This month the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab state to recognise Kosovo, the newest country in the world.
Kosovo, which embodies the concept of Balkanisation, is a remnant of a remnant. During the talks that led to the break-up of Yugoslavia, its status was a neglected but boiling issue until Nato air power forced the Serbs out of the historic territory in 1999, after half of its two million inhabitants were driven out by Serbian troops fighting the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Kosovo’s birth in February was not celebrated across the world; in fact, there were numerous demonstrations, however small, against its recognition. The Serbian President called it a “false country” and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, cautioned that his country might change its policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia should Kosovo be allowed to secede. Six months later, in August, Russia recognised the independence of those two Georgian regions, specifically citing the case of Kosovo in a move that may yet ignite what some refer to as Cold War Two.
Kosovo, which is probably the only country in the world that has a road named after President George W Bush running in front of its parliament, was the first nation that the UAE actively supported all the way through to independence, with the deployment of 1,500 troops who have been there since 2001. In fact, even before the troop deployment and as early as 1999, the UAE had sent planeloads of aid and treated Kosovo refugees in its camps, using mobile medical clinics equipped with X-ray machines.
At a cost of $25.7 million to the UAE, an airport named after the nation’s founder, Sheikh Zayed, was built in record time at Kukes, near Kosovo’s border with Albania, on a disused base dating from the Second World War, to handle planes that could carry relief and supplies to the 100,000 refugees in the area. By the time the UAE’s full deployment of medical and military personal in Kosovo was in full swing it was the biggest international humanitarian mission in its history. The aid given to Kosovo by the UAE’s Red Crescent Authority alone has cost Dh125 million in the past decade.
The UAE’s troops were backed by 50 Russian-made BMP-3 armoured fighting vehicles and 15 French-made Leclerc main battle tanks, and its special forces were equipped with six Apache helicopters. In March 2000, Lieutenant-General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, now the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, visited the province in his capacity as commander of the UAE’s armed forces to inspect the troops, along with King Abdullah of Jordan. It was therefore a natural extension to a decade-old commitment that the UAE recognise Kosovo.
But it is too early to tell if that recognition is enough to point Kosovo in the right direction. After all, its tiny GDP of $4 Billion is smaller than a medium-sized company’s annual turnover, while unemployment levels and those of people living under the poverty line both hover around an all too high 40 per cent. Also, several EU states, including Spain and Greece, irresponsibly shun Kosovo along with Russia, a UN Security Council member: possibly in the belief that it would become a non-state, or in the naive hope that the Americans and the British would withdraw their recognition of the country and it would be reabsorbed into greater Serbia.
Either Kosovo, which sits comfortably in the bosom of the European continent, not far from numerous potential flashpoints, is now embraced wholeheartedly by the EU and the international community, or we will have only ourselves to blame. The last time the international community neglected a state that was receiving high amounts of unregulated Gulf financial assistance it was Afghanistan, and we all know what happened there.
The UAE for its part has invested heavily in the province, building up to 50 mosques: these are obviously required, considering the country’s 90 per cent plus Muslim population, but they are only one aspect of what the country needs. If the UAE and other supporters of Kosovo’s independence want to make sure that the newborn state does not become a victim of religious extremism, they must invest in secular institutions such as universities, colleges, hospitals and vocational training centres. They must also ensure that the mosques are staffed by tolerant imams, and not brainwashing preachers of the sort that went to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It would be wrong of the UAE, the US, Europe and the rest of the civilised world to neglect Kosovo once again, after they encouraged and endorsed its independence. Extremism knows no global financial crisis; it breeds in the unlikeliest of places, and where better than in the bosom of Europe? Kosovo’s secular democratic institutions need to be shored up, including its parliament – even if it does stand on George W Bush Avenue.
This article was first published in The National on Sunday 26 Oct 2008