly saying that Cyprus would act as some type of Saudi representative in the EU which does not enjoy the best relations with the regime. Not only is this undiplomatic, but he encourages our EU partners to view Cyprus with suspicion and mistrust. And for what, so that Turkey has a hard time at the OIC?