The first Soviet bloc military aid agreement with a developing country involved $250 million in arms aid credits to Egypt dating back to September 1955.
Although the agreement was signed by Czechoslovakia, it was actually negotiated with the Soviets and involved a massive supply of arms to a region vitally strategic to the West.
Arms included 100 MIG-15 fighters, 45 IL-28 jet bombers, and 150 T-34 tanks as well as several surface naval units and submarines.
Prior to reaching final agreement, Nasser expertly played the US and the USSR against each other, continuing discussions with the Americans long after the deal with the Soviets had been completed.
Nasser was so clever, in fact, that he enticed the US into helping Egypt finance its planned Aswan Dam project in spite of his arms agreement with the Kremlin.
However, according to LaFeber, the deal fizzled
when Nasser withdrew recognition from Chiang Kai-shek and recognized Communist China. This quickly mobilized the many American champions of Chiang to inform (Secretary of State) Dulles that they staunchly opposed any kind of deal with Nasser. On Capitol Hill this China “Lobby” found an easy alliance with southern congressmen who demanded to know why the United States was offering to build a dam which would allow huge crops of Egyptian cotton to compete with American cotton.
In fact, Nasser not only recognized Communist China, but also agreed to trade Egyptian cotton for Chinese steel. When he then refused to repudiate the Soviet arms deal as American negotiators expected he would, efforts to rescue either a military or economic relationship with Egypt were doomed.
Moscow’s actions, on the other hand, provided a prototype for future Soviet dealings with Third World monoculturists such as Cuba with its vast sugar economy.
In an important precedent, cotton exports, indirectly financed by the Egyptian authorities, constituted payment for the arms shipments. However, Soviet resale practices had the negative effect of excluding some Egyptian cotton from its customary markets, and Moscow frequently engaged in price manipulation as well, assigning a value either above or below that allotted by the world market.
A Soviet loan enabled the Egyptians to move forward on the Aswan Dam project. Repayment of the debt was to consist of rice exports grown on land put into cultivation with water from the dam.
A year later (in November 1956) the Suez Crisis brought the Soviets more directly into the Middle East as an arms supplier. The crisis also provided a quick lesson in the rising power of Third World nations.
Nasser’s nationalization of the British controlled Suez Canal Company allowed him the use of the $100 million annual income of the company for such purposes as construction on the Aswan Dam.
During the course of the crisis, the Israeli Army conquered much of the Sinai Peninsula , nearly destroying the Egyptian Army in the process.
British and French planes bombed Egyptian military targets.
Although Washington attempted to moderate the crisis by requiring major concessions from Great Britain, France and Israel, in the end Nasser’s astute use of Soviet backing changed the dynamics of superpower interaction in the Middle East.
Nasser became the foremost proponent of Arab nationalism and a leader of the nonaligned world, while the Soviets became the arms supplier of choice to much of the Third World.
In his book More Precious Than Peace, Peter Rodman says that until the crisis
Soviet arms transfers had been small, scattered, and directed only to Communist allies like North Korea. [Afterwards] the floodgates opened to a series of nonaligned countries. Syria and Yemen had received Soviet arms supplies during 1956, before Suez. Czech and Soviet military advisers went to Egypt, Syria, and Yemen to assist in training and maintenance. In 1956, Soviet weapons were sent for the first time to Afghanistan; in 1958, to Iraq and Indonesia; in 1959, to Guinea. Between 1960 and 1964, the Soviet customer list expanded to include Laos, India, Algeria, Sudan, Ghana, Mali, Cambodia, Somalia, Tanzania (via Zanzibar) and Zaire.
The crisis marked a transition for the Middle East, signaling the end of the colonial era and the beginning of a generation in which the region was to be buffeted by Cold War geopolitics.